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Members of a caravan of Central American migrants that arrived in April walk to the U.S.-Mexico border crossing to request asylum in the United States. / Photo by David Muang

President Donald Trump has brought migrant caravans to the forefront of the news.

The group of thousands of Central Americans, mainly Hondurans, who left their country earlier this month and are currently in southern Mexico is the largest caravan yet, but migrant caravans are nothing new. A mix of increasing desperation in their countries, a sudden media and political interest in caravans and newer forms of organizing through WhatsApp and Facebook have made them larger and more visible.

But the sudden attention on the caravans themselves leaves out much context about the purpose of the caravans, the conditions driving Central Americans north and what will happen to them as they continue the journey.

What are migrant caravans?

Migrant caravans have been around for close to 10 years.

They initially started as caravans of Central American mothers, whose children “disappeared” while making the journey north to the United States. The mothers, as a group, traveled the steps of their lost loved ones to draw attention to the journey’s dangers.

In Spanish, migrant caravans are often referred to as the “Viacrucis Migrante,” or the Migrant Stations of the Cross, which re-enact Christ’s last steps and crucifixion before Easter. The migrant caravans have traditionally traveled around Easter, in part to draw parallels between their persecution and Christ’s suffering during his last moments on earth.

The caravan that arrived in Tijuana in late April, organized by advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, also left a bit before Easter.

The caravans have increased in size over the years, not only because traveling in larger groups provides safety to migrants who in Mexico have long been targets of extortion, rape and other criminal activity, but as an act of civil disobedience, as the U.S. border with Mexico has become increasingly militarized and conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have deteriorated even further.

Suyapa Portillo Villeda, an assistant professor of Chicano-Latino Transnational Studies at Pitzer College, who made the journey from Honduras to the United States in the 1980s with her mother, attributes the growth to perpetually worsening circumstances in Central American countries – particularly in Honduras – and to Trump’s hostility and the media’s response to it.

In several tweets, Trump has threatened to cut off foreign aid to Central American countries for not stopping the caravan, said the caravan included criminals, blamed Democrats for the migrants’ decision to make the journey, declared the caravan a “national emergency” and threatened to close off the U.S. border with Mexico.

“The caravans aren’t new,” Portillo Villeda said. “But they weren’t public affairs and they weren’t this big. Part of this growth was because of Trump’s vitriol on social media and the caravans suddenly started garnering press.”

Before, some local reporters in Mexico wrote about them, but it was rare that English-language media from the United States and other countries would, she said. The attention on “caravans” has not only given the American public real-time images of the migrants making the journey, but apps like WhatsApp and Facebook have let migrants know that there are other people making the journey at the same time, facilitating their ability to band together.

It’s still unclear who organized the current caravan, but what started as a few hundred people leaving Tegucigalpa, Honduras, has grown to more than 7,000 people, in great part because of media from Honduras to the United States reporting on it, and because of social media networks.

Why are so many people leaving Honduras?

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have many similar problems that drive migration from those countries: extreme poverty, starvation, gang violence, violence against women, persecution of the LGBTQ community, political persecution and impunity for those who commit crimes.

There’s also a long history and tradition of migration between those countries and the United States, meaning many migrants have relatives in the United States, even if it’s their first time making the journey north. A Washington Post reporter on the ground with the caravan also found that some were recently deported after having lived in the United States for years and were going back to the lives they know.

Many of these problems date back to the Cold War and U.S. intervention in Central American countries, which resulted in civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, among other problems that has left the Northern Triangle region politically and economically unstable, Portillo Villeda told me over the summer. Then there were natural disasters, like Hurricane Mitch in 1998, where the flooding killed roughly 7,000 people in Honduras alone.

The caravan that just left Tapachula began in Honduras and by current estimates, is mostly made up of Hondurans. The caravan from the spring was also mostly Hondurans.

In 2009, there was coup d’etat in Honduras, when the Honduran Army followed orders from the Honduran Supreme Court to oust President Manuel Zelaya and send him into exile.

That led to the most violent years on record in the country, starting in 2011, Portillo Villeda said. El Salvador and Honduras started seeing hundreds of women murdered each year, with few investigated at all.

“If you look at records of people being detained and making it through at the border, that is when we see a serious exodus of Hondurans and entry to the U.S.,” she said. “There’s extortion, gangs, but also intrafamilial violence against women. People wanted to get their kids out by 2014.”

That year, 2014, is when the United States saw a sharp increase in unaccompanied minors from Central America arrive at the Texas border. The United States began holding these migrant children on military bases, and images and news stories of the situation grabbed the attention of the American public.

Then last year, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado won re-election by a narrow margin that has been widely criticized as fraudulent. A number of people have been killed in post-election protests by government security forces, with no justice in sight, reports The Guardian. The United States supports the disputed leader.

“This country is just trying to survive at this point,” Portillo Villeda said. “It’s really a dire situation for communities. Americans can’t even imagine it.”

