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The migrant caravan, explained

How a group of Central American migrants hundreds of miles from the US border became Trump’s closing election argument.

Migrant Caravan Crosses Into Mexico
Members of a migrant caravan walk into the interior of Mexico after crossing the Guatemalan border on October 21, 2018, near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. 
John Moore/Getty Images

If the migrant caravan didn’t exist, President Donald Trump might have needed to invent it.

The existence of a group of thousands Central Americans pushing toward the US without papers — even if they are still hundreds of miles away — seems like something Trump’s GOP might create in a lab to unleash on the eve of the midterms.

But the caravan is real. The migrants in it — mostly Hondurans (with some Guatemalans), half of whom are girls and women, many intending to seek asylum in the US — are real people.

They made the decision to leave their home countries, assessing that the danger of leaving was outstripped by the danger of facing gang death threats or feeding a family on $5 per day. And they made the decision to go together, joining the caravan as it progressed, instead of alone like tens of thousands of their fellow Guatemalans and Hondurans (and Salvadorans) do every year.

The caravan has provided an irresistible visual for Republican closing arguments about immigration. In Trump’s first TV ad of the presidential primary in 2015, he used an image of a mass of immigrants; fact-checkers revealed the picture was in fact taken in Morocco.

Now, as he nears the midterm elections, Trump has the image he wanted all along — even as the actual caravan, still moving slowly through southern Mexico, appeared to be flagging by Thursday, closer to 4,000 people than the 7,000 estimated by the UN a few days earlier.

The decision about 160 Honduran migrants made to travel as a group in the open to the US — and the decision thousands have made to join them en route — is the result of a situation that predates Trump. The United States and Mexico have worked to make the journey to the US less appealing to Central Americans, but many residents of the Northern Triangle find the prospect of eventual asylum in the US — however difficult it is to get there — more appealing than the insecurity they’re facing at home.

The current wave of Northern Triangle migration raises hard questions about the distinction between economic and humanitarian migration, the US’s ability to process asylum seekers, and the role Mexico plays in the region. Those are emphatically not the questions that are coming up in the Trump-driven conversation about the caravan — which is using the sheer fact of a mass of people traveling northward to activate fears of an invasion by unknowable foreigners.

1) What is a migrant caravan?

Over the past decade, there’s been a rise in the number of unaccompanied children and families crossing the US-Mexico border. Increasingly, they are people fleeing violence and insecurity, coming from the Northern Triangle of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Meanwhile, unauthorized border crossings of single adults, Mexicans, and people looking for seasonal work have greatly declined. The result is a change in the character of who is seeking to cross into the US:

To get to the US-Mexico border, Northern Triangle emigrants have to get through Mexico, a journey that takes weeks.

Under current US and international law, asylum seekers from Central America are allowed to apply for asylum either in Mexico or in the US. Many take the first option: Asylum applications in Mexico have gone up more than 1,000 percent since 2013, and most are from citizens of Northern Triangle countries. But applying for asylum in Mexico isn’t a walk in the park. Mexico has been accused of indiscriminate long-term detention of asylum seekers (exacerbated by a two-year backlog in processing applications), and some parts of Mexico aren’t safe for people who are already fleeing violence.

The US has enlisted Mexico to apprehend Central American migrants before they get to the US. Some 950,000 Central Americans have been deported from Mexico over the past several years, and human rights groups have reported torture and disappearance by Mexican security forces.

The crackdown has made an already dangerous journey more dangerous. The harder it is to get through Mexico without attracting attention from the authorities, the more that task falls to professional criminal organizations who might smuggle drugs alongside migrants or abuse migrants physically or sexually. The involvement of criminal organizations makes Mexico even more anxious to crack down.

For some Central Americans, the solution to this problem is hypervisibility: traveling out in the open, as part of a large group of people that can’t simply be grabbed or disappeared. That’s the reason small human rights organizations have gotten people together, on occasion, in “caravans” — and the appeal to hundreds or thousands of migrants who’ve joined them in trying to get to the US.

For some, it’s a way to call political attention to what they’re fleeing and what migrants have to endure; to others, it’s a desperate exodus; to some, it’s simply an opportunity that came along to hope for a better, safer life.

2) How did this caravan start?

On October 12, 2018, a group of about 160 Hondurans set forth from the town of San Pedro Sula — which in the first half of the decade was often referred to as the “murder capital of the world” — in hopes of arriving to present themselves for asylum in Mexico or the United States.

Seventy-five miles and two days later, the caravan was more than 1,000 strong, according to the estimates of Associated Press reporters. By October 15, the AP estimated about 1,600 Hondurans had amassed at the border with Guatemala.

