The migrant caravan that has dominated news headlines over the past week is continuing to grow as it crosses from Guatemala into Mexico. A group of around 1,600 people left Honduras early last week, but thousands more have joined. As of Sunday, some 7,000 people had arrived to Tapachula after crossing the Guatemala-Mexico border the day before. Upon arrival, many collapsed in exhaustion after enduring a 23-mile walk in 90-degree heat in one day. Some were later siphoned onto buses and sent to await their fates at a temporary shelter at the site of an annual fairground.
Caravans as an activism strategy are not new, but the sheer size and media attention the most recent one has received sets it apart. “What is happening right now, what we are witnessing, does not have precedent,” said a statement released by Mexican immigrant rights organizations Sunday. The situation is unfolding rapidly, as conflicting reports convey a region in chaos.
Trump has pledged to cut off aid from Honduras if they do not stop the caravans, threatened to reinstate a variation of familial separation, and to deploy the military to the U.S.-Mexico border to close it off to migrants. On Sunday he claimed that “criminals and Middle Easterners” were involved in the caravan, and that it was funded by Democrats, a clear fear-mongering effort two weeks ahead of the U.S. midterm elections. These allegations came on the same day as a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which declared that “we also are deeply concerned by the violence provoked by some members of the group, as well as the apparent political motivation of some organizers of the caravan.”
Mexico’s response has been mixed. Last week, 500 federal police arrived at the Mexico-Guatemala border, which elicited a gleeful tweet from Trump: “Thank you Mexico, we look forward to working with you!” When the migrants attempted to cross a bridge dividing Tecún Uman, Guatemala, and Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico on Friday, a standoff involving tear gas ensued, and the caravan retreated. Some opted to cross by boat across the Suchiate River, while others regrouped. Their later attempts appeared to be successful—by the weekend it seemed that at least some of the anti-riot police were letting the migrants pass or ignoring them, as helicopters loomed close to the ground, wrote Karla Zabludovsky for Buzzfeed News. Yet other migrants have faced intimidation and harassment from federal police officers. According to various reports, more large groups of migrants continue to cross Mexico’s southern border.
Cruzar el río from Periodistas de a pie on Vimeo.
On Friday, reports surfaced that Mexican migration officers were taking some of the migrants to a temporary shelter, located at the site of an annual fairground. The Mexican federal police claimed that the site was not a “detention center,” but a group of migrant rights organizations in Mexico released a statement Saturday condemning repression against the migrants, saying that “the temporary shelters that have been announced as such by the state government had not been prepared adequately and did not contain the minimum conditions to receive even the first groups that were transported there.” The Jalisco branch of the Red Cross is providing humanitarian aid, and as of Saturday had brought 200 tents and 400 blankets to the site.
Beyond the lack of preparedness, coordination, and resources available to the migrants, some have reported that no one is being allowed to exit the shelter. Others have decided not to go to the fairgrounds, fearing that if they are registered with the Mexican government, they will either be detained, deported, or prevented from entering the United States.
The Mexican government is now registering the migrants and informing them of their rights to seek asylum. Last year, Mexico processed some 15,000 asylum applications throughout the course of the entire year, according to Salva La Cruz, a coordinator with the Fray Matias Human Rights Center in Tapachula, Chiapas. This was already a record number, up from just a few thousand in 2014. Mexico’s small refugee office has grown in recent years and received technical and staffing assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but has struggled to meet the growing asylum demands. Although UNHCR has since opened a small office in Tenosique, Tabasco, they are “absolutely overrun,” La Cruz says. According to reporter Karla Zabludovsky, over 1,000 have already submitted their asylum applications this weekend alone. But most wish to continue their journeys north from Tapachula, according to local journalist Rafael Sanchez Rodríguez.
The caravans reflect both the ongoing nature of the structural problems compelling emigration from Central America’s northern triangle, the failures of U.S. migration and foreign policy, and the dwindling options for these refugees to seek safety in the region. “We must demand that each level of government responds to this humanitarian emergency,” says La Cruz.
