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Caravan Exposes Many Mexicans' Own Unease Toward Migrants

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

While there is a long history of Mexican migration to the United States, Mexico has had trouble dealing with its own migrant population. Central Americans who journey north are often targeted by gangs and corrupt police. And until recently, few stayed in Mexico. But now that's changing as Mexico is becoming a destination country itself. In the last two weeks, around 3,000 Central Americans in the migrant caravans have applied for asylum in Mexico. And as Emily Green reports, Mexicans are grappling with their own unease with migrants from poorer countries to the south.

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: The theme of this year's Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City was migration. In addition to the usual colorful skeletons and supersized skulls, the parade showcased political messages. One of the segments featured dancers holding replicas of a border wall with a message, on this side, there are also dreams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Rapping in Spanish).

GREEN: The lyrics say, "There are no walls that can contain us, for the wind has no harnesses. There are no chains or checkpoints."

If it isn't clear already, the message is that migration is positive, says Mexico City's culture minister, Eduardo Vazquez Martin.

EDUARDO VAZQUEZ MARTIN: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: He says, "Migrants shouldn't be seen as a problem but rather a foundation of Mexico's cultural richness."

But he had no idea when city officials picked that theme in January that the parade would coincide with the arrival of a caravan of thousands of Central American migrants.

And that caravan has exposed many Mexicans' discomfort with migrants, like 27-year-old Iris Alcarez. She works as a waitress in Tapachula, one of the caravan's first stops in Mexico.

IRIS ALCAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: She says, "There are too many migrants here, and they prefer to beg for money than to work."

A poll by a major Mexican newspaper found that 40 percent of Mexicans believe the migrants' presence would lead to more crime. And 25 percent say they would take jobs away from Mexicans. But around half support letting the migrants stay in the country.

MAUREEN MEYER: A lot of Mexicans identify with migrants on the caravan because they also may have migrated at some point in their lives. But others really continue to have a xenophobic attitude.

GREEN: Maureen Meyer is with the human rights group Washington Office on Latin America. She says the Mexican government is very good at promoting the rights of Mexicans abroad.

MEYER: But that doesn't seem to be reflected in how they treat migrants in transit through Mexico.

GREEN: Or in how Mexico treats migrants seeking refuge here. Many of those who have applied for asylum have been detained. And while President Enrique Pena Nieto has offered a work visa to the migrants, his offer comes with a big caveat - they have to stay in the poorer states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. Public policy analyst Rodolfo Soriano Nunez (ph) sees that as a veiled threat.

RODOLFO SORIANO NUNEZ: The trick in this case came with this restriction of telling the migrants don't go beyond Oaxaca, or else.

GREEN: The leaders of the caravan say Mexican authorities are trying to impede the group's progress to Mexico City by refusing to let volunteers transport the migrants on buses, instead forcing them to walk.

(CROSSTALK)

GREEN: Here in Mexico City - at the Day of the Dead parade, many onlookers are thinking about the migrant caravan, like Juan Antonio Montero. His 2-year-old son is propped on his shoulders to see over the crowd.

JUAN ANTONIO MONTERO: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: He says he supports the migrants staying here, as long as they come legally with a passport. And if they get work later, they can get a visa and stay for good. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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