WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

22 Oct 2018 | Commentary

9 Questions (and Answers) About the Central American Migrant Caravan

A caravan of an estimated 7,000 migrants, including many families and women with children, originated in Central America and is making its way through Mexico towards the United States. Today, President Donald Trump announced via Twitter that he will start cutting, or substantially reducing, aid to Central America. According to research and advocacy group the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), this would be a counterproductive reaction that would undermine efforts to address the root causes of migration, namely, violence, corruption, poverty, and lack of economic opportunity.  

On Friday, October 19, the caravan arrived at the bridge connecting the Guatemala-Mexico border, where Mexican security forces had set up barricades. Efforts by Mexican security to stop the caravan led to allegations of mistreatment and excessive use of force, including the concerning use of tear gas against migrants by Mexican Federal Police. Eventually, the migrants were admitted in small groups, while others crossed into Mexico. Many of the migrants, who are mostly from Honduras, are currently being hosted in shelters, auditoriums, and other structures in order to be processed for asylum in Mexico; others have decided to continue to travel north.

It’s also important to note that images of migrants traveling in large groups can feed misrepresentations of actual migration trends at the U.S-Mexico border: migration is actually at a near historic low, even though the number of families and children arriving in search of asylum has increased in recent months.   

Below, WOLA draws on years of experience and research on migration and the U.S.-Mexico border to answer several common questions about the caravan, the U.S. response, and the response of other nations.

1.) Why are people leaving? And why are they leaving now?

There are several variables. Every migrant probably weighs them differently.

  • Severe insecurity: Honduras and El Salvador are among the deadliest places in the world that aren’t war zones—Small Arms Survey ranked the two countries in the top 5 most violent in the world, alongside Venezuela, Syria, and Afghanistan. Guatemala was 17th, ahead of Colombia and Mexico. Repressive policing and in some cases outright abuse by government security forces has done little to turn the tide.
  • Runaway corruption means that, more often that not, Central America’s political class is colluding with and protecting criminal groups, including drug trafficking organizations. Local “transportistas,”—drug-smuggling operations doing the bidding of these transnational drug trafficking cartels—contribute to violence in rural areas. For many in Central America, impunity is the norm for crimes like extortion, rape, and homicide. As has been widely documented, many migrants feel they have no choice but to flee, as they can expect no protection from local police or justice authorities.
  • Droughts, floods, and other phenomena linked to climate change are devastating agricultural economies and exacerbating hunger for rural communities in some of the world’s most unequal societies. This is an ongoing and long-term driver of migration, but it has become a particularly strong short-term driver in Honduras, where intensive flooding this past year has forced many people to leave their homes, and in Guatemala, where drought has been a severe problem for the past year, and where heavy rainfall in other parts of the country during the first half of 2018 caused flooding and landslides.
  • Intolerable situations of domestic violence: Latin America has one of the highest levels of violence against women in the world. The United Nations has cited domestic abuse, and the inability to obtain protection from local authorities, as a major factor driving women to migrate from Central America.
  • Lack of economic opportunity is another significant factor. Job prospects are grim for many young adults, and emigration is an alternative. While economic migrants are unlikely to qualify for asylum in the United States, Mexico, or elsewhere, their reasons for fleeing are understandable. Research consistently shows that areas in the United States with larger migrant communities are safer and more prosperous. Many U.S. employers, especially in the agriculture and farming sector, continue to rely heavily on undocumented workers. Business owners, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have called for immigration reform in the country out of the recognition that “immigrants can fill growing gaps in our workforce.”

2.) Can Trump cut aid to Central America?

The president in fact does not have the power to stop aid that Congress has appropriated. The Foreign Assistance Act gives the president very little authority to cancel aid. At most, the president can only transfer up to 10 percent between accounts. A separate law, the Impoundment Control Act, prohibits the president from withholding money that Congress has appropriated. Congress has the power of the purse. The specific 2018 appropriation for Central America, however, may contain a loophole allowing the president to reduce some aid. It states that “up to $615,000,000 may be made available for assistance for countries in Central America”; the key language here is “up to,” which could give Trump some flexibility to obligate a smaller amount of money.

Beyond this, it’s nonsensical to imagine that cutting aid to a troubled region might stop people from trying to migrate.

As detailed by WOLA’s Central America Monitor database, cutting aid would eliminate two categories of assistance:

  • Assistance for priorities that a conservative U.S. administration would normally support: aid for military and police units, border security, police reform, and criminal justice reform.
  • Assistance for priorities that actually show at least some promise of improving conditions so people would be less inclined to leave, including food security, rural development, law enforcement and criminal justice reform, serious anti-corruption efforts, and civil society violence prevention initiatives.

Currently, the United States does not provide direct budget support funds to Central American countries. The overwhelming majority of U.S. assistance is given to non-governmental and service provider organizations.

3.) Why are people traveling as a caravan?

As WOLA has documented with our partners, migrants traveling through Mexico are frequent victims of crime and violence at the hands of criminal groups and corrupt officials. For many migrants, the only options for safety are to pay US$10,000-plus for a smuggler, or to travel in large groups.

Traveling as a “caravan” is a rational response. Families need to leave, for the reasons described above. But they risk assault, robbery, kidnapping, rape, or even murder if they attempt the journey through Mexico without a highly paid smuggler. Research by WOLA found that 99 percent of crimes against migrants reported to federal and several state authorities in Mexico are never fully investigated. Traveling in a large group minimizes the risk—as there is “safety in numbers”— and makes a paid smuggler unnecessary.

