Our mango republic

While the fruits of their labor flow north, migrant workers in southern Mexico are trapped by U.S. policy in what has been described as an ‘open-air prison’

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Workers packing Ataulfo mangos at a factory in Tapachula, Mexico, March 9, 2022. Much of the fruit will end up in U.S. grocery stores.

I first met Jones Carme on an evening in March 2022. He was in front of his apartment on the outskirts of Tapachula, Mexico, a tropical city of some 350,000 people in Chiapas, just 20 minutes from the border with Guatemala. Tapachula was founded by the Aztecs in the 15th century, and just as it was then, the region today is an agricultural hub and a major producer of crops like corn, coffee, mangoes, and bananas. I’d come to this neighborhood to talk to migrants working in local agriculture, and this cluster of worn stucco apartments was a short walk from a massive mango plantation and packing house.

Carme, who had just arrived home after working a 12-hour shift in the mango fields, was rail thin with high cheekbones. He knew little Spanish, and I spoke no Haitian Creole, his native language. But he spoke a bit of English, and our conversation stumbled along. Despite being physically exhausted, Carme, who’s 42, was eager to talk. In the warm evening air, we stood in his doorway as he told me that, unlike many other Haitian migrants who hoped to continue north to the United States, he wanted to rebuild his life in Mexico.

Jones Carme in his bedroom in Tapachula. The mangoes on the floor, which he had been allowed to take from the fields where he works, were all he had to eat on some days.

“I will go to another city—for example, Mexico City—to find a good job to help my family,” he said.

Originally from Haiti, Carme has been on the move for the past five years, searching for a place to settle. In Port-au-Prince, where he was a French teacher and grew and sold peppers, his life had become untenable as the country devolved into chaos following the huge earthquake in 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left many more homeless. Violent gangs steadily gained control of the capital, and in 2021 Haiti’s president was assassinated. Carme said a group of gang members had come to his home to extort money, and he was worried they would return and kill him. So like many other men in his situation, Carme fled to South America, leaving his wife behind, before eventually making his way, in the summer of 2021, to Mexico’s southern border.

That is where he got stuck.

Had Carme arrived in Tapachula a couple of years earlier, the city would likely have been a brief and unremarkable stop on his journey. Unfortunately for him and many thousands of other migrants, in 2019 President Donald Trump threatened to levy a 5 percent tariff on all Mexican goods unless the country agreed to beef up its immigration enforcement. Mexico acquiesced and deployed troops along its southern border with Guatemala, limiting the free movement of migrants. The government ceased issuing routine exit visas in 2019 that had allowed migrants to reach the US border; migrants must now wait in the state where they’ve filed their immigration claim before they can continue on. As a result, countless people have been caught in a bureaucratic bottleneck, as Mexico’s immigration system struggles to process a surge in cases. It can take from three to six months for the documents to arrive, and it sometimes takes years. The Biden administration, which has overturned some of Trump’s more extreme immigration initiatives, has remained committed to this particular strategy, offering Mexico 2.5 million doses of the Covid vaccine and development money in exchange for its continued cooperation on immigration enforcement. No longer the primary source of immigrants to the US, Mexico has become part of America’s de facto border infrastructure.

The result is that the migrant crisis that was once at the southern US border has been outsourced, over 2,000 miles away, to Tapachula. Mexican immigration officials detained over 444,000 migrants in 2022—a 30 percent increase from the year before. A report from September 2022 suggests that around 60,000 migrants are stranded in Tapachula.

Leaving the sprawling border city means risking an encounter with immigration enforcement and possibly being detained or even deported, so migrants in Tapachula are effectively trapped. The international press has described it as an “open-air prison.” Human Rights Watch has called the situation in Tapachula “truly horrifying” and urged the US and Mexico to change their “heavy-handed” immigration strategy. Each day, the streets outside Tapachula’s migration office fill with thousands of people waiting under the hot sun for an opportunity to meet with officials. Protests, hunger strikes, and clashes with police are common.

Migrants gathered daily outside the Migration National Institute office in Tapachula, hoping to get the paperwork they needed to leave Chiapas and head north.

The shelters in the area are often over their capacity, so those who can afford it rent an apartment, often sleeping several to a single room. Many more sleep in makeshift tents or on benches in a downtown public park, where they have inconsistent access to bathrooms and water. Basic support services, like soup kitchens and medical care, are overwhelmed. Unless a migrant has someone to wire them money, they must find a way to survive on their own.

