MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Mexico has 45 days to show the Trump administration it can stop thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers from reaching the U.S. border. Mexican authorities say they are deploying their new National Guard, as well as helicopters, to crack down on illegal border crossings. But Mexican migration agents say they are overworked and understaffed. From Tapachula, near the Guatemala border, James Fredrick reports.
JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: In downtown Tapachula, the office of Mexico's refugee agency is mostly for filing paperwork and interviewing people fleeing persecution. In recent days, it's different. The streets around the office have turned into a makeshift refugee camp. A line of asylum-seekers stretches around two blocks. I meet Rosie Dalia Palacios from El Salvador here. She's sitting on a sheet of cardboard she's been sleeping on.
ROSA HIDALIA PALACIOS: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: "We're suffering," she says. "I've been on the street for a month. We were sleeping in the park, but migration came and started arresting people." So Rosa and other family, including three young children, are sleeping outside the refugee office while they wait. The agency is overwhelmed nationally. It has just 48 staff members but expects to receive 60,000 asylum claims this year, and their new government cut its budget to just $1.2 million, the agency's lowest in seven years.
Salva Lacruz from the Fray Matias Human Rights Center here, said over Skype that a few NGOs and churches are the only source of support for people like Palacios.
SALVA LACRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He says, "The Mexican government, on all levels, completely lacks humanitarian resources and ignores their responsibility to these people." Since striking a deal with U.S. authorities last week, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has referred to the Bible as his guide to treating migrants.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He said, in a press conference Wednesday, "He who mistreats the foreigner, the migrant, especially when they do it out of necessity, is not acting with humanity." But stopping migrants is the key to satisfying President Trump's demands. And Mexico's migration agency already looks stretched thin here on the southern border. At a migration checkpoint on a highway just north of Tapachula, one agent told me he's overworked.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He wasn't authorized to speak on the record, but he told me his job is desk-based. But for the last seven months, he's been on the road traveling constantly as a field agent, both on Mexico's northern and southern borders. Mexico's migration agency did not respond to questions or multiple interview requests from NPR.
At the local immigrant detention center, it's a similarly hectic scene, like at the refugee agency. Here I meet Maria Eugenia Mendoza, a 43-year-old mother of five from El Salvador. She's had a harrowing journey since fleeing an abusive husband two years ago, including one deportation from the U.S. and another from Mexico. Now her 18-year-old son, who fled gang violence last year, has been locked up here after being stopped at a checkpoint. And she's worried he'll be deported.
MARIA EUGENIA MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: She says she's been to the local human rights office, the refugee office and the U.N. Refugee Agency, but no one's been able to help get her son out. The detention center has a capacity for 900 people but often holds more than double that. Mendoza's other son, 21-year-old Jorge, was also locked up here once and says conditions inside are horrible.
JORGE MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He says, "They punish people locked inside. It's really nasty and dirty where they keep us. And there's a tiny solitary confinement room. They kept me there three days in total darkness." Salva Lacruz from the human rights group has access to this detention center and says problems run even deeper.
LACRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FREDRICK: He says, "Migrants don't have rights in there. They have no access to information or legal representation." Without some major changes, and fast, many say Mexico's president won't be able to fulfill his promises to Trump or to migrants.
For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick, in Tapachula, Mexico.
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