4.) What happened to the migrant caravan that attracted so much vitriol from President Trump earlier this year?

The New York Times has reported the following about the April 2018 caravan through Mexico organized by Pueblos Sin Fronteras:

That caravan, which also included many Hondurans and at one point numbered an estimated 1,200 before diminishing in size, eventually reached the northern border of Mexico, with an enormous international media contingent in tow. After a tense standoff at the border crossing in Tijuana, several hundred migrants were eventually allowed through to petition for asylum in the United States.

The outcome for the migrants who requested asylum in the United States isn’t clear. Other members of this caravan have requested protection in Mexico, where the laws covering asylum seekers and refugees includes a broader definition of who qualifies for protection.

5.) President Trump has threatened to shut down the entire U.S.-Mexico border to forestall anyone from the migrant caravan turning themselves into U.S. authorities to seek asylum, or to cross the border. What would happen if the U.S.-Mexico border were to be shut down?

Here’s political scientist Peter Andreas of Brown University writing in 2003, describing what happened in the days after September 11, 2001, when all U.S. ports of entry were ordered to raise inspections to 100 percent:

Retail sales in U.S. border cities immediately plummeted as Mexican shoppers stayed south of the border. The city of San Diego declared a state of economic emergency due to the business downturn after September 11th.… Cross-border trade, which had been running at about $670 million [per day], fell by an average of 15 percent in the weeks following the attacks. Most severely affected were electronics, textiles, chemicals, and Mexican factories supplying just-in-time parts to U.S. auto companies.

Seventeen years later, the U.S. and Mexican economies are far more integrated; daily cross-border trade totaled US$1.7 billion per day last year. Stopping that flow, even just for a few days, would cause economic pain so sharp that it would probably be reflected in U.S. stock market indices.

6.) What is Mexico’s policy towards the migrant caravan?

Mexico deployed some 500 Federal Police to its southern border with Guatemala to address the caravan. The Mexican government also said that it would apprehend and deport any caravan members who enter Mexico illegally, while processing those who are requesting asylum in the country. As of October 21, at least 1,000 members of the caravan had requested asylum in Mexico and others are being housed in different shelters.  

Given the high number of people in the caravan and Mexico’s weak asylum system, it is important that Mexican authorities ensure that screening for protection concerns is done properly. In a positive step, Mexico has requested assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has expanded its presence in Mexico in recent years, to assist in reception of the caravan. Should Mexico deport individuals without properly screening them, this would force people to return to potentially life-threatening situations.

Apart from the confrontations at the Guatemala-Mexico port of entry on October 19, Mexican authorities have not tried to stop the migrants from traveling further. Journalists estimate the caravan now stretches 2 miles long, a massive movement of people including young children. It is not clear how the Mexican government will respond to the caravan, and pressure from Trump, in the coming days. 

7.) Will threats mitigate migration flows from Central America?

Rage and threats will not make this problem go away. As long as the conditions described under Question 1 persist in Central America, the pressure to migrate will continue.  

8.) Why are Central American countries not stopping the caravan?

Governments can’t prevent citizens from leaving their own country or peacefully assembling and marching. Doing so would be a fundamental violation of citizens’ rights and internationally recognized human rights. Also, it would be very controversial domestically and would have substantial domestic political costs.

9.) What should the U.S. government do if members of the caravan reach the U.S.-Mexico border?

The arrival of a large group of migrants all at once will present logistical problems in processing them, evaluating their claims, admitting some for asylum hearings, and planning to deport others who do not qualify. However, this is a manageable humanitarian and logistical problem, not an “invasion.” It can and should be managed in an orderly way that treats migrants humanely, respects their rights, and follows our legal procedures, as well as the United States’ international commitments on migration.

Here’s what WOLA recommends:

  • The United States cannot force Mexico to admit whatever number of asylum seekers—under international law, people have the right to seek asylum in a country that they deem safe. They are not obligated to apply for asylum in countries they transit through. Mexico, which registered its highest homicide rate on record last year, remains unsafe for many migrants.
  • Migrants need to be able to approach a port of entry and ask for protection in the United States and be admitted for processing in a timely manner. Unlawfully delaying migrants’ ability to enter the country, at times for weeks, or attempting to deter them from doing so, violates the United States’ international commitments and puts this population at risk in Mexican border towns with high levels of violence.
  • Asylum seekers need a timely and fair resolution of their claim, as well as legal support to make their case. A 2015 study by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) showed that without legal representation, only 1.5 percent of women with children who had passed their credible fear interviews were given asylum in the United States.  
  • While their asylum cases are considered, it would be best to pursue more efficient alternatives to detention. (Detaining a family costs US$318.79 per day, according to the 2019 Department of Homeland Security budget request.)
  • Migrants need respectful, dignified treatment from U.S. authorities. Parents and children need to stay together after they are apprehended. The current policies being discussed within the Trump administration of holding families indefinitely in detention or detaining parents while releasing their children go against the standards for child detention set forth in the Flores settlement and recent court decisions.
  • If even a portion of the caravan reaches the border, even with all the good will in the world, there will be logistical and humanitarian challenges—shelters, bus tickets, backlogs in processing, etc. The U.S. government should be planning for, and thinking about, how to manage all this, so as to minimize impact on border communities (on both sides of the border) and to treat migrants humanely.

*This analysis was updated on October 25, 2018. 

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