MAPASTEPEC, Mexico, May 9 (UPI) -- Mexico has released hundreds of Central American migrants from a makeshift migrant detention center near Guatemala's border, giving them restrictive visas that keep them far away from the United States.
Mexico's government formerly permitted caravans of undocumented migrants to pass virtually unimpeded on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. But that migrant-friendly approach angered U.S. President Donald Trump, who criticized Mexico's laxity in March and threatened to close the border if the flow did not stop.
In response, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obradoro said he did not want a confrontation with the Trump administration. The result has been stricter immigration enforcement, characterized by mass detentions of migrants in camps like the one just closed in Mapastepec.
The government closed the makeshift detention center at the city's municipal sports complex after it issued the migrants regional visitor visas -- and $200 in Mexican pesos for basic needs.
Migrants must wait in detention for Mexican immigration documents. Without them, they risk deportation to their home countries. Those who remained outside the camp Tuesday said they left their countries because of threats, persecution and violence.
"The gangs took my house and threatened my family, so we fled," said Brayan Rosales Hidalgo, 34, from Honduras, who had been traveling in a caravan with his 11-year-old son Anthony.
Rosales, who wants to join his brother in Tijuana, a city on the U.S.-Mexico border, said they had been in the camp since it opened in early April after federal police rounded up the caravan's members on a highway.
But for Rosales, strict immigration enforcement and regional visitor visas do not allow him to reach his brother. The regional visas are valid for only four southern states: Chiapas, Campeche, Tabasco and Quintano Roo. To reach the U.S. border, a migrant would have to travel at least 950 miles illegally, all the time facing the threat of capture and deportation.
"I'm grateful for the money," Rosales said. "We've been able to rent a small house here in Mapastepec. But the regional visas don't help us get any closer to Tijuana. If we try to leave southern Mexico, immigration agents can deport us. I can't go back to Honduras. The gangs tried to recruit my son and threatened me."
Another Central American migrant detained in Mapastepec, Byron Herrera, 39, from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, expressed frustration over the regional visitor visa. Herrera said the visa wouldn't help him get to his chosen destination, Monterrey, in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León.
"I used to be a taxi driver in Guatemala and the gangs extorted me for 400 quetzales [about $50] each week," Herrera said.
"I couldn't deal with the gang's threats anymore, so I had to leave. Otherwise, something bad was going to happen. I took my mother to a safer place and sold my house," he said. "When I heard Mexico's president say last year migrants who wanted to work are welcome here, I thought it was time to leave Guatemala."
But Herrera said he felt betrayed by Mexico's government because he cannot live in or travel to Monterrey without being deported.
"I don't want to make my new life in southern Mexico," Herrera said. "Monterrey is a perfect city for me. If the government would just let me live and work in the north, I know my life would be better. I don't want to go to the United States, but I don't want to live in southern Mexico. It's too much like Guatemala."
Mapastepec is about 100 miles from Guatemala's border. The region is hot, humid, lush with vegetation and a center of tropical fruit production. From the highway, mango, papaya and banana plantations come into view. Laborers on fruit plantations earn about $8 per day, but the work is seasonal and not steady, relying on each crop's harvest.
The effects of climate change in northern Chiapas also have weakened the state's labor market, forcing many former coffee workers into the coastal area around Mapastepec's fruit plantations.
When Mapastepec's makeshift detention center was fully operational, it held mostly Central American migrants. But some detained migrants were from Cuba. Mexico also has been enforcing strict immigration control against Cuban migrants, trying to stop them from reaching the U.S-Mexico border.
Unlike Central Americans, Cuban migrants are not eligible for regional visitor visas. Instead, they must apply for either humanitarian or exit visas if they want to continue north to the U.S.-Mexico border. Immigration officials have been slow to grant Cubans visas, stranding hundreds in southern Mexico and deporting those they find without documents.
"I've been here more than a month, and I'm still waiting for some type of document that will allow me to travel on to the United States," said Miguel Ángel González, 47, from Artemisa, Cuba, whose brother lives in Miami.
"I can't leave Mapastepec without papers because if I do, I can be deported," González said. "I can't go back to Cuba. I sold everything I had and that wasn't very much. Before I got to Mexico, I was in Uruguay for 10 months trying to get more money together to get to Florida. I left Cuba because I can't stand the political system."
Undocumented Cuban migrants face detention if caught by immigration agents in Mexico. But unlike González, many refuse to wait lengthy periods in detention for immigration documents, instead wanting to continue their journey north to the United States.
Their frustration has caused them to attempt several escapes from Tapachula's migrant detention center and prompted mass roundups of Cubans stranded in the city. Last week, immigration agents caught hundreds of former escapees and deported them on planes from Tapachula back to Cuba.
A small group of Mexican immigration agents and a handful of federal police were the only officials at the almost deserted sports complex in Mapastepec on Tuesday. When asked where all the migrants had gone, one immigration agent, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said they had been issued regional visitor visas and left town by themselves.
Herrera, the Guatemalan migrant who wants to begin living in Monterrey, said he thought Mexico could prosper if it let Central Americans live where they want in the country.
"I don't want to live in the United States, but I know it's a country of immigrants, and look how prosperous it is," Herrera said.
"Mexico needs to take its example from the United States and let us live and work wherever we want. Migrants can make Mexico prosperous, too."