Manuel Gil
Photos by Manuel Gil

From Stateless to Citizen: Indigenous Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico

“The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border.” – Alan Bersin, Assistant Secretary for Policy U.S. Department of Homeland Security for Policy, September 2012 [1] 


U.S. foreign policy has increasingly pressured Mexico to bolster immigration enforcement (Lakhani 2015). Alan Bersin, quoted above, who conveyed how the U.S. southern border is effectively now the Mexican border with Guatemala, exemplifies U.S. foreign policy in the region. In 2015, deportations of migrants from Central America in Mexico exceeded 165,000, more than twice the number of U.S. deportations to this region (International Crisis Group 2016). As scholars and human rights activists have already begun to identify how bolstered immigration enforcement in Mexico has increased discrimination and human rights violations (Echeverria et al. 2015), what impacts will this have on longstanding indigenous migrant communities in Mexico? Our work with 26 indigenous Mayans who fled military conflict that engulfed Guatemala until the late 1990s, and settled in Chiapas, Mexico, begins to answer this question.


Approximately 150,000 Guatemalans sought refuge in neighboring Mexico (Nelson 2010), but the Mexican Constitution did not offer a legal mechanism for granting refugee status. Prior to 2000, Mexico was not a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, which would have qualified applicants for asylum based on the United Nations categories of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group. In response to national and international pressure to provide protection to arrivals, Mexico devised temporary FM-8 visa, but required renewal every 90 days and restricted their movement within 150 kilometers, travel beyond this area forfeited their rights to protection (García 2006).

In 1995 Mexico announced a naturalization program but remained out of reach for many who lacked passports and birth certificates. In 2001, Mexico temporarily waived this requirement and provided temporary visas for those who wanted permanent residence or citizenship, and to those who one day hoped to return to their homeland (García, 2006). By 2005, the naturalization program comes to an end. Many who traveled to the U.S. for work to support family members in Mexico or Guatemala who did not return during this period were left out of the naturalization program.

The Mexican state undermined international human rights protections that would have allowed this population from being recognized as refugees, who had a well-founded fear of persecution, and created a series of bureaucratic procedures that granted temporary forms of legal presence, but with reduced rights of membership to the nation. This liminal legal presence not only impacted those who fled military conflict, but also the second generation born stateless in Mexico. The limited protection to those seeking asylum in Mexico during this period had long-term consequences in preventing those who fled persecution from obtaining legal documents that exposed them to forms of violence that continue to be felt long after the war.

Collaboration with Guatemalan Refugees

Since 2004, I have worked directly with the original Guatemalan refugees and their Mexican born children in La Gloria, the largest refugee settlement in Mexico, to document their ongoing barriers to political, economic, and cultural incorporation (Gil-Garcia 2007, 2016, 2018a, 2018b). In 2014, indigenous community leaders approached me to assist several residents across three settlements to obtain legal status. In the same year, in collaboration with a Mexican attorney Julia Guadalupe Torres Ventura, we petitioned the Mexican government to process the naturalization of residents in La GloriaSan Francisco, and Nueva Libertad (El Colorado) refugee settlement communities. In early 2016, as we awaited the Mexican government’s response to our petition, I initiated a collaborative photo-documentary project with my brother and professional photographer Manuel Gil, which involved portraits of refugee and stateless subjects with their families in each community (Gil-García 2017a).

Reduced legal options to regularize status and bolstered immigration enforcement measures has left both refugees from Guatemala and the stateless born in Mexico vulnerable to family separations as a consequence of deportations. Indeed, most of the people in Manuel’s photos disclosed how they feared the deportation of family members. Living in Mexico for over thirty years and raising Mexican-born citizens reveals a cruel paradox regarding our subjects’ prolonged period without legal documents that exposed them and their families to harassment by state and non-state actors. In many respects, Manuel’s portraits reflect the complex circumstances lived by millions of migrants and stateless people who continue to fight to gain a sense of belonging in host nation-states across the globe (Moditsi 2016).


In late 2016, all 26 stateless refugees obtained citizenship in Mexico. Notwithstanding this achievement, up 27,000 Guatemalan refugees remain stateless in Mexico (Ruiz Lagier 2012). My work contributes to scholarship that identifies how indigenous and long-standing migrant populations in Mexico are at increased risk of discrimination under enhanced immigration enforcement measures (Rojas-Wiesner and DeVargas 2014). The power of Manuel’s portraits, along with ethnographic descriptions (Gil-García 2017b), is that they illustrate how despite a protracted denial of legal status in their host society, Guatemalan exiles are able to establish family ties with partners and children – many of whom are Mexican-born citizen nationals. Our work also illustrates the profound strength and resilience of stateless and migrant subjects to support their families and communities, while simultaneously continuing their struggle to gain legal status and be recognized as Mexican.

