The first thing I noticed when I entered the room were the clothes. Hundreds of shirts, socks, shorts, ragged and wet, hanging flat against the walls. Straight in front of me, items dangling from an unplugged orange extension cord that looked like an oversized noose.
And then I saw the men.
They were laid out like cordwood, two men to each tiny 3-inch thick mattress placed directly on the tiled floor. As we entered at 1 A.M., many arose because, despite the late hour, the lights in the windowless room blared oppressively. A few even stood up and walked over to us with a warm greeting. After all, we were going to be joining them in just a moment. Simply more prisoners caught up in the international immigration system.
We were in the Estación Migratoria de Villahermosa. A small building in the capital city of the state of Tabasco, found on the Southern end of the Gulf of México.
From the outside, the structure appeared to be nothing more than a garage. A large grey sliding door obscuring the horrifying reality contained within.
I was certainly not the norm. A single Canadian with expired papers in a sea of upwards of 300 men, women, babies, and teenagers traveling without parents. Most were from Central America, chiefly Honduras and El Salvador, but there was also a smattering of folks from Cuba, Venezuela and other Latin American countries. During my intake interview in the office I was careful to note a poster made by the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) outlining our rights as migration prisoners–rights that I would see systematically ignored during my stay.
Nearly everyone was in the same situation: striving to get to the United States or Canada to be able to work and send money home to their families. All now in stasis. Caught and knowing they would eventually be deported, but in the dark about when or how that would come to pass. In one case, I saw a man collapse in on himself, tears streaming down his face, as he recalled his daughter on the phone a moment earlier asking him where he was and when he would be home to hug her.
There was another group though, a clump of bodies huddled together in a corner that stood out starkly. They were African men, non-Spanish speakers, most from Cameroon, with a few from Ghana.
The Cameroonians are part of a huge contingent of English-speakers from that country fleeing a civil war that has raged since 2017. The journey is harrowing: first escaping on foot to Nigeria, then flying to Ecuador, then walking six days through the jungle. Then taking buses and trains, trying to get to the US. Hundreds of dead bodies littered along the way.
There are at least five thousand people in their situation in México today, mostly in the small city of Tapachula in Chiapas, as it is the closest estación to the Southern border with Guatemala. They are trying to gain refugee status in an attempt to get away from the brutal French-speaking government of Cameroon that has been killing them for years over sovereignty, territorial, and resource disputes.
In the face of this estación, though, nearly everyone was equal. Forbidding walls rising twenty feet into the sky. No natural light, no fresh air, and no legal support. Four toilets and four showers, which worked sporadically, for more than two hundred men. The smell of hundreds of sweating bodies melding with the scent of the pile of styrofoam containers of leftover food from the previous meal. One ninety-second phone call per day to reach the outside world, whether family or consulate. Finger-sized cockroaches with free rein. And the pleasure of arriving during the rainy season in Tabasco, which meant flooding and soaked clothes and bedding on a daily basis, often in the middle of the night. On top of this were abusive guards, who would only grant access to a locked bathroom when they felt like it.
I must admit that I was treated better by the immigration officials than everyone else. As the lone white person there, the only gringo, I was a curiosity. They asked me about myself, wondered about Canada, and generally was dealt with as a human rather than a number. Being able to speak Spanish also meant that I could communicate with everyone and that, after a few days, I became the official translator for the Cameroonians and Ghanaians, since they had been provided none.
In fact, the first West African man there, who spent most of his days crying over his disappeared family back home, had sat for nearly four weeks before I arrived. He had been periodically brought in for interviews, but since he spoke only English and French, and they only Spanish, he was left to rot. No translator, no attempt to help him. Just waiting in a dour concrete prison with no idea what to do next. When I arrived I was happy to help, although being placed in the position of both prisoner and unpaid employee was certainly not ideal.
A recent report from the La Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CNDH) stated that most of these Estaciones Migratorias in México are well beyond capacity, many holding 300% more than they should.1 Villahermosa is part of a system of nearly sixty such facilities, run both federally and by the thirty-two individual states.
The refugee crisis in Cameroon has certainly contributed to this overcrowding, but much of it stems from President Donald Trump’s July 2019 decision to outsource his country’s immigration problem to México. By supporting and funding further crackdowns south of the border, he has essentially dumped the issue into the laps of Mexican officials who are more than happy to take the new jobs and money. Like the private prisons of the United States, these facilities have a vested interest in remaining full. And while similar facilities in the US have been the focus of exposés, pushing the issue into México has meant that this is happening outside the purview of the mainstream American press.
Trump has also managed to exploit a country where wages are depressed, human rights defenders are overstrained, and a deep antipathy toward Central Americans already exists. To this end, the US pledged $10.6 Billion to curb Central American migration at the end of 20182. All these factors together help to create the perfect breeding ground for this kind of abusive detention center.
While this narrative could be explained with governments and policies, it is also a human story. It is the story of men escaping a war at home only to be imprisoned in a place they don’t understand. It is the story of a Honduran man falling off of a train, having his legs severed at the knee, and then being dumped in a prison-room with children who are then charged with tending to his infected wounds. And it is the tale of thousands of people being told that their desire to work hard and provide for their families is not enough to be treated with respect.
I was only in the facility for a matter of weeks before I was able to acquire an emergency visa to return home. But many others are not so lucky, and often remain without rights nor aid for months on end. And things are getting worse, not better, as the US floods more money into México for more checkpoints, more roadblocks, and more immigration police.
Perhaps the sadder truth is the answer I heard time and time again when I asked the men what they would do when they returned home:
“I will spend a night or two, and then I will turn around and come right back. What other choice do I have?”
If you or someone you know is struggling to gain status in Canada, or to work through the immigration system of another country, you can contact No One Is Illegal at: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and/or legal advice.