Migrant shelters in Guatemala under threat from legal reforms

Critics of recent immigration reform fear laws could criminalise religious groups and volunteers who work with migrants and asylum seekers.

Friar German Tax stands on the roof of the migrant shelter in Colonia Mezquital on February 14
German Tax, a friar who works at a shelter in Colonia Mezquital, worries that new government policies will violate migrants' privacy [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Colonia Mezquital, Guatemala – It had taken hours to cross the border from Honduras to Guatemala by bus, and Edwin Gomez, a 39-year-old migrant from Honduras’s capital, needed a place to rest for the night.

That’s how he found himself with Friar German Tax, walking slowly through Colonia Mezquital, a community 15 km (9.3 miles) south of Guatemala City. Their destination was a two-storey house, nestled along a narrow street.

“I was told that there was a church where I could come and stay,” Gomez told Al Jazeera.

But shelters like the one where Gomez was headed are facing new threats in Guatemala. As migrants and asylum seekers journey north through Central America, with many headed to the United States, Guatemala has instituted reforms that could criminalise the work done by faith-based groups and volunteers to shelter and care for them.

In January, the government began implementing new regulations that will require non-governmental migrant shelters to submit biometric information and other data for migrants who use their facilities daily. That data includes identification details, fingerprints, biographical material and other personal information.

Leaders from the Episcopal Conference of Guatemala, a branch of the Catholic Church, have raised concerns about the new regulations. Tax, the friar working in Colonia Mezquital, expressed outrage at the prospect of enforcing the new policy.

“That’s not possible,” Tax exclaimed, sitting in a chair in the entryway of the shelter. “If we did that, we would be losing the trust that migrants have in us because here migrants come and speak and tell their stories.”

Friar German Tax sits in a chair in the entrance of the migrant shelter in Colonia Mezquital on February 14
Friar German Tax takes a seat at the entrance of the migrant shelter in Colonia Mezquital, Guatemala, on February 14 [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

But if shelters like Tax’s fail to comply, authorities could use elements of the reforms made to Guatemala’s immigration law in February 2022 to pursue criminal charges against shelter personnel.

The reforms target human smugglers known locally as “coyotes”, extending the maximum prison sentence for illegal trafficking to 30 years. But due to ambiguity in the law’s language, the reforms could also be used to punish people who aid and support migrants and asylum seekers.

Under the new reforms, the label “trafficker” could be applied to anyone who facilitates a migrant’s stay and transit in Guatemala.

“We are not forcing them to migrate,” said Tax. “What we do is no more like receiving the brother or sister so they can rest, sleep a night in a bed, eat about two meals and continue on their way.”

Crowds of migrants and asylum-seekers squeeze between two parked busses
Migrants and asylum seekers travelling to the US board a bus from Honduras to Guatemala in September 2022 [File: Fredy Rodriguez/Reuters]

The Catholic Church operates nine migrant shelters across Guatemala, which serve thousands each month, including the two-storey house in Colonia Mezquital.

The Franciscan order is in charge of that particular shelter, which is located near a bus station where people can find transportation along Guatemala’s southern coast toward Mexico. The shelter opened in 2019 and has capacity for up to 40 visitors. Migrants and asylum seekers can stay for up to three days before they move on to the next stop in their journey north.

But during a January 27 press conference in Guatemala City, the bishops of Guatemala’s Episcopal Conference warned they may close all nine shelters entirely, rather than be forced to submit data on the migrants and asylum seekers who use their humanitarian services.

The new regulations are “an excessive control”, Cardinal Alvaro Ramazzini, bishop for the department of Huehuetenango, told Al Jazeera following the press conference. “The idea [is] that those who come to the Casa del Migrante come to ask for rest.”

But the heightened measures come as Guatemala increasingly cracks down on the migrants and asylum seekers who pass through the Central American country. In January, more than 200 migrants, primarily from Ecuador, India, Haiti and Venezuela, were deported by immigration officials, according to the Guatemalan Migration Institute, a government agency.

Guatemala has also implemented new visa requirements for citizens of the Dominican Republic after it saw an increase in people arriving from the Caribbean country.

Stricter immigration measures have been a trend across Central America, as the administration of US President Joe Biden puts pressure on the region to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers travelling north to its southern border with Mexico.

“It is an objective of the United States that the containment [of migrants] starts from countries” like Guatemala, said Ursula Roldan, an immigration expert at Guatemala’s Rafael Landivar University.

“These policies only affect migrants and put them at risk,” she said.

And the route north is already dangerous, as migrants and asylum seekers face threats and extortion, even from police demanding bribes.

A boy sits on the floor, while behind him, adults look on computers behind a glass barricade
A child sits on the floor after arriving at La Aurora International airport in Guatemala City on a deportation flight from the US [File: Sandra Sebastian/Reuters]

As Guatemala continues to implement measures to discourage migrants and asylum seekers, the Episcopal Conference has sought dialogue with the government of President Alejandro Giammattei to advocate against some of the reforms.

According to Cardinal Ramazzini, a delegation from the Pastoral of Human Mobility — a Catholic group — will be meeting with Guatemala’s Vice President Guillermo Castillo and the National Immigration Authority in the coming weeks.

The Guatemalan Migration Institute told Al Jazeera it was unable to comment on the issues raised by the new immigration reforms until the meeting had taken place.

According to congressional representative Ligia Hernandez of the centrist Semilla party, her office will also be holding a hearing alongside church authorities to clarify how the reforms will be implemented so they do not affect the shelters.

“Migrant shelters exist not to promote migration but to care for people who have not been cared for in their countries,” Hernández told Al Jazeera. She promised to “make it clear” that the government is “not going to criminalise the actions that are carried out within the shelters”.

At the heart of the concerns is the fear that the new immigration requirements will worsen an already worrying humanitarian crisis in the region. But shelter workers like Friar Tax are determined to continue serving the migrants and asylum seekers who pass through his doors.

“Our responsibility and our task,” he said, is “to take care of people to the extent that we can. We are going to continue working, serving the people to the best of our ability”.

Source: Al Jazeera