Caravan forces Mexico to confront mixed feelings on migration | World news

As caravans of Central American migrants wind their way through Mexico’s poorest regions, local people of modest means have headed to the highway with plates of food, plastic bags filled with water and donations of spare clothes.

Meanwhile, more affluent Mexicans have complained on social media about the foreigners from poorer countries, often in terms similar to those used by US rightwingers.

The caravans have brought out the best in many, but they have also exposed a vein of latent xenophobia – and raised uncomfortable questions about Mexico’s own relationship with migration.

Mexicans have often ignored Central America, instead focusing on the US, and sizable numbers of wealthier (and whiter) Spanish and North American citizens find it relatively easy to move to Mexico for work or retirement.

“For us, an immigrant is [someone] from a rich country. A migrant someone coming from a poor country,” said Javier Urbano, a professor studying immigration at the Ibero-American University.

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The most recent census in 2010 showed that less than 1% of the population was foreign born – compared to 13.7% of the population in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. Most of the foreign-born population – excluding dual-citizen children – was from the United States, Canada and other developed countries.

“It’s a class issue: [wealthy immigrants] come from countries, which are supposedly examples of development, which in our imagination we want to be” he said.

Long a transit country for Central Americans trying to reach the US, Mexico has increasingly become a destination, as violence, poverty and climate change provoke an outflow from the northern triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Mexico received 14,596 asylum claims in 2017, a tenfold increase from 2013 and a figure projected to jump substantially this year. But the government body responsible for processing refugee claims is still short-staffed and underfunded.

“Central American immigration has mostly been transitory, so Mexicans never looked at it as a controversial issue,” Urbano said. “Now that [the migrants] are staying, the public debate is starting.”

A migrant helps a girl get off a truck as they hitch a ride from Santo Domingo Ingenio to Matías Romero Avendano on 8 November.

A migrant helps a girl get off a truck as they hitch a ride from Santo Domingo Ingenio to Matías Romero Avendano on 8 November. Photograph: Carlos García Rawlins/Reuters

In the face of Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric about Mexicans, defending the country’s citizens north of the border has become a corner of Mexico’s political discourse.

But since 2014, Mexico has taken increasingly punitive efforts to stop irregular migration across its own southern frontier.

A crackdown launched by outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto and coordinated with the US tightened controls across the south of the country, forcing migrants to take ever-more circuitous – and dangerous – routes north.

That policy led indirectly to the current situation: instead of keeping to the shadows, migrants instead grouped together in caravans, hoping the increased visibility would help protect them.

Last month, Peña Nieto has softened his stance, offering temporary work visas along with benefits such as healthcare and education.

Incoming president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who takes office on 1 December, has also said he will offer work visas and fund job creation in southern Mexico and Central America.

But caravan participants have mostly rejected the offer, preferring to risk an uncertain outcome at the US border.

And such policies are not universally popular.

“We have don’t enough jobs here and the president wants to offer work visas!” exclaimed taxi driver Jorge Luis Meza – who himself worked irregularly in the United States for several years.

One opinion poll showed that 61% of rural Mexicans supported the caravan migrants, compared to 49.2% of urban dwellers – whose incomes are generally higher than those in the countryside.

But a initial outpouring of support seems to have reduced as more caravans have headed north, said Heyman Vázquez, parish priest in the town of Huixtla which has become a way station for migrants moving north from Guatemala.

“We don’t have any more money,” he said.

Some good Samaritans admit misgivings at news of the caravan’s arrival, but said they changed their attitudes when they saw entire families slogging along the highway.

“I was worried. I heard they were bad people, but then I saw the kids,” said Zuri Flores, 22, who on a recent afternoon was handing out sandwiches and plastic cups of Coca-Cola to weary caravan participants. “We don’t have much. But we’re sharing what we can.”

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