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Haitian migrants say Mexican authorities are keeping them from traveling to the U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Thousands of Haitians are camped out on a highway and in public parks at Mexico's southern border. The migrants have been flooding into the country in recent weeks, but they are prohibited from traveling north. They say they've been caught up in Mexico's crackdown to keep migrants away from the U.S. border. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Fifteen buses showed up along a busy two-lane highway just as the sun was setting in the southern Mexican border city of Tapachula last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

KAHN: Hundreds of Haitian migrants who had been camped out for more than a week at this spot scrambled to get on a bus. Mexican National Guard troops in riot gear tried to keep order. Djeff Orelien (ph) didn't get a coveted seat. He's frustrated.

DJEFF ORELIEN: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "I've been here for five months and have been getting the runaround," says Orelien. The 24-year-old from Haiti, his wife and small child arrived in Tapachula in July. Unlike other countries he's transited after leaving Chile, where he lived for four years, Mexican immigration officials won't let the migrants leave the southern state without proper documentation.

ORELIEN: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "I also don't want to do anything crooked," he says. "I just want to get a permit so I can get out of here."

About a week ago, the migrants were told to wait on the side of this highway for buses that would take them to cities further north for jobs. During the day, the scorching sun and heat rising from the road's asphalt is excruciating

ORELIEN: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "Life is really difficult, and I don't want to die. That's why I just need to keep moving forward," says Orelien.

But the wait for those documents has been slow, and the steps not clear. Some days, immigration officials tell the migrants they need to line up at a park across town to get a document.

UNIDENTIFIED IMMIGRATION OFFICIAL: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: In the park, an immigration official walks past hundreds of migrants, announcing the agency's activities are done for the day. It's not even noon. Scuffles break out as people scurry for better spots in line.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

KAHN: Barcena Jean (ph), also from Haiti, says she's been sleeping in the park to keep her place. There's no water and just a handful of portable toilets.

BARCENA JEAN: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "They treat us like animals," she says.

The Haitians are part of a huge exodus, tens of thousands by some official estimates, pouring out of South America as once-plentiful jobs there dried up during the pandemic. Mexican officials predict by year's end, nearly 130,000 people will have requested asylum or protected status this year. Nearly half are Haitians. While the numbers are clearly overwhelming the country's understaffed refugee agency, activists say incompetence and malice have also led to what they are calling a humanitarian crisis at the border

YAMEL ATHIE: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "I think this is part of the immigration authority's policy of dehumanizing and humiliating the migrants," says Yamel Athie, an activist and psychologist. She says the hope is the Haitians will just give up. Mexico's immigration agency would not comment.

Maureen Meyer, of the Washington Office on Latin America, says the U.S. has long pressured Mexico to deter and detain.

MAUREEN MEYER: It's also a message from the Biden administration that what they want from countries farther south is to do as much as they can to stop migrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

KAHN: At the park, where migrants continue to wait in long lines for documents and bus rides, local gang prevention officer Alberto Rodriguez (ph) says there is no control over who comes and who goes.

ALBERTO RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "One day, 800 leave the city. And the next day, another 1,000 show up right behind them."

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Tapachula, Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACCO GARDNER'S "FADING COSMOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.