Jsvier Zarracina/Vox; location and date information via Associated Press

The earliest spokespeople for the caravan were a journalist and former leftist legislator named Bartolo Fuentes and his wife, human rights activist Dunia Montoya. The conservative government of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández (with the help of friendly media outlets) has accused Fuentes of organizing the caravan to embarrass the Hernandez administration and promote instability.

Fuentes has vehemently denied that he organized the caravan even in its early stages, and has laughed off any idea that he coordinated an exodus of 1,600 people. Instead, he’s painted the caravan as an illustration of how miserable life is in Hernandez’s Honduras: The situation is bad enough, he argues, that so many people have been inspired to pick up and leave.

The government of Guatemala attempted to close the Guatemalan-Honduran border to the caravan on October 15; after a standoff of several hours, Guatemalan officials backed down. The caravan continued to grow as it crossed Guatemala, and arrived about 3,000 strong at the Mexican-Guatemalan border on October 19, when the members slept overnight on a bridge at the border after being driven back by Mexican riot police with pepper spray.

Mexico has begun slowly admitting caravan members to ask for asylum: as of October 24, the Mexican government said it had processed 1,743 applications. But many have decided to stop waiting and swim across the river to enter without papers. On October 21, a surging group of migrants — thousands bigger than the group that had waited on the bridge — agreed to continue onward from Chiapas, Mexico, to the US.

3) Why are caravan members leaving their home countries?

Caravan members have given journalists a variety of answers to this question.

Some of them have pointed to concerns for their safety. One woman told the AP’s Sonia Perez D. that she’d been in hiding after a local gang threatened to kill her because they’d mistaken a tattoo of her parents’ names for a symbol of a rival gang. Another, traveling with her husband and two sons, told the Los Angeles Times’s Kate Linthicum that after her 16-year-old son refused to sell drugs for a gang, “they were going to kill him or kill us.”

Others have cited poverty, and the inability to support their families on $5 a day.

A few are trying to get back to America after having been deported, to return to their families (including US-born, US-citizen kids) and the lives they’d built. “I miss my PlayStation,” one caravan member told Linthicum. “I miss Buffalo Wild Wings.”

In a lot of cases, people are probably motivated by more than one of these — a generalized sense of desperation and a generalized sense of hope for a better life.

But the reasons given by caravan members are squarely representative of the current wave of Central American migration to the US.

In US law, there’s a firm distinction between “asylum seekers” (who are fleeing persecution because of their identity, usually from their governments) and “economic migrants” who are looking for a job. But the division in real life isn’t always so neat, and few of the people trying to come to the US from the Northern Triangle right now fit just one of those boxes.

Many people are leaving because they fear for their lives if they stay, because they’re being threatened by gangs and the local government is either complicit or absentee. They’re seeking asylum, even if their circumstances may not fit neatly into the definition of “persecution” in US asylum law. (Attorney General Jeff Sessions has used his authority to make it harder for people to claim asylum based on domestic or gang violence.)

Others are technically “economic migrants,” but they’re not simply coming for a better job — they’re fleeing desperate poverty. And with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stepping up deportations of unauthorized immigrants since its inception in 2003, especially of Mexican and Central American men, many migrants who’ve been deported have every incentive to try again.

US law treats these groups of people very differently — deportees who reenter illegally, for example, are permanently barred from ever getting legal status in the US, while people who can claim a “credible fear” of persecution are allowed to stay and seek asylum. But as far as the journey is concerned, that doesn’t matter. They’re all facing the same dangers, so they’re all traveling together.

4) How many people are in the caravan?

On October 22, as the caravan regrouped on the Mexican side of the Mexico-Guatemala border, the United Nations estimated its size at 7,322 migrants. But it might have captured the caravan at its peak — or simply been an overestimate.

The government of Mexico issued a statement on Wednesday, October 24 estimating that 3,630 people were continuing to travel north. The AP, the next morning, estimated the caravan at 4,000 to 5,000 people — but said its numbers were dwindling, as people stopped traveling due to exhaustion or fear (one caravan member died falling from a truck, and rumors circulated about the deaths of two more).

(The AP’s estimates had been smaller than the UN’s before the 22nd as well — the AP estimated that 3,000 migrants were in the caravan right before members began to cross the Mexico/Guatemala border, and that 5,000 regrouped on the Mexican side a few days later.)

Estimating crowd size is an inexact science even when the crowd is stationary. But the caravan isn’t just on the move; it’s stretched out — people go at their own pace, hitching rides or resting. It’s possible while the leading edge of the caravan was stuck on the border bridge between Mexico and Guatemala, the rest caught up, causing the estimate to grow.

It’s hard to tell where the caravan ends and typical everyday Northern Triangle emigration begins. As Bartolo Fuentes pointed out in an interview with CNN Español, the size of the caravan as it left Honduras was roughly equal to the number of Hondurans who emigrate every 15 days. And the coverage of the caravan appears to have inspired others to plan their own.