Many in this situation take jobs in agriculture, just as Carme has done. They are helping to bolster the region’s multimillion-dollar export industry, and yet, even as the migrants provide desperately needed labor in the packing houses and the fields, reports abound of workplace discrimination and wage theft. The bitterest irony of all is that the coffee, bananas, and mangoes that the migrants are helping to harvest are destined for the very country responsible for keeping them here.

Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico. It is also an agricultural powerhouse. Coffee, plantains, bananas, and pineapples flourish this close to the equator, grossing close to $200 million in international sales for the state in 2021. The United States was the main international customer, purchasing 80 percent of those products.

This is a relatively recent development. Since the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the volume of Mexican-grown produce found in US grocery stores has steadily increased. And one of the key reasons for that is the explosion in demand for fresh fruit, including the mangoes that Carme and so many others harvest.

Though mangoes are standard in US produce aisles today, they were not all that familiar to American consumers three decades ago. After the trade barriers were eased, mangoes, along with other tropical fruits from Mexico like papaya and avocado, grew in popularity. Since 1994, the amount of mangoes the US imports from Mexico has more than tripled, to upwards of 360,000 metric tons in 2022, and the fruit has become one of Mexico’s fastest-growing agricultural exports.

Chiapas is perfectly positioned to take advantage of this growing demand. With more than 95,000 acres devoted to mango production in 2021 (roughly 1.5 million mango trees), it is one of Mexico’s top mango-growing states. It is also the birthplace of a wildly popular variety called the Ataulfo. Bright yellow and shaped like a teardrop, the Ataulfo is sweet and creamy—less acidic and fibrous than the more common green-and-red Tommy Atkins mango. Peeled, sliced, and sprinkled with lime juice, salt, and chili, the Ataulfo is sold by vendors on street corners all over the country.

Carme had never eaten an Ataulfo until he got a job working in the mango fields around Tapachula. He earned just $1.25 an hour working at the Santa Teresa farm, and the work was inconsistent. The week we spoke, he was anxious about not having work for the next three days. “If you do not work today, you will not eat tomorrow,” he told me. Carme kept a small pile of mostly bruised and overripe Ataulfos that he’d been allowed to take home from the fields. Otherwise, he had very little to eat. Sometimes Carme and a friend would share what they did have—spaghetti and ketchup or plantains and eggs—but he was often without food until he was called back to the fields, where he’d work from dawn to dusk, sometimes on an empty stomach, in the muggy heat.

In previous years, Haitian migrants like Carme trickled into Mexico, but lately their numbers have surged. In 2021, 51,857 Haitians applied for asylum, more than any other nationality. They have merged with a flow of Central and South Americans—Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Venezuelans—fleeing gang violence, natural disasters (whose frequency and intensity have increased due to climate change), and the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

A migrant picking mangoes in Tapachula. Jones Carme said he was paid $1.25 an hour for his work in the mango orchards.

As part of a crew of five other Haitians, Carme loaded crates of mangoes into trucks. The crates were so heavy that it took two people to lift and stack each one. Sometimes he would have to run, sweat drenching his clothes, in order to pack the trucks with crates. Carme told me that the Latino workers who picked the mangoes were paid twice as much as him and only worked until 1 pm. This was due to racial discrimination, he said, and it’s what he’d come to expect in Tapachula. I was unable to independently verify Carme’s assertions, but local advocates say, and multiple studies by international organizations suggest, that Black migrants regularly face racial discrimination.

Borders breed inequality. Their presence accentuates the difference between those who are citizens and those deemed “trespassers.” Tapachula is no exception. Here racial discrimination against Black migrants—those from Haiti, but also from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Eritrea—is pervasive and well-documented. Immigration paperwork may be denied or delayed for arbitrary reasons, and Black migrants report difficulty finding work and housing. While Latino migrants from Central and South America also face negative stereotypes and xenophobia, Black migrants often have an added disadvantage as non-Spanish speakers whose cultures are less familiar to locals. Carme said that his friend was walking down the street one day when a person yelled at him and called him a dog. He also reported that because he is Haitian, his bosses assign him the most physically demanding labor. “They say that Haitians are strong and [that they are] happy to work. Eat or no, they are working,” he said.

Diego Lucero, an organizer at the Fray Matías Human Rights Center, a migrant advocacy group in Tapachula, says that Haitians are more likely to be hired for work in agriculture, as opposed to public-facing jobs in restaurants or markets. He believes that’s due to a common, deeply racist misconception among locals that Black people “can endure more physical labor and hard work.”

