Migrants demand better conditions or that they be transferred to another center, at an immigration detention center in Tapachula, Chiapas State, Mexico, April 26, 2019.
Migrants demand better conditions or that they be transferred to another center, at an immigration detention center in Tapachula, Chiapas State, Mexico, April 26, 2019.

About 600 mostly Cuban migrants who were part of a mass escape from a southern Mexico immigration detention center a day earlier remained at large Friday evening, immigration authorities said.

Mexico’s National Immigration Institute said in a statement that rather than the 1,300 escapees it reported Thursday night, only 645 migrants had actually fled. It said only 35 of those who escaped had returned without explaining why it had lowered its figures.

The center was holding 1,745 people at the time, nearly double its capacity, the statement said.

The escape began with Cuban migrants escaping their holding area into an area reserved for women, who were mostly Honduran. That caused a commotion and migrants gained access to other parts of the detention center before eventually making it to the main entrance. Immigration agents were unarmed and unable to intervene.

Demand for better conditions

Hours after the mass escape, throngs of detained migrants raised their fists in the air Friday and chanted, “We want food! We want out!”

It was the largest mass escape from a Mexican immigration center in memory and the latest example of how the government has become overloaded by a flood of Central American, Cuban and Haitian immigrants.

Residents of Tapachula, a city on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, reported seeing hundreds of migrants running through the streets late Thursday, some only half dressed, some cramming themselves into passing minivans to escape.

Laisel Gomez Cabrera, a Cuban who now lives in Texas, was worried about his wife, Anisleidys Sosa Almeida, who has been held at the center for weeks.

Gomez Cabrera said he suspected authorities may have opened the gates Thursday night to let migrants flee as a way of reducing pressure on the system, knowing that those who left would no longer be allowed to apply for any kind of humanitarian visa, asylum or residence permit in Mexico.

“All the ones who left are going to get put on a red list,” Gomez Cabrera said. “If they catch them again, they are going to be subject to automatic deportation.”

Women, children transferred

Buses arrived Thursday and Friday apparently to take women and children out of the overcrowded facility.

But while conditions may improve somewhat, the prospect of deportation drives the Cuban families to despair.

In January 2017, the outgoing administration of U.S. President Barack Obama scrapped longstanding rules under which Cubans who reached American soil were automatically allowed to apply to remain. The end of the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy means U.S. immigration authorities now treat Cubans more like immigrants from other countries, although Cubans still are more likely to be granted asylum.

Cubans also still retain the right to apply for residency after a year in the U.S., a privilege other nationalities do not receive.