For towns and cities in Mexico, the issue of how to manage Central American migrants didn’t disappear after the midterm election.
In a broad-brimmed straw hat and an airy linen shirt, Oscar Cruz Lopez, the municipal secretary of Juchitan, Oaxaca, surveyed the crowds at the city’s new bus station. Before him sprawled about 6,000 people who had spent the night on the grounds. As church members served chicken stew on paper plates, taxi drivers circled the bus station, offering rides into the center of town for 15 pesos (about 75 cents). Nuns in white habits bandaged the battered feet of exhausted men and women. The Central American migrant caravan—the group of undocumented people whose journey northward briefly riveted the U.S. media—had arrived.
In the weeks before the midterm election, President Donald Trump made the case that this group of Honduran and Guatemalan migrants and asylum-seekers constituted a grave national security threat—an “invasion” force of criminals, terrorists, and unspecified “Middle Eastern” people. Trump ordered 5,000 active-duty troops to the border in a mission dubbed “Operation Faithful Patriot,” promising to triple that figure if necessary. Immediately after the election, conservative media coverage of the caravan vanished, “Faithful Patriot” was scrapped, and the menace posed by the band of migrants apparently evaporated.
The migrants themselves, however, did not. And for Mexican authorities, this march is no election-season stunt: It’s an ongoing humanitarian and political challenge, one largely borne by the towns and cities along the way that are engaged with the day-to-day realities of managing a massive migration. As the caravan has made its way across Southern Mexico, they’ve been met with a mix of local assistance and federal-level hostility. In many ways, this tension mirrors the one in the U.S., where so-called sanctuary cities have clashed with the White House over immigration policy.
Perhaps no town has been more welcoming to the migrants than Juchitan.
“Last year after the earthquake, Juchitan was the most impacted city in the whole country,” Cruz Lopez told CityLab, remembering the 8.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Oaxaca in September 7, 2017. The earthquake killed 45 here, and the town’s famous market was reduced to rubble. Juchitan is still trying to rebuild, but this city of 90,000 was one of the largest municipalities the migrant caravan crossed when it arrived on October 30. Despite pressing local needs, the municipal government and local groups rallied to provide food, water, medical care, and shelter. “This society knows what struggle is,” Cruz Lopez said. “And when our help is needed, we show our solidarity.”
Fear—of the caravan itself, and of those who prey upon its members—has stalked this gathering since it departed from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on October 13. By the time the caravan crossed into Mexican soil on October 21, it had grown to 7,000 people. Traveling together in such numbers provides safety—Central Americans face the risk of kidnapping, robbery, and extortion while traveling through Mexico—and also lessens the risk of deportation, which is considerable. Mexican authorities deport thousands of Central Americans every year. In 2017, 94,500 people were deported to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, outpacing deportations for those nationalities from the U.S. by a whopping 20,000.
But travel logistics for such a vast gathering are complex: Without legal documentation, the group cannot reliably travel on inter-city buses, so they walk or hitch rides. In some towns in Oaxaca and Chiapas, bus and taxi drivers offered service to members of the caravan; in others, they refused. Several bus companies in the Oaxaca City area released a statement on October 31, saying that they would not provide service to members of the migrant caravan, in order to follow transit laws and “to put the interests of the citizens of Oaxaca above all others.”
As the group pushed northward in punishing heat, the support of small towns along the way has been critical. Cruz Lopez said that the city’s government started mobilizing to support the migrant caravan once they heard it would be passing through. Juchitan is in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a region that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico that Central American migrants have transited for years on the freight train known as La Bestia. Juchitan itself was founded by the Zapotec people in the 15th century; Juchitan’s people are proud of their heritage, and you are as likely to hear Zapotec spoken on the city streets as Spanish.
“This pueblo has a history,” said Cruz Lopez. “It is a community that has fought for justice, that believes in solidarity.”
Many residents interrupted their preparations for the Day of the Dead ceremonies in Juchitan, known as Xandu’, to volunteer in support of the caravan. City police oversaw security, and city employees joined caravan members in gathering trash around the grounds. Along with international nonprofits such as the Red Cross, Oxfam and Caritas, Cruz Lopez said that at least 20 local organizations, from radio stations to high school students, were helping the caravan with food, medical care, and other social services.