The last time the plight of Central American refugees began making front pages in international news headlines was in the summer of 2014, when over the course of a three-month period, 70,000 unaccompanied migrant children, along with an equal number of families traveling with children, appeared at the U.S.-Mexico border, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, to request asylum. Metaphors calling to mind apocalypse prevailed: the asylum-seekers were described as a “wave,” “a torrent,” a “flood.”
The Obama administration’s response was multi-pronged: first, it put pressure on the Mexican government to fund a hardening of its own Southern border—to stop the “deluge” before it even reached the U.S. border. This became the Southern Border Plan, funded partially by the U.S. government, which has involved increasing detection capabilities, constructing high-tech detention centers, and adding to the ranks of migration officers in Mexico. The plan is still in effect, more actively than ever, according to La Cruz.
The Obama administration’s second response to the 2014 migrant crisis was to propose raising development and security aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, to address “root causes” of migration, although most of the program was more about free trade than improving conditions for the poor. Lastly, it attempted to expand the capacity of the U.S. to process refugees, though that program lagged. It wasn’t until 2016 that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began processing applications from Central American children as part of the Central American Minors (CAM) program, from their home countries, who had sponsors in the United States. Very few of the hundreds of thousands of children seeking safety were eligible—during the duration of the program, only 1,627 entered the U.S. in this way. Even if accepted, processing the applications took months, and most could not afford to wait. A year later, critiques of the program’s limitations became null. In November 2017 it was shut down, with the stroke of a pen, by the Trump administration.
Under Obama, there were few safety valves available for these children and their families to seek safety. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) has allowed 57,000 Hondurans to remain in the United States, but the program will expire in 2020. If a child was not eligible for asylum, a status that requires fitting into strict legal categories and excludes gang violence, a judge could still perhaps grant them a stay of deportation. All the same, the Guardian reported in 2015 that at least 83 children had been deported to their deaths, in flagrant disregard of international asylum law, which states that a person cannot be sent back to a place where they face mortal danger.
The situation was already dire. Now it’s unthinkably worse. These potential options for relief, limited as they were, are being closed off. Yet as Trump tweets his temper tantrums and conspiracies online, the lives—and deaths—of thousands of people are at stake.
The threats Trump is making to cut off aid to Honduras and to close off the U.S.-Mexico border are not only inhumane, but also illogical and ahistorical. The policy of “prevention through deterrence” has been in practice since the Clinton administration, and has not worked, even in its cruelest extremes, as seen earlier this year. The idea of cutting off aid to Honduras as a reaction to the latest immigrant caravan is equally absurd. Progressive activists have in fact for years advocated for cutting off aid to Honduras as a means of cutting off funding from the political mechanisms behind the dangerous human rights abuses that have led to the caravans we see today. After the killing of environmental rights defender Berta Cáceres in 2015, tied closely to security forces, a number of organizations worked to pass the Berta Cáceres Act, which would cut off all security aid to the country. Other bills proposed the following year recommended strengthening the country’s anti-corruption efforts, or tying 75% of its funding to meeting human rights requirements. In FY 2017, Honduras received $91 million in economic aid and $19 million in security aid via the State Department, according to the Security Assistance Monitor. This is a lower number than prior years, in part due to the Trump administration’s lower prioritization of foreign development aid, as well as withholding aid tied to human rights abuses occurring to Honduras. The year before, the U.S. had also delivered several million dollars worth of arms sales.
Both the aid and the guns could easily be used by criminal elements, or the highly corrupt and abusive military and police forces who often work in collusion with them. For example, early this year, Honduras’ then-new police chief reportedly helped move 170 pounds of cocaine for cartels into the United States, and in May 2017 almost half of police officers had been removed from their posts for alleged corruption, according to Human Rights Watch. Not to mention the repression of protests that occurred last December in the wake of the highly suspect reelection of Juan Orlando Hernández—which was certified by the United States and has led to increased political insecurity.