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Oscar Gil is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development (Binghamton University). His research lies at the intersection of forced migration, humanitarianism, gender and development. He has over ten years of experience in conducting ethnographic research with indigenous Mayan refugees from Guatemala. His work examines their incorporation in Mexico’s southernmost border state of Chiapas and the U.S. Currently, Gil studies the legal barriers to naturalization and citizenship of this population following their return or deportation from the U.S. to Mexico. Findings from this study will be used to shape policies that enable the legalization of up to 27,000 migrants who fled the Guatemalan military conflict (1954-1996) and remain stateless in Mexico. He is also engaged in a new research project that will examine the health and social service needs of unaccompanied migrant youth in Oakland, California.

Manuel Gil is a graduate (BFA) of San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). Since 2004, he works on a documentary photography project titled “Guatemalan Forced Migration” in Chiapas, Mexico. He documents the lives of indigenous Mayans who fled Guatemala during a violent military conflict and settled in La Gloria–the largest refugee camp in Mexico. Most recently, he took portraits of indigenous Mayans who for more than thirty years remained stateless in Chiapas, Mexico. Portraits of 26 stateless subjects and another of their families help show the paradox of having familial ties–Mexican born citizen nationals–and ongoing denial of legal status in their host society. In 2017, portraits from this project (titled “From Stateless to Citizen: Indigenous Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico”) were selected from a competitive pool of artists across the U.S. for a curated Center exhibition titled “Art & Oppression”, at the Marion Center for Photographic Arts at Santa Fe, New Mexico. His portraits have also been published in peer-reviewed academic and the Latin American and U.S. presses that include: Plaza Pública, América sin Muros, Univision, The Conversation, and Latino USA.


[1] Taylor, Steve (2012, Sept. 20). “Our Southern border is now with Guatemala.” Latina Lista.

Works Cited

Echeverria, Andres, Noah Gimbel, Lindsey Keiser, Odile Leonard, Mary Nelson, Aileen Nguyen, and Nick Stefaniak. 2015. “The Cost of Stemming the Tide: How Immigration Enforcement Practices in Southern Mexico Limit Migrant Children’s Access to International Protection.” Washington, DC: Georgetown Human Rights Institute Fact-Finding Project.

García, Maria Cristina. 2006. Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gil-García, Óscar Fernando. 2018a. “U.S. Immigration Enforcement and the Making of Unintended Returnees.” Représentations dans le monde anglophone. Migrations and Borders in the United States: Discourses, Representations, Imaginary Contexts.

––. 2018b. “The Practice of Trust, Disclosure, and Collaboration with Guatemalan Refugees.” Practicing Anthropology, 40(1), 37-42.

––. (2017a, August 6). US and Mexico Immigration: Portraits of Guatemalan Refugees in Limbo. The Conversation

––. (2017b, Aug. 27). Inmigración en Estados Unidos y México: Retratos de refugiados guatemaltecos en el limbo, Plaza Pública. Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala.

––. 2016. “Gender Equality, Community Divisions and Autonomy: The Prospera Conditional Cash Transfer Program in Chiapas, Mexico.”Current Sociology, 64(3), 447-469.

––. 2007. “Migration Politics and Human Rights: Redefining the Camera as Collaborative Technology in Transnational Forced Migrant Communities.” The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, 2(7), 189-206.

International Crisis Group. 2016. “Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration.” Report No. 57. Mexico City, Guatemala City, Bogotá, Brussels.

Lakhani, Nina. 2015. “Mexico Deports Record Numbers of Women and Children in US-driven Effort.” The Guardian.

Moditsi, Kleopatra. 2016. Addressing Undocumented Migration. ODU United Nations Day Issue Brief. Norfolk, VA: Old Dominion University Model United Nations Society.

Nelson, Dianne. 2010. “Reckoning the after/math of war in Guatemala. Anthropological Theory. 10 (1-2), 87-95.

Ruiz Lagier, Verónica. 2012. El Eterno Retorno De Los Refugiados Guatemaltecos. Ojarasca.

Rojas-Wiesner, Martha Luz, and Maria DeVargas. 2014. “Strategic Invisibility as Everyday Politics for a Life with Dignity: Guatemalan Women Migrants’ Experiences of Insecurity at Mexico’s Southern Border.” In Migration, Gender, and Social Justice: Perspectives on Human Insecurity. Thanh-Dam Truong, Das Gasper, Jeff Handmaker, and Sylvia I. Bergh, eds. Pp. 193-212. Berlin, Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.