Among those volunteers: Nadxielii Nanaxhi Santiago Toledo, 28, who was helping assemble dozens of sandwiches in a makeshift kitchen. “We’ve been preparing for two days,” said Santiago Toledo, who is a member of Juchitan’s muxe community (a “third gender” specific to the region’s Zapotec culture).
“Wherever our Central American friends go next in the caravan, I hope they are treated with affection, because they aren’t coming here seeking problems,” she said. “They are just pursuing their dreams.”
Juchitan was also the first stop of the caravan where Mexico City agencies provided medical and legal aid, as part of the “Humanitarian Bridge” organized by the Mexico City Human Rights Commission (CDHDF). Doctors provided check-ups to members of the caravan, and according to a CDHDF representative, pregnant women were able to have ultrasounds for the first time since the caravan began.
The first members of the caravan began arriving in Mexico City this week. In contrast to Southern Mexico, where violence against undocumented migrants is commonplace, the capital city provides relative safety. Most importantly, Mexico City’s new constitution, which went into effect in September, ensures the protection of migrants, regardless of their legal status. The constitution says that all migrants, refugees and asylum seekers will be protected under criteria of “hospitality, solidarity, interculturality, and inclusion.” Former Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera named Mexico City a sanctuary city in 2017.
The city government runs programs for deportees, asylees and refugees through the Secretariat for Rural Development and Community Equity (SEDEREC). The caravan will test the city’s capacity to support thousands of vulnerable people—some of whom may decide to stay. “The city has to put its best foot forward, and that means showing our solidarity,” said Nashieli Ramírez, president of the Mexico City Human Rights Commission (CDHDF).
The caravan is staying at a stadium at the Magdalena Mixhuca sports complex. After the heat of Southern Mexico, temperatures in Mexico City have been chilly, with steady rains pounding the capital in recent days. City staff handed out blankets and clothing. Medical care was available on site, as well as hot meals. As experts predicted, the size of the caravan has dwindled in recent days, as members decide to return to their home countries, or forge ahead at a faster clip. The Mexico City government estimates that 4,600 people remain at the stadium.
The migrant trail through Mexico usually skirts around Mexico City: It’s in small towns where the phenomenon of Central American migration has been most visible. The caravan’s arrival in the capital is forcing Mexico’s national politicians to confront the reality of migration: It’s as if 5,000 refugees turned up on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall.
So far, Mexico City is receiving the caravan with hospitality, but some residents question that gesture. On social media, some have complained that caravan members come before victims of recent floods in the Mexican state of Nayarit. The polling firm Mitofsky found that one in three Mexicans thinks the caravan members should be pressured to return to Central America.
The concerns of some Mexicans were reflected on Sunday, when a reporter asked Mexico City Minister of the Interior, Guillermo Orozco Loreto, how much money the city was spending to provide humanitarian aid. He replied sternly, “We are guaranteeing humanitarian aid and we will spend whatever is necessary to support these people.”
Civil society organizations in Mexico City, such as Cafemin, a shelter for migrants and refugees, are also contributing support, and other volunteers are providing legal clinics to advise caravan members of their options, whether in Mexico or on the U.S. border. Ramírez stressed that Mexico City does not have jurisdiction to resolve the legal status of caravan members, but the city was prepared for 5,000 people to stay at the stadium and to provide humanitarian support for, “as long as necessary.”
For the exhausted caravan members, the Mexico City stop provided a welcome opportunity to rest. But most express the desire to continue north. Among them was Enio Castillo, 45, who lived in Tampa Bay, Florida, for 18 years. He worked in construction and landscaping in Florida and says he was placed in deportation proceedings after a traffic stop earlier this year. He wants to return to U.S. because, he said, “in my own country I don’t feel at home anymore.”
Castillo hopes to return to Florida, despite the president’s anti-immigrant policies. “Trump can say lots of things, but there’s a Congress that’s below him,” Castillo said. “They have the last word. But I don’t know what Trump’s problem is with immigrants.”
Castillo had nothing but good things to say, however, about the hospitality of the Mexicans he has met along the way. “I don’t have any complaints about the treatment here,” he says. “Mexico is a country where people open up their hearts to you. Even if it’s just a taco, or a plate of food, they will share it with you.”