Central America Raises Its Voice in Defense of Its Migrants

IPS) – Spiraling violence against Central American migrants in Mexico has prompted legal reforms, diplomatic actions, and the creation of new mechanisms to protect citizens in this region.

“There has been an upsurge in violence against undocumented foreigners (in Mexico), starting with the massacre of 72 migrants in August in (the northeastern state of) Tamaulipas,” which triggered a series of steps taken in Central America, Flora Reynosa, in charge of migrants’ rights in the Guatemalan human rights ombudsman’s office, told IPS.

For example, Guatemala is pushing for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for the tens of thousands of undocumented Guatemalans who are in the United States, while it is coordinating, with other countries of Central America and Mexico, investigations into the Tamaulipas massacre and other cases, Reynosa said.

TPS is a temporary immigration status granted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to nationals of designated countries who are temporarily unable to safely return to their home country due to armed conflict, the effects of an environmental disaster, or other temporary, extraordinary conditions.

In addition, the Guatemalan Congress began to debate a bill in January that would allow Guatemalans deported from the U.S. to bring back their household effects, including furniture and home appliances — as well as vehicles — duty-free.

In 2010 alone, more than 57,000 Guatemalans were deported from the United States, as a result of the stiffening of that country’s stance against undocumented immigrants.

Since 2009, lawmakers in Guatemala have also been studying a new immigration law that would facilitate the fight against corruption and improve protection for migrants.

At a regional level, the measures taken have gone even further. On Jan. 23, Honduras and Mexico established a high-level security group to tackle questions like the safety of migrants in Mexico.

The plan is for the two governments to improve communication on immigration and security, carry out prevention campaigns warning potential migrants of the dangers, make it easier for migrants to report abuses, and share information on financial operations like the payment of ransoms.

The creation of the high-level security group was spurred by the December 2010 kidnapping of at least 40 Central American migrants in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. They are still missing.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called on the Mexican authorities “to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation”.

There have been other government measures as well. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala will create a multilateral force to fight drug trafficking in the region, the details of which will be determined at the next Central American Integration System summit in June.

Authorities in Mexico blame the Tamaulipas massacre of 72 migrants on the Los Zetas drug cartel.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission reported that 20,000 Central American migrants were kidnapped last year in Mexico.

Some 500,000 undocumented migrants from Central and South America cross Mexico every year in their attempt to reach the United States, according to estimates based on official statistics and figures from NGOs. Along the way, they face the risk of arbitrary arrest, extortion, theft, assault, rape, kidnapping and murder, at the hands of youth gangs and organised crime, as well as corrupt police and other agents of the state.

Álvaro Caballeros of the National Forum on Migration in Guatemala (MENAMIG) told IPS that “Mexico’s stance on the issue is worrisome, not only because they have reacted tardily but because they have called into question what is happening.”

The Mexican Foreign Ministry’s Undersecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, Rubén Beltrán, said in January that kidnappings of migrants in Mexico had their origins in Central America, where organised crime networks entice people to go to the United States.

His remarks drew a heated joint rebuttal from the foreign ministries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Miguel Huezo at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in El Salvador told IPS that “if we consider the importance of migration for El Salvador’s society, culture and economy, very little has been done.

“But if we take into account the complexity of the phenomenon of migration, which is generally surreptitious, and in addition takes place in dangerous contexts, I would say things are starting to be done,” he added.

The Salvadoran Congress has begun to debate a law that would provide assistance and protection to migrants and their families, to help guarantee the human rights of their citizens in the United States.

In addition, the Salvadoran government is taking part in the region’s new approach to the issue of immigration.

“There is little that El Salvador can do without the cooperation of the rest of the countries involved in the movements of immigrants,” Huezo said. “And migrants are urgently in need of protection in the context of international law.”

The UNDP official said the issue “is not easy to tackle,” but in order to improve protection of people who leave their countries without the required documents, “it must be acknowledged that international migration is key to development and is an issue deeply linked to the question of rights.”

Edith Zavala, executive secretary of the non-governmental National Forum on Honduran Immigration (FONAMIH), told IPS that a proposal for a new law that would protect Honduran migrants and their families is being discussed in her country.

The bill would create an office for the protection of migrants, as well as centres to provide them with assistance, among other things.

“This is a first step towards designing a comprehensive policy covering the protection and return of migrants, and upholding their constitutionally recognised rights, especially in the case of women migrants,” Zavala said.

She also said the new high-level security group set up by Honduras and Mexico represents “the first coordination between the two governments in this kind of initiative,” which “should not turn into a mere political declaration, and must include migrants and their families.

“The countries of Central America, and Mexico, must make a qualitative leap in identifying proposals and strategies for the development of coherent immigration policies that reflect their reality as countries of emigration, transmigration and immigration,” Zavala said.