Life in Tapachula felt so bleak, and the struggle to survive was so relentless, that Carme often longed for Haiti, despite the dangerous and unstable conditions that drove him away in the first place. When I met him, it had been years since he’d been back. He visited Haiti once while he was working in Chile; that was the last time he’d seen his wife in person. The two talked almost every night, in video calls that often ended in tears. They’d talk about the day they would finally be reunited and could start the family they’d long dreamed of—two boys and two girls.

“I need my wife, and I need a better life. I need a better job. I need to move from Tapachula,” Carme said.

Carme had recently obtained his tarjeta visitante por razones humanitarias, or humanitarian visitor’s card, from the Mexican government. This is the most common immigration status granted to the migrants. The card gave Carme one year of legal residence in the country and the opportunity for work authorization. After it expires, Carme will have only a few options to remain in the country legally: He can either marry a Mexican national or be sponsored by an employer. It’s for this reason that migrants, and especially Haitian migrants, have found themselves stranded in immigration limbo. Because many Haitians, like Carme, traveled to Mexico after living in relatively stable countries in South America, Mexico’s refugee agency will often deny their asylum requests on the grounds that they are coming for economic reasons, whether or not this is the case. Carme had a limited understanding of the complex immigration system he was up against. But he said he was confident that God would intervene. As soon as he saved enough money—about $500 to cover the cost of travel and living until he found a new job—he would leave Tapachula. But the clock was ticking. When Carme told me this, it was early March 2022, and mango season would end in May, at which point he’d have no more work.

“Every night I am thinking about when the mango will finish and what will I do?” he said.

Banana fields in Tapachula stretch into the distance.

Every Wednesday morning for the past 50 years, some of the largest fruit growers in Tapachula have met for brunch at Bife de Maria, a high-end steakhouse with tall windows and stone floors. In March 2022, I joined six middle-aged men, all in crisp, short-sleeve button-up shirts and jeans, as they talked mango production—how the season was going, the pesticides they found effective, and so on. In addition to selling in Mexico, they export to the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe, something only growers of their size—with at least 250 acres of land—can typically afford to do. They said they were getting roughly 40 cents per exported mango.

Exports have been so successful that about half of the 100,000 tons of Ataulfo mangoes that were produced in this region in 2022 were sent abroad, generating a windfall for growers. But at brunch their conversation lingered on frustration that production costs had continued to rise. “Everything has gone up 300 percent,” said Enrique Cabal Arribillaga, who grows mangoes on land he inherited from his father.

One cost in particular had become a serious concern: workers. “Before, we had the advantage of people from Central America who would come, and that was our saving grace when it comes to labor,” Cabal said. He was referring to Guatemalans who came across the border to work in the fields of Chiapas. For generations, local farmers depended on tens of thousands of these laborers, some of whom possessed a special work visa that allowed them to cross the border easily. But in the last two decades, this source of labor has been shrinking, as the value of the Guatemalan quetzal has outweighed the Mexican peso. Then came the pandemic, when border restrictions were imposed and the use of the special work visa fell by 37 percent. Most of the former workers haven’t returned, and that has left growers like Cabal in a bind.

But then came another windfall: thousands of migrants like Carme, desperate for work and with nowhere to go. The migrants, most of whom have little or no experience working in agriculture, are not a perfect solution to the growers’ labor problem, but they hire them nonetheless. In Tapachula, migrants find work in nearly every sector, not just agriculture. Since many do not yet have their work authorization, these informal arrangements make them vulnerable to exploitation once they are on the job. As Lucero explains, “Employers have threatened many migrants. They’ll say, ‘I’m not going to pay you, but what I will do is call immigration to deport you.’”

Ataulfo mangoes hang from a tree in Tapachula. Chiapas, with more than 95,000 acres devoted to mango production in 2021, it is one of Mexico’s top mango-growing states.

In many ways, the plight of Carme and the other migrants is simply the latest iteration of a long history of exploited labor in Mexican agriculture. Many of these larger growers are the legacy of colonization and a system of latifundios, or massive plantations, that concentrated large swaths of land in the hands of a wealthy Spanish minority. Unlike other parts of the country, Chiapas and its neighboring southern states underwent very little land reform in the years following the Mexican Revolution, which ended in 1920. Much of the region’s colonial structure remains intact. Ernesto Rodríguez Chávez, an independent researcher and consultant for various nonprofits who has been studying labor in southern Mexico for years, says that for generations, since before southern Chiapas was even a part of Mexico, growers in the region built their wealth by exploiting workers, the majority of whom are Indigenous. “It’s evident in the way they don’t have formal work contracts; it’s evident in the way they pay minimum wage, or even lower than minimum wage,” Rodriguez says.