The size of the caravan has led a lot of people to assume that someone must be organizing and supporting it. A video that appears to be from near the start of the caravan route, which shows money being handed out to women, has been used by conservatives in the US as evidence that the caravan is a liberal plot (Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz has blamed George Soros) and by the Honduran government as evidence that Fuentes and Libre, the political movement to which he belongs, are behind the caravan.

But whatever that video actually captured, it doesn’t represent the truth of the caravan as it’s continued into Guatemala and Mexico — a straggling procession of people relying on humanitarian organizations and sympathetic locals for food, transportation, and medical assistance.

It’s hard to guarantee safety for such a sprawling group. The Honduran government has confirmed that at least two caravan members have been killed in accidents since the departure; several police officers and caravan members were injured when the caravan burst through a border fence on the Guatemala-Mexico bridge on October 19. The bet that caravan members are making is that it would be more dangerous to travel alone.

Because the caravan is large and not centrally coordinated, however, it’s impossible to know the identity of every migrant traveling with it. That makes it very easy to raise the specter of criminals or terrorists hiding within the caravan — to use any question mark to paint the whole caravan as a faceless and threatening mass.

5) Why is Trump obsessed with the caravan?

The short answer is b-roll.

B-roll is a TV industry term for the brief clips that run on mute to illustrate a segment while an anchor is narrating or a talking head is commentating. If a channel is giving a lot of coverage to a particular story, the b-roll clips it has for that story will get a lot of play — making it hard for any but the most dedicated viewer to tell when or where something happened, or even whether it’s happened more than once.

Caravans make for evocative b-roll: masses of people pressing toward the United States. Fox News leaped on the story of the caravan the minute it reached Guatemala with captions that talk about a press of people at the “border” and only a tiny note in the corner identifying that “border” as a Central American one.

And the president, Fox News-watcher-in-chief, has taken his cues on the caravan from the cable news channel. He started railing about it when Fox started covering it on October 16.

The caravan is a perfect obsession for Trump for the same reason it’s a perfect obsession for Fox: powerful images that appear to validate conservative base fears of “invasion” by “lawless” foreigners and the countries that “send” them. Trump himself has been using imagery like this since he started his presidential campaign in 2015 and talked about Mexico “sending” rapists and murderers over the US-Mexico border.

The caravan has provided more fodder. It’s a constant motif of his near-daily rallies and his morning and evening tweetstorms as the midterm elections approach.

His rage is being fed by hardliners in the administration who want to do more to crack down on families and asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border (options being considered include forcing parents to choose between months-long detention and family separation). It’s also being fed by Fox.

Other Republicans were already following Trump’s lead in making immigration their key issue in the closing weeks of the midterm campaign, amid concerns that the Republican base won’t turn out without Trump on the ballot. They’ve followed his lead on the caravan too. While GOP hardliners within the administration are using the caravan as a reason to push for a change to the laws governing children and asylum seekers who arrive at the border, Republicans have turned the caravan into a reason that Democrats shouldn’t be allowed to take Congress — because they would let in untold numbers of migrants.

The Trump administration absolutely believes this is the way to fire up the Republican base for the midterms. But it’s hard to tell how much of this is deliberate strategy and how much is Trump’s personal obsession — or if there’s any difference between the two.

6) Is this part of a border “surge”?

Even before the caravan set out, the administration was raising alarms about families coming to the US-Mexico border. But the current situation isn’t really a crisis of numbers so much as a crisis of resources.

Overall, apprehension levels in August and September 2018 were only a little above average for the past several years at this time. And they’re still way, way below pre-Great Recession levels. (For context, apprehensions in fiscal year 2018 were a little more than half as high as fiscal year 2008, and about a quarter of fiscal year 1998 levels.)

But the people coming in are different.

Over the past several years, apprehensions of single adults at the US-Mexico border have declined. At the same time, apprehensions of unaccompanied children, and of parents with children, have continued to increase. In September 2018, children and families made up more than half of all people apprehended crossing the border illegally — up from 17 percent in September 2013.

The US has developed a border policy that’s designed to maximize the efficient apprehension and deportation of everyone trying to cross the border illegally and not get caught. It is not designed to facilitate the processing of families who are seeking asylum, a decision that is not immediate. Nor can families be kept in conventional ICE detention centers while they wait.

Refusing to offer asylum would violate international law. So the Trump administration has been trying to crack down on how families are treated after they arriveby detaining or separating them, for example.