Portillo Villeda said that back in 2006, when she was doing research in El Progreso, a city in the Honduran region of Yoro, she would knock on doors in neighborhoods and nearly everyone would have a family member who had gone to the United States.

Now, she said, entire families are leaving. The perpetual corruption has continued to intensify the poverty and insecurity. One in four children in Honduras suffers from chronic malnutrition, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.

“Mostly, the migration patterns we have seen is people will go from countryside to the city and then internationally,” Portillo Villeda said. “Now, we’re seeing people going straight from the countryside, migrating internationally. What we’re seeing now is a complete exit. Their bellies are empty.”

Hunger is also driving increasing numbers of Guatemalan families, especially those from rural areas who don’t speak Spanish, to come, the Washington Post reported last month.

It’s important to note, though, that while families and children are increasingly making the journey north, the United States is still seeing historically low overall apprehension levels at the border, which U.S. officials use as a proxy for overall migration. In other words, the caravans aren’t driving an overall surge in immigrants crossing the border. They are just a different way to make the journey.

The migrants who are coming are just increasingly desperate, as Everard Meade, director of the Trans Border Institute at the University of San Diego, pointed out to me in July.

“If we had a desperation index, it’s never been higher,” Meade said.

What will happen to the caravan members who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border?

We can’t be sure. This caravan is far larger than those of the past, but we can look at what’s happened to members of past caravans.

As of Sunday night, more than 1,000 members of the caravan had applied for refugee status in Mexico and more than 1,500 had chosen to cross the Suchiate River, rather than wait to be allowed through by Mexican authorities at the designated crossing point, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The Mexican government faces its own dilemma on how to respond to the migrants, between calls for force from the Trump administration and an incoming Mexican president who during his campaign advocated for better treatment of migrants in the country. Mexican forces closed off the country’s border with Guatemala and fired tear gas at the migrants – one of the most aggressive actions Mexico has taken on its southern border  – but let many of them cross a river nearby and largely backed down to let the caravan pass since.

Mexico has taken on a large portion of immigration enforcement when it comes to Central Americans. The country has deported more Central Americans than the United States has in the past few years. Mexico deported 82,000 migrants from the region last year, according to government statistics. In January and February of 2018, it deported more than 16,000 people, nearly all of whom were from Central America.

That will likely be the fate of some caravan members.

Many members of past caravans have decided to stay in Mexico along the way. This is both evidenced by the smaller numbers that arrive in Tijuana and request asylum compared with the numbers of migrants when the caravans leave from Tapachula, in the southwestern-most Mexican state of Chiapas, and by Mexican immigration data.

In 2017, a caravan organized by Pueblo Sin Fronteras started with roughly 200 people and just under 80 ended up going all the way to Tijuana to request asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, PRI reported.

The caravan that arrived this spring started with more than 1,000 people. Roughly 300 people came all the way to Tijuana and only around 200 requested asylum in the United States. You can read about where many of these caravan members are here.

Last year in Mexico, petitioners for asylum increased 66 percent compared with 2016, and by 326 percent compared with 2015.

Those who will make the journey all the way to the United States border – some of whom are returning to their U.S.-citizen children or like trans migrants, for example, are not safe from persecution in Mexico either – may also face several different paths.

Trump tweeted about closing off the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the caravan.

The United States essentially shut the border down after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and ordered that U.S. ports of entry inspect 100 percent of the people and vehicles traveling through. That decision devastated the auto industry and the economies of border towns, like San Diego, according to research by Peter Andreas, a professor at Brown University. The economic repercussions of such a move make it a precarious option for the government.

For those who do reach the U.S. border and want to enter, they’ll have several choices. One is to turn themselves in at a port of entry, where they would be detained if they don’t have required documents and asked whether they’re afraid of returning to their home. A person who says “no” will be removed from the country. A person who expresses fear of persecution or torture would be interviewed by an asylum officer to establish whether there is “credible fear” of persecution.

If the officer decides they do have “credible fear,” they will go forward with their asylum cases. Some single adults may wait in detention while their asylum case in processed or until they can be released on bond, while families, particularly mothers and children, may be more likely to be released on humanitarian parole. There is a finite amount of detention space.

Those who cross between ports of entry and are apprehended by Border Patrol – especially single adults – may face criminal prosecution first. Then they will be turned over to immigration officials. They too, even though they did not enter at a designated port of entry, can express a fear of returning to their country and the U.S. government must allow them a “credible fear” interview and to pursue an asylum claim in the country if they are found to have a “credible fear” during the interview.

The criminal prosecution of parents who were traveling with children drove a surge in family separations after the last caravan arrived. The government has stopped those in many cases (though not all), but has indicated it is considering others ways to begin separating families again.

For Central Americans, the odds are stacked against them in asylum cases.

In 2017, about 62 percent of asylum cases heard were denied, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research center at Syracuse University. But the number is lower for Central Americans. More than 70 percent of asylum claims from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were denied in 2017.

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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