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Migrants are sewing their lips shut to protest the policy that stranded them in Mexico

Thousands are trapped in the city of Tapachula as Mexico tries to limit migration north under US pressure.

A migrant caravan began their short-lived attempt to reach the US from Tapachula, Mexico, on November 18, 2021, before Mexican immigration authorities intercepted them.
Jacob Garcia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Migrants stranded in southern Mexico because of US and Mexican border policies are taking increasingly drastic measures to draw attention to their plight. On Tuesday, a dozen migrants staged a protest in which they sewed their lips together and went on a hunger strike.

They are among the thousands staying in what has become known as an “open-air prison” in the city of Tapachula on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. Migrants there have struggled to access food and shelter, and have reported being preyed on by government officials.

Facing pressure to find ways to limit the number of migrants requesting entry to the United States, Mexican immigration authorities will not permit the migrants to leave the city unless they have some form of legal immigration status allowing them to move freely through the country, such as asylum. Hundreds tried to escape last month, but were intercepted and detained by Mexican immigration authorities.

Many of Tapachula’s migrants have already applied for legal status so that they can travel north to the US border. Mexican immigration authorities are supposed to process those applications within 90 business days. But some migrants have been waiting for more than a year due to a surge in applications that has led to backlogs. In 2021, nearly 90,000 people applied for asylum in Tapachula, more than triple the number who did so the year before. Applications from vulnerable groups — including children, pregnant people, victims of crimes, people with disabilities, older adults, and their immediate family members — are currently being prioritized.

The migrants reportedly used plastic needles and thread to sew their mouths as a means of pressuring COMAR, the Mexican refugee agency, to speed up processing of their applications. Migrants have also asked the Mexican government to let them leave the city and establish a humanitarian corridor so that they could get safe passage to the US border. Though the migrant community in Tapachula has staged vigils and hunger strikes before in protest, Tuesday’s actions represent an escalation and a sign that Mexico isn’t able to meet their humanitarian needs.

That said, Tapachula’s migrants wouldn’t be trapped in the city — and the protesting migrants wouldn’t be pushed to such tactics — if it weren’t for Trump-era immigration policies that the Biden administration has adopted as its own.

Migrants are being kept from entering the US under a pandemic-related border restriction first implemented by the Trump administration, known as the Title 42 policy, which allows the federal government to bar noncitizens from entering the US for health reasons. Although public health experts have said Title 42 doesn’t help to stop the spread of Covid-19, the Biden administration has embraced it. That has allowed the Biden administration to carry out 1.1 million expulsions to Mexico in the past year, including to the state of Chiapas, where Tapachula is located.

In 2019, the Mexican government agreed to ramp up immigration enforcement on its southern border in order to avert US tariffs Trump had threatened. Though the Biden administration hasn’t continued to threaten those tariffs, it has dangled carrots of vaccine doses and development funds in exchange for Mexico’s cooperation on limiting migration to the US border.

The effect of those policies has been to keep migrants away from US borders and out of mind for most Americans. And it’s been largely successful in silencing migrants unless they go to extreme lengths to be heard.

“We are going to sew our mouths ... so that they listen to us,” one migrant in Tapachula told the Mexican news agency Imagen Noticias in Spanish.

Mexico isn’t equipped to offer adequate care to migrants

In a statement issued in Spanish on Tuesday, Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM) condemned the migrants’ actions as “senseless,” and claimed that it is already tending to their needs.

“It is also worrying that these measures have been carried out with the consent and support of those who claim to be their representatives, with the intention of putting pressure on the immigration authorities regarding care that is already provided,” the agency said.

But the kind of care provided to migrants in Tapachula isn’t adequate. The city simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a sudden influx of people. For months, some 3,000 migrants were living at a campsite at Tapachula’s Olympic Stadium, where they had no access to clean water, food, health care, and other basic services, and shared only a few portable toilets.

That camp was disbanded in December, but there still isn’t enough affordable housing and room in local shelters to support the migrant population and it’s not clear whether or when the Mexican government will build more shelters. Many are sleeping on the streets near INM’s local offices and don’t have work permits, meaning that they can’t secure stable employment that would allow them to support themselves while they wait. And they have reported being mistreated, arrested in violent and arbitrary manners, and robbed of their money and their phones by Mexican authorities.

Though Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has promised to reduce wait times by streamlining the bureaucracy around the asylum process, he has also acknowledged that the government simply doesn’t have the staffing and resources to meet the explosion in need.

The US could share the load by resuming processing of migrants at its own borders and allowing them to pursue claims to humanitarian protection, as is their legal right. Instead, it has offloaded its immigration responsibilities onto its neighbor.