Mexico City Officials Promise A 'Hospitable City' For Migrants

By Jorge Valencia
February 15, 2017
Jorge Valencia
A Spanish as a second language class with Haitian students at the Cafemin shelter for migrants in Mexico City.
Jorge Valencia
Desks at the Cafemin migrant shelter in Mexico City
Jorge Valencia
Patricia Castilleja teaches workplace training classes at the Cafemin migrant shelter in Mexico City.

Mauricio Quesada is pointing at a poster he drew, and he’s sharing his personal story with a dozen classmates. Like most of them, he migrated from Central America to Mexico City. Until last summer, he lived with his wife, two children and grandson in El Salvador.

He was a teacher, and traveled four hours every Monday from his home to the school where he taught social studies to elementary and secondary students. When he got home one Friday in 2014, his wife told him someone had left envelopes under their door. It was from the MS13 gang.

“They wanted me to tell them $150 every two weeks,” Quesada said.

As a teacher, Quesada made a relatively good living of $750 per month. For a while, he was able to pay. But he was the only bread winner in the family, and when he started leaving the gang $85 or $75, two young males on bicycles began following him to work.

Quesada worried about his family. So last summer, his wife and kids moved to his in-laws’ house and he left to look for work in Mexico.

Authorities in Mexico denied him his asylum application, saying he had no evidence of his hardship. To which he said: "What more evidence than being 50 years old and leaving a good job that paid well?" He figured the only evidence they would accept would be a missing limb or bullet wounds on his chest.

“I came to Mexico only because I’m looking for a safe place for my family,” Quesada said. “That’s my only goal.”

Across the U.S. and here in Arizona, cities are debating whether they should continue offering safe havens to undocumented immigrants against President Donald Trump’s policies. Across the border, Mexico City is implementing sanctuary city policies of its own.

Mexico received almost 9,000 asylum applications last year. And the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expects that number to more than double this year, in part because the U.S. has become less appealing.

Within Mexico, the capital city has sort of become a destination; it has policies that resemble those of American sanctuary cities.

Mexico City employees are instructed to not ask for a person’s migratory status, said Ruben Fuentes Rodriguez, who heads the city’s agency overseeing aid to migrants.

Mexico City is the only local government in the country that issues ID cards to migrants. This gives them access to public health services.

The city also gives grants to help migrants start their own businesses. In 2015, the city funded more than 350 projects, such as a shoe repair shop, a beauty salon or a food cart.

“The spirit is to give them some sort of incentive to help them join the city’s economy in a formal way,” Fuentes Rodriguez said.

These policies are a result of the city’s Intercultural law, or “Ley de Interculturalidad,” of 2011.

Elisa Ortega Velasquez, a researcher focusing on migration issues at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the city has more liberal tendencies than most of the country.  

"It's been about 20 years that Mexico City is governed by left, which is keen to provide citizens with some rights, such as gay marriage and abortion,” Ortega Velasquez said.  

And yet many advocates complain that migrants often don’t get the services the law affords them, or that some local officials do report them to federal immigration authorities.

“There are two speeches,” said Gabriela Hernandez, who runs the Tochan shelter for migrant men. “There’s the one that the mayor gives, and there’s the one that his public servants give.”

Hernandez said she gives the mayor the benefit of the doubt. She said she believes he wants to help, but just lacks follow through. Hernandez would like to see Mexico City become a migrant city -- but in practice, and not just in political speeches.

The class that Quesada is taking could make him eligible for the city’s business grant program. For his presentation, he drew a mountain with the sun shining on top.

Quesada said he wants to bring his wife and sons from El Salvador to Mexico, and he has a long road to travel and little time to rest.

“I can’t stop walking until I see the clarity of the sun,” he said.

But Quesada’s needs are immediate, and the city’s grant program won’t deliver until July at the earliest. He said he recently got a job as a carpenter, but that he still hasn’t collected enough money to send his family.