There is some evidence that efforts to deport families leads to fewer people seeking asylum. But there isn’t evidence that harsher treatment of asylum seekers accomplishes the same goal. Neither the 2017 pilot nor the widespread 2018 policy of family separation had the effects that officials hoped for at the border. Neither did Obama’s efforts to expand family detention in fall 2015.

The Trump administration’s sweeping border crackdown has, in fact, made it harder for people to seek and receive asylum. But it hasn’t been enough to persuade people that they’d be better off staying in their home countries.

7) What has the US done so far?

There’s only so much the US can do with the caravan still weeks from US soil. Sending US officials to stop a group of people from crossing a border from one non-US country into another — or trying to disperse them within Mexico, for example — would be a pretty straightforward invasion of national sovereignty. (Trump has threatened to send “the military” to the US-Mexico border, but the only option that appears to have been seriously discussed in is sending additional National Guard troops to the border.)

As far as Donald Trump is concerned, though, the failure of the governments of Guatemala and Honduras (and, somehow, El Salvador) to stop the caravan from leaving their countries is an insult to the United States — and a reason to slash foreign aid to those countries.

Agencies say they haven’t received any guidance over foreign aid cuts. And plenty of key Trump administration officials believe that the only way to reduce emigration from Central America to the US is to invest more in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Trump does not buy into this narrative. In a February speech, he said that the governments of Mexico and the Northern Triangle are “not our friends” — and that the US was getting played for a fool by sending them millions of dollars in aid.

Trump’s officials, though, still buy into the investment narrative. On Thursday, at a think tank event with the Mexican ambassador to the US about border security partnerships, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan stressed that investment was as important as enforcement in stopping unauthorized migration. On Monday, the US ambassador to El Salvador stressed that aid would continue.

The irony is that the more Trump paints Central American countries as irredeemable hellholes, the more he strengthens the case for allowing its refugees to seek shelter in the US.

8) Will the caravan make it to the US?

Some number of the people currently traveling toward the US will almost certainly arrive at the US-Mexico border eventually. Some number will elect to stay in Mexico (as of Monday, Mexican authorities had already received 1,000 requests for asylum from caravan members) or be detained and deported en route.

It’s impossible to know how many people will fall into each of those categories. And while whoever makes it to the US will still call themselves “the caravan,” it’s not clear that most Americans will notice. When a few hundred members of the spring caravan arrived at the border in May, the only people still paying attention were in the Trump administration.

The key question right now is whether the Mexican government will be able to forcibly disperse this caravan, as it did with the group in spring. The Mexican government has said that it won’t provide travel visas to members of this caravan, and that people who don’t seek asylum in Mexico will be deportable.

In general, the Mexican government has a lot more capacity to enforce immigration law than the Guatemalan or Honduran governments. But its first attempt to stop the caravan from entering the country didn’t work. And despite rumors, it hasn’t yet tried again.

9) What happens if the caravan makes it to the US?

The caravan is absolutely not, no way, no how, going to be able to push its way en masse across the US-Mexico border — even if the US military doesn’t get involved. And it probably wouldn’t even try.

It is perfectly legal for caravan members, or anyone else, to seek asylum in the US without papers.

Caravan members could present themselves legally at an official border crossing (officially termed a “port of entry”) and say they fear persecution — entitling them to the screening interview that could start the asylum process. Or they could choose to cross into the US between a port of entry and then tell the Border Patrol agent who apprehended them that they feared persecution — they’d be committing the misdemeanor of illegal entry, but they’d still have the legal right to seek asylum.

It’s then up to the US government to honor those rights. Human rights advocates charge that the Trump administration often doesn’t.

Across the US-Mexico border, right now, people are being made to wait weeks at ports of entry before being allowed to officially enter the US and seek asylum. Advocates recount stories from asylum seekers of officials on both sides telling them they aren’t allowed to seek asylum in the US, or of Mexican officials detaining them or threatening them with deportation after they tried to present themselves at a US port.

When the caravan arrived at San Ysidro this spring, the US didn’t allow any of its members to enter initially, due to the restrictions at the port of entry. It gradually allowed a few at a time to enter legally over the next days and weeks.

In the meantime, a Human Rights Watch report published last week alleges that Mexican police arrested two of the asylum seekers and beat one of them, and a group of armed men attempted to burn down the shelter where another group of asylum seekers was staying.

One Mexican official told Human Rights Watch that the US had asked the Mexican government to clear out the plaza where asylum seekers were waiting. If Mexico had complied, it would have, essentially, deported people from Mexico because they had to wait in Mexico before being allowed to cross legally into the US.

These things happened to small numbers of caravan members at a time. They happened to groups that looked just like any other group of Central Americans trying to come to the US. The ultimate fate of the spring caravan, if anything, proved the point of why caravans are important: because even if size and visibility to the US (and the president) create political backlash, they make it harder for any individual migrant to disappear.