In Photos: The Central American Migrant’s Journey to Asylum

A young boy after he swam across the border from Guatemala to Mexico on his own.

There is a humanitarian crisis in Central America that is forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes and make the arduous journey north, to or through Mexico to seek asylum.

Most of these migrants are fleeing extreme violence and persecution in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — three of the most dangerous countries in the world. In fact, El Salvador is the murder capital of the world with the highest homicide rate anywhere outside of war zones. For these mothers, fathers, and children, daily life is so precarious that a thousand-mile trek into the unknown seems like a better bet. And leaving home is just the first step on the treacherous journey to seek asylum.

What does that journey look like? To find out, I traveled with my colleague Kavitha Sreeharsha, our Immigration Portfolio Manager, to Mexico. For some migrants, Mexico is the end goal, where they plan to stay and seek asylum. For others, Mexico is just another dangerous stretch of land to traverse on the way to the United States. It’s here where we met families who were fleeing and saw firsthand what it really takes to seek safety.

Entering Mexico from the South

Immigrant activist points to the city of Tapachula and the Suchiate River on the Mexican border with Guatemala.

The small town of Ciudad Hidalgo on the Suchiate River is a primary crossing point between Mexico and Guatemala. Just as the Rio Grande River delineates Mexico’s northern border with Texas, the Suchiate River separates part of Mexico’s southern border from Guatemala.

Inner-tube rafts take people across the Suchiate River between Tecún Umán, Guatemala, and Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.

It’s here where migrants casually cross the river in plain sight. Unlike at the U.S.-Mexico border, there are no armed border patrols or fences here. For a few Mexican pesos anyone can cross by raft, and at low tide one can walk or bike across.

A woman carries groceries and a young boy sells treats along the border. The bridge in the distance is the official border crossing.

In fact, the area is a commercial and recreational hub. Locals regularly cross to buy fresh fruit on one side, shop for groceries on the other, and visit friends and family on both. A bridge is reserved for those with visas or those who wish to formally apply for asylum in Mexico.

A mother and daughter sell goods at the Mexican border.
A man sells Cup of Noodles on the border.

The official border checkpoint, just a block or two from the river, is where people with visas can cross legally.

An official border checkpoint, funded in large part by the U.S. government

Applying for Asylum in Mexico

Once on the Mexican side of the border in Ciudad Hidalgo, migrants can report themselves to the center for migrants and refugees to file for asylum in Mexico. (Whether they know this option exists is another matter.) To apply for asylum, an individual must submit a request to the government within 30 days of arrival.

Refugees attempting to reunite with family in the U.S. skip the Mexican asylum process and continue north.

Finding a Safe Place to Stay

After a migrant has notified the government of an intent to file, they must wait in that location to receive documentation. In places like Cuidad Hidalgo, there are few resources for families during that time — few places to stay, with little to no work available.

Twenty-five miles away from Ciudad Hidalgo in the larger city of Tapachula, limited safe houses and shelters support migrants, but conditions are often abysmal. Shelters are filled over capacity and people sleep on the floor. Nonetheless, these safe houses try their best with limited resources — some shelters offer classes such as computer literacy, sewing, or dancing to help migrants pass the many months it takes to receive refugee status.

At one shelter in Tapachula, every asylum-seeking teenage boy was fleeing persecution for being gay.
A migrant takes a computer literacy course at a shelter.
A mom and her 12-day-old baby fled the violence in Honduras and are now staying at a shelter in Mexico.
“Honduras is a beautiful country. Have you been there? It’s so beautiful I would never want to leave. My home, my family, everything is there.”
Shelters are often the best places for migrants to get information and feel a network of support.

Work Life

The asylum process is long and expensive, so migrants typically need an income to stay afloat. The conundrum? Until asylum is granted, asylum seekers are not officially allowed to work. Without a work permit, prospects for earning and saving money are low — and the chances of being exploited are high.

We spoke with two Honduran mothers about their work at a chicken factory. They work every day from 7 am to 7 pm, leaving little time to cook or do laundry — chores they must complete in order to stay at a shelter. The women say they work longer hours and for less pay than Mexican nationals with work permits.

A market in Tapachula sells chickens.

Another common scenario is a “work tax” imposed by “police gangs.” Gang members and police officers alike identify migrant women and require them to pay a “tax” that will let them work in peace. According to a local community organizer, the tax could be in the form of sexual favors or monetary payments.

Facing Detention

But shelters, lack of work, and taxes are rarely an issue for most migrants. Most commonly, undocumented immigrants are caught, detained in secure facilities, and then deported. Pictured here is the largest immigrant detention center in the Americas, which processes 114,000 detentions a year.

Sigulo XXI is the largest immigrant detention center in the Americas.

Hundreds of men, women, and children who are detained inside this facility have little to fill their days. There are no options to work. Children who are detained for months receive little to no education. And while Mexico is a signatory of the Human Rights Conventions prohibiting the detention of children, immigrant detention centers are an exception.

Some government representatives argue that detention protects the children while they complete their asylum process. Yet conditions in these facilities are so bad that many people voluntarily give up their asylum cases and return to their home countries — risking their lives to return, and sometimes to try the journey again.

Life or Death After Deportation

When migrants are deported, they face an ultimatum: remain and endure the dangerous situation they originally fled, or re-embark on the harrowing journey north. It’s not uncommon for one person to attempt the trip four or more times when circumstances are dire. In fact, research shows that knowledge of the risks of migration — deportation, border conditions, and treatment in the United States — plays no significant role in deterring people from migrating north. In a few tragic cases, migrants have been murdered upon arrival back in their home country.

We witnessed the lengths that humans will go just to live a life free from terror. Fleeing their homes and surviving the trip are just the first obstacles for Central Americans; seeking asylum in another country presents another set of challenges and trauma. Contrary to the picture painted by anti-immigrant arguments, this is a last act of desperation, not opportunism.

Immigration should not be an enforcement issue. Instead of viewing asylum seekers as breaches in border security, we must approach immigration as a humanitarian crisis. Stop focusing on the topic, start looking at the people.

Bulletin board of refugees women helped by a shelter.

Photography and text by Agatha Bacelar, Multimedia Content Manager at Emerson Collective