Violence in Honduras has intensified more broadly since 2009, when the country ousted its democratically-elected president, Manuel Zelaya, with the tacit support of the United States, in a coup. The right-wing presidents who have followed have pushed neoliberal economic agendas that have worsened conditions for the working poor, reducing opportunities to make a living at home. La Cruz noted that this instability has increased the flows of migrants passing through Southern Mexico.
These factors, exacerbated by U.S. “help,” are what is driving emigration from Honduras. “This crisis did not begin with the departure of the 'Caminata del Migrante,' said a statement released by Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders) on October 16. “It is the result of decades of political, economic and military intervention by the United States and of negligence, coups d’état, insecurity, corruption, and impunity by Central America’s governments.” Yet only now does the administration threaten to cut off aid.
A recent Guardian article quoted Carlos Caballeros, a father traveling in the caravan with his teenage daughter in flight of extortion and threats from local gangs in his hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. “We don’t care if they stop the aid–we never see any of it,” he said. “All we want is to get out of that hell we were living in San Pedro.”
The use of caravans as an activism—and survival—strategy was popularized in Central America. Since 2008 Central American mothers whose children disappeared while crossing through Mexico have carried out an annual caravan through Mexico to create awareness about their struggles. In 2012, the poet Javier Sicilia and the Movimiento Por La Paz con Dignidad y Justicia (MPJD) ran a caravan through Mexico and into the United States to draw attention to drug war violence after his son was killed, and a number of similar caravans zooming in on drug war violence and abuses followed in later years.
Beyond visibility, caravans have often served to increase the safety of its members. On the migrant trail, migrants face myriad dangers and challenges during their journey, from the threat of theft to injury to kidnapping and rape. It has been reported that 80% of Central American women face sexual violence while traveling to the United States. In this way, traveling in a group reduces these risks through strength in numbers. Last year, several groups organized the first LGBT caravan in Mexico, as the LGBT community is often most vulnerable to these kinds of dangers. That caravan had 17 members, and of them, the five trans women who applied received asylum. Roxsana Hernández, a trans woman from Honduras, who traveled alone, died in ICE detention last summer.
According to La Cruz, whose organization was not involved in the current caravan, they also represent a “symbolic political action.” Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which helped organize the current caravan, has led a number of smaller caravans as well to raise awareness about migrant rights, including the annual Viacrucis caravan during holy week, which faced Trump’s wrath earlier this year. An organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, Irineo Mujica, who was involved in the current caravan, was arrested in Mexico on Thursday. La Cruz fears that the current caravan, rather than raising visibility across the region, has instead created a “political crisis” because it will challenge resources and enable politicians, like Trump, to respond with xenophobia, frame keeping the migrants out as a matter of national security, and facilitate abuses.
It is also unclear how many on the caravan were involved in its organization from the start, and how many joined later and have continued to join. The sheer size of the group, according to La Cruz, could in fact increase dangers and vulnerabilities on the migrant trail for the people participating in it, due to inclement conditions, repression by federal police, and a lack of resources. In fact, said Sanchez Rodriguez, some families have already been separated in the course of the caravan. And a corrupt police force responding to hundreds of migrants trying to storm the Mexico border could surely lead to further chaos, La Cruz said. Mexico’s migration agents are also notoriously corrupt. In 2016, 3,000 were fired from the agency due to corruption.
The images of groups of thousands of Central Americans traveling together, seeking the United States or Mexico, are astonishing to behold. Though the outcome is yet to be seen, the caravan adds to the laundry list of evidence that proves that prevention through deterrence does not work. It just increases the risks. In the last year alone, over 400 people died while attempting to cross the border through increasingly dangerous territories. Yet the caravan shows that for migrants, a chance of a better life, or mere survival, is worth the gamble. This is a regional issue that must transcend the limits of borders themselves.
Laura Weiss is Managing Editor of NACLA. She holds a Masters' degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from New York University, where she focused on social movements in Mexico. She has reported on immigration, U.S. security policy in Latin America, and Central American refugees in Mexico. Follow her work lauraweiss.me and on Twitter.