The Retraumatization of Asylum Seekers in Mexico

Anonymous Student, MMFRP 2019-2020

Migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua have had to flee their countries due to poverty, government violence, and lack of educational opportunities. These factors have forced families to risk their lives and embark on a journey to the United States. Before attempting to cross into the United States, many individuals find themselves disoriented and without a home in Tijuana. While homeland violence and trauma are the predominant reasons for which migrants flee, this report suggests that they also find themselves being re – traumatized along their journey through Mexico.

Tijuana has adapted to being a way-station for US migration migration, including developing several shelters along the border to provide a temporary home and social resources for the migrants who are constantly flowing through the border. In this work, we interviewed migrants at five such shelters: Ejercito de Salvación, Espacio Migrante, Madre Asunta, YMCA, and Casa del Migrante. These shelters provide safe housing for between a few days and a few months, and afterwards migrants are encouraged to find a place to rent in Tijuana. During their time at the the shelters, migrants are able to use resources such as shelter-based psychologists, social workers, and job counselors. The resources attempt to provide a smooth transition for the migrants upon their arrival to Tijuana.

My findings are drawn from 63 interviews conducted with asylum seekers in these shelters during the months of January – March 2020. The interviews were conducted by students from UCSD, who took an immigration class, and then spent one week in Tijuana interviewing asylum seeker and deportees at different shelters in the city. Our methods consisted of interviewing individuals for approximately 60 minutes. Before starting the interviews, we would let the migrants know that we were students from UCSD who were at the shelter for a week to interview migrants as part of a research class to learn about the experience of migrants. The questions asked them about their childhoods, families, job experiences, the political climates in their home countries, the reasons that led them to flee and their journeys to Tijuana.

One prevalent theme in the interviews of asylum seekers conducted at the shelter was retraumatization. Even though many migrants found refuge in Tijuana before they attempted to cross into the United States, asylum seekers were constantly retraumatized by institutions in Mexico. This paper argues that retraumatization among asylum–seeking migrants manifested in three primary ways: 1) violent encounters with government officials or gang/cartel members in Mexico. 2) being asked to share their traumas with staff from NGOs or shelters, and 3) exclusion by Mexican civil society.

The discriminatory treatment that asylum seekers receive throughout their stays in Mexico reinforce their stigmatized identities as migrants. This discriminatory behavior had made it so that migrants feel shame and insecurity about seeking help in a transit country such as Mexico. Even though migrants benefit from Mexico, due to the notion of accessibility it provides for their entrance into the US, migrants initially do not view Mexico as a country of residence; they aspire to live the American dream. Migrants rely on the help and safety from governmental institutions and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) throughout their journeys in Mexico that are meant to protect them; instead, they receive dishonest treatment. This behavior from NGO’s reinforces the stigma of their trauma and identities. Mexico is currently not a safe space for asylum – seeking migrants and instead makes their journey worse.

Bringing consciousness to the trauma of migrants and their difficult journey is important because it provides a different perspective and understanding from the constant circulation of the criminalization and depreciation of migrants through the media. I hope that the collective voices of the migrants serve as sufficient evident to expose the unjust and corruptive behavior of the Mexican government. In the perspective of humanitarian/activist practice, these stories can encourage the Mexican government to enforce the safety of transitory migrants through the change in the work ethic of government officials.

Check out the blogs in this series:

Federal Police and the National Guard
Retelling Trauma in NGOs
Discrimination by Mexicans