The ongoing labor shortage bedeviling the Tapachula growers is not only due to the plummeting number of Guatemalan workers, but also to the fact that fewer Mexicans are willing to work in agriculture. Research by J. Edward Taylor and Diane Charlton, two professors who study farm labor supply, indicates that since the 1980s, steady economic growth and a declining birthrate has led to greater upward mobility for many Mexicans. Just as US workers moved away from agriculture during the early and mid-20th century, so now are Mexicans with better access to education and higher-paying jobs. The resulting labor shortage is especially pronounced in southern states like Chiapas, because many of the remaining workers have either left for the United States or for the north of Mexico, where wages are significantly higher. This left mango producers with fewer workers as the demand for their product was taking off.

Mangoes are just a small piece of a much larger trend. Every year since the passage of NAFTA, Mexico has exported more agricultural goods to US markets. Between 1998 and 2020, the volume of fresh vegetables sent to the US increased nearly 200 percent. In 2022, Mexico sent over $44.2 billion worth of agricultural exports to the United States, a record high. Because of the warm weather and cheap labor, Mexican farmers have a clear competitive advantage over US producers, who in recent years have begun moving away from crops like cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes as they’ve been squeezed out of the market. Meanwhile, American consumers have access to a variety of fresh produce year-round at relatively low cost. It’s a trend that experts at the US Department of Agriculture predict will continue. The USDA expects imports of fresh fruits and vegetables to rise from 30.4 billion to 34.8 billion within the next 10 years.

But as more of our food is grown many thousands of miles away, the labor conditions used to produce that food remain opaque. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times detailed the horrible living conditions of workers on Mexico’s large fruit and vegetable farms. More recently, a study by the nonpartisan Wilson Center found that Mexican farmers can easily skirt the country’s labor laws when they hire workers informally, as is common in Tapachula. Foreign workers, especially those who do not speak Spanish, were the most vulnerable to exploitation, the study found.

When I asked the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the agency that oversees agricultural imports, whether labor violations are monitored on farms outside the US, I was told via e-mail that “labor practices are beyond APHIS’ regulatory scope.”

“I am 12,176 pesos in debt,” Carme told me. “I have nobody to help me. I have nothing. I am working by myself in the cold, in the snow.”

In May of last year, about two months after I met Carme in Tapachula, he messaged me on WhatsApp to tell me that he had arrived in Mexico City. Having worked through the mango harvest, he’d managed to get the money he needed to buy a bus ticket north. “It’s expensive but good,” he said of the federal capital. “A lot of people speak English … and it’s safer.”

Compared to Port-au-Prince, Mexico City, with its population of over 21 million, must have felt daunting. Carme had spent his first few weeks getting lost in the massive metro system and eating his meals at a neighborhood soup kitchen. He’d found a Haitian church and sent me photos of himself looking proud in his Sunday best: a brown suit jacket and emerald tie. He’d gotten a job at a factory making books, and even though it didn’t pay very well—about $9 a day—the work felt like a respite compared with what he’d endured in the mango fields. But this wasn’t the good job Carme had hoped for back in Tapachula. His humanitarian visitor’s card was set to expire in six months, and he hadn’t figured out how he’d bring his wife to Mexico. Carme was still waiting on divine intervention.

In July, Carme messaged again to tell me he’d decided to take his chances by traveling even further north to Ciudad Juárez, just over the border from Texas. There was a community of Haitian migrants there and higher wages at the maquiladoras—US-owned factories stacked along the border in Mexico that are largely duty- and tariff-free. Now, instead of harvesting fruit for American consumers, he was likely working in one of the many factories where people assemble electronics or cars. But then the unexpected happened: Carme managed to secure his Mexican residency. Thanks to sponsorship by his employer, he could now remain in the country legally and eventually sponsor his wife as well. He sent a photo of his government-issued ID. It was a celebratory moment, and I texted back a string of cheerful emojis. Carme had won Mexico’s migrant lottery.

Hours later, though, he messaged me again saying he had borrowed money to cover the cost of his immigration process. “Am I crazy?” he asked. Several weeks later, when I spoke with him through an interpreter, he was struggling to pay off the loan.

“I am 12,176 pesos in debt…I have nobody to help me. I have nothing. I am working by myself in the cold, in the snow,” he said during the call.

It had taken a miracle for Carme to get this far. But even that wasn’t enough to afford him peace and security.

Lexie Harrison-Cripps contributed additional reporting to this story.

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