In a Mexican Border Town, a Small Nonprofit Defends Immigrants

Migrants from Central America arriving in the border town of Tapachula, Mexico are journeying toward a better life, but often the reality they meet is harsh: just last year, nearly 100,000 of them ended up imprisoned in a crowded Mexican detention center that has little concern for their human rights. That’s where Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray MatĂ­as de CĂłrdova A.C. (Fray MatĂ­as) comes in. The small nonprofit has worked to defend the rights of Tapachula’s immigrants since 1997. Fray MatĂ­as is one of the 17 incredible organizations HIP supports in Mexico in partnership with the Oak Foundation. A few months ago I sat down with its director, Diego Lorente, to hear the organization’s story. (Note: I did this interview in Spanish, so the transcript isn’t word for word. Instead, I tried to capture the essence of the conversation.)

What’s your organization’s elevator pitch?

We defend the human rights and the right to dignity of migrants and refugees that cross or live on the southern border of Mexico. When they arrive to Tapachula they face discrimination because they’re undocumented, and they can suffer huge violations. We give the most comprehensive support we can to help them live here free from discrimination and with equal rights and access to justice. Our services are a little chain. First, we promote and defend the rights of foreigners that are at risk; second, we help them achieve dignity in their lives; and third, we educate Tapachula so that it’s a society that appreciates equality and not discrimination.

Why did you decide to work for gender equality?

If we’re fighting for equal rights, we need to achieve equality for women. The machista gender roles that have been imposed on us are a central element of our fight. [We want to help women] fight for their rights. And for migrants, there are many violations against women. The immigration detention centers are very patriarchal. For example, when a family is detained, the woman has to take care of the children alone, because the father is put into another section. Reproductive and sexual health is another example. In detention centers, pregnant women don’t get any gynecological attention until they give birth. And when we go to give talks on human rights, the spaces the authorities allow us into are the men’s, which makes it much more difficult for us to interact with women. Transgender and LGBTQI people also suffer inequality. The authorities don’t know where to put them so they end up in solitary. Though we’re not an organization that specializes in gender equality, today there’s an important connection between the struggles. Gender analysis is very important when you’re looking at migration.

Tell me about a moment at work when you saw a positive change.

The fact that our organization has been able to grow, including more staff and better working conditions, allows us to provide more specialized attention. For example, we are now able to provide both psychological services and legal services. That allows people to really face the difficult realities they are living better. Our work is a balance between being a threat to the authorities and helping immigrants and refugees become empowered and reestablish themselves. We monitor the detention centers, which helps prevent more human rights violations because the State knows that we monitor them. Also, because of the work we do with immigrants in the centers, we’ve seen people who arrive destroyed, and with our help are able to see that they have rights. The result is that these people see themselves as social and political actors.

What message do you want to share with the public about your work?

Right now we think about human rights violations against immigrants as something that just happens in the U.S., and that doesn’t happen in other places. We believe the only person responsible is the U.S.’s new president. That worries me. We all need to look inside ourselves, to look at the places where we live, and analyze the situation of immigrants there. Discrimination doesn’t just happen in the U.S.—it’s happening all over. Racism and violence against women are global structural problems that have been around for a long time. We all need to recognize it, so that we can organize and fight together.