Pandemic statelessness in Mesoamerica

Published 3 July 2020 / By Jorge E. Cuéllar

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This article is co-published with Routed: Migration and (Im)mobility Magazine in its special issue of “Epidemics, labour and mobility

As states have shuttered their doors to non-essential travel, migrants in the middle of their northward journeys from Central America to the United States have been caught up in national lockdowns, often forced to quarantine in foreign countries which they had planned to only pass through. COVID-19 shutdowns have created a complex situation in the Mesoamerican borderlands, in particular on the Guatemala-Mexico border, the border that all Central Americans seeking passage north must, as a rule, trek across.

The plight of migrants in the middle of the coronavirus episode increases the tensions in the context of the militarization of the Guatemala-Mexico border. Migrants have been rounded up and placed in border-zone ‘migrant jails’ where abysmal conditions make social distancing and maintaining hygiene an impossibility. Though the practice of migrant jailing is not new and it also persists at the US-Mexico border via encampments, reports speak of an intensified fear among migrants who feel that they are susceptible to contagion in Mexico’s migrant jails. In late March, this well-founded fear subsequently erupted into hunger strikes in places like Tapachula, while in the border town of Tenosique, a fire was started inside a migrant jail to protest decrepit conditions and overcrowding.

Key to documenting the lives of migrants before and now through the pandemic, the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement (‘Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano’, MMM) has offered decades-long accompaniment to migrants travelling through Central America and Mexico, in an echo of Catholic social teachings. MMM indexes meticulously the changing conditions of the migrant trail, laying bare the excesses of transnational security apparatuses, police, and military patrols, which have made migration an increasingly treacherous option. They support the search by caravans of mothers to locate their missing children in a region that MMM activist Rubén Figueroa has called the ‘Bermuda Triangle for migrants’. They have grown into an important bastion for defending the human rights of migrants, offering families help to recover traces of their disappeared loved ones. Their work brings coherence in contexts where there currently exists little to no institutional mechanisms of justice capable of grasping transnational migration.

Today, the militarised enforcement of ‘stay-at-home’ orders in Mexico makes it impossible for migrants to keep travelling north or go back to Guatemala, and the fact that Guatemala has received deportees infected with COVID-19 (from both US and Mexico) has resulted in a wave of discrimination towards migrants in their home country. This, alongside the overarching objectives of US-led migratory control, have in turn affected borderland life immensely. Migrants are deserted outside their countries of origin, and abuses become further obscured. This changed migratory reality has produced, based on dispatches from MMM, a condition of being stuck in-between states, provoking in migrants themselves immense emotional and psychological stress due to non-access to home territory. This, which I call ‘pandemic statelessness’, aims to capture the condition of being unable to return to one’s country where, tacitly, nationality itself appears temporarily suspended. Forced instead to endure the whims of politics, procedure, and maltreatment in a transit country, migrants are subject to state policies that ignore their rights, health, and well-being.

COVID-19 immobility has left people on the streets to fend for themselves in a society that, like everywhere else, fears virus transmission. This situation has truncated mobility in the Guatemala-Mexico border zone and compounded prior structural realities that had already escalated arbitrary legal regimes and disciplinary measures. Pandemic conditions have made migrants increasingly defenceless, exacerbating the prior lack of protections for those dwelling between states, for those who live life in motion. For the temporary stateless, the pandemic has underscored the migrant condition of being surplus to both the origin and the transit country. Having experienced expulsion, Central American migrants are made to endure non-return, while the few who have returned to Guatemala are maligned and rejected by their home communities as the well-worn narrative of ‘contaminated migrants’ – one produced by US deportations – continues to take hold.

The issue of pandemic statelessness during the emergency begs the question: What will post-pandemic Mesoamerica look like? If the unresolved crises that predated the corona-panic are to be taken as a metric, the structural problems that have already strained the living fabrics of the region, deepened by crisis mismanagement, will prompt new waves of people heading north. The migrant trail will, again, be brimming with people seeking to find new opportunities, reunite with family, and gather enough money to help people in their home countries survive in newly depressed economic conditions – as the white flags in Guatemala and El Salvador already foreshadow.

To what US might future migrants arrive? The border is currently closed to all migration, a measure the Trump administration hopes to extend well beyond the end of the formal emergency. The US, as experts note, will experience mass unemployment and homelessness, alongside a traumatised population undergoing economic austerity and inflamed by the racisms of a protectionist white supremacy. The US will be rebounding, albeit slowly, from the stresses of coronavirus and from the political decisions that have, using racialised lenses, prioritised profits over people. For the US, and even for Mesoamerican nations, migrants are afterthoughts to interstate policymaking, and the lowest rung on the hierarchy of deservingness.

Pandemic statelessness is an emerging condition that signals the beginning of extensive troubles that will linger beyond the pandemic crisis. Groups like the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement have been instrumental in giving us a grounded view of migrant collective action amid the militarised worlds of transit – their work continues being invaluable to track the emerging stressors that will undoubtedly affect the current migrant as well as the one to come. As migration towards northern economies remains somewhat halted and migrant remittance-senders are laid off in the United States, remittances will continue to drop in a moment when Central American families are in the direst of economic conditions. The post-pandemic will be hard for Central America and the present situation for migrants offers clues to the coming struggles.

Jorge E. Cuéllar is a Mellon faculty fellow (2019-2021) and assistant professor (2021-) of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College, USA.