BY JOSEPH HARRINGTON
In early October, a group of 120 migrants set out for the United States from Honduras. Within two weeks, the caravan grew to over 7,000 people due to massive press and social media attention.
Caravans like this one exist to provide migrants with group protection on the long journey north from Central America. Migrants travelling individually can face dangers of all sorts, including human trafficking and sexual violence, and they are easy targets for corrupt law enforcement officials to apprehend and extort. Alternatively, migrants can hire “coyotes,” or human smugglers, to guide them safely across the U.S. border; however, such services can cost from $4,000 to $12,000 per person, an insurmountable cost to bear, especially for families. For these reasons, advocacy groups like Pueblo Sin Fronteras began coordinating migrant caravans, including the one that garnered so much political attention this past March, so people could travel in safety without the prohibitive costs.
However, this caravan looks much different from ones in the past. Not only is it significantly larger, but it was not organized by any major advocacy group. It originated and spread entirely on social media, its origin attributed to a Facebook post by Bartolo Fuentes, a Honduran activist and former lawmaker. This signals a shift in the method of organizing for future groups of migrants, as social media has provided people with a means of creating groups independent of advocacy groups. Unless there is real change in the living conditions for the people of Central America, it is likely that caravans like these will become a regular occurrence. Already, three more migrant caravans have begun the trek towards the U.S. from Central America since the one that took off from Honduras in early October.
Most of the migrants in the caravan are planning on presenting themselves at U.S. points of entry along the southern border and applying for asylum, something very different from both the immigration and refugee processes. The legal immigration process for the U.S. is extremely impacted, meaning that for people in Central American countries it could take more than 20 years to be processed, even if they have a family member in the U.S. Both asylees and refugees are protected under international law and must prove a “well-founded fear of persecution.” People applying for refugee status must prove this fear from their home country, whereas asylum seekers may either present themselves at a port of entry or apply from within the country, though the Trump Administration has made efforts to stop the latter. Looking at the caravan which arrived at the U.S. in April of this year, three-fourths of the migrants in that caravan applied for asylum, and 93 percent of those who did passed their initial credible fear assessment.
The prospect of frequent mass migrations from Central America has grave implications for the U.S. immigration system, which is already processing more than 319,000 affirmative applications for asylum. The asylum process can take months to years to complete, during which time applicants are kept within the U.S. and are unable to work until their application has been pending for at least 150 days. The Federation of American Immigration Reform estimates that the U.S. spends $1.8 billion annually on refugees and asylees, and that cost will only grow as more people are able to reach the U.S. border and apply for asylum.
The structures on which the U.S. has depended to curb migration are beginning to crumble with the occurrence of caravans. The Trump administration has attempted to manipulate countries like Mexico to deal with immigration from Central America for them, and for years now, the Nieto administration has cooperated, apprehending and deporting even more Central Americans than the U.S. However, the election of leftist presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who takes office in December, signifies a shift in Mexican immigration policies, as Lopez Obrador has publicly denounced how the Nieto administration has “done the U.S.’s dirty work” in the past.
The Trump administration’s other strategy, a hardline stance on illegal immigration, has also backfired. In addition to the highly unpopular “zero-tolerance policy” which resulted in family separation and child detention, the administration has made several efforts to make it harder for people who cross illegally over the border to gain asylum, including a controversial executive order. Taking away asylum-seekers’ option to enter the country first before applying has forced them to wait in lines of up to two weeks at ports of entry along the southern border, making them idle prey for exploitative smugglers. Unless the administration mobilizes many more resources towards processing the migrants in the caravan, it will be inviting collapse.
President Trump has been highly vocal about the caravan, claiming (with no evidence) that it is bringing drugs and criminals with it; threatening to cut-off aid to the Northern Triangle countries, something he does not have the authority to do, as USAID funds are authorized through Congress; and even threatening to shut down the southern border, which would be a violation of international law. Even with the performance Trump orchestrated ahead of the midterm elections, putting on campaign rallies and sending 5,000 troops to the border while the caravan was still more than a month away, he cannot deal with the situation in the way he and his supporters imagine, with guns and walls. At some point, his administration will have to figure out how to actually process these migrants and do so with dignity, as failing to do so would create a humanitarian crisis for the whole world to see.
The consequences of centuries of U.S. intervention and gang exportation are finally becoming too great to ignore. Like it or not, until the countries these migrants are fleeing from become safer, migrants are going to come to the U.S. No change in the law, no verbal tirade, and no wall is going to stop them. All that remains is to figure out how to receive them and how to help their home countries become livable again.