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Migrant shelter, Mexico City, 11/05/2018 © Jose Carrera / Shutterstock

Migrant Caravan Highlights US Immigration Woes

Finding themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea, it is no surprise that thousands from the Northern Triangle resort to the treacherous journey to seek asylum in United States.

The Central American migration crisis has reached new heights, with thousands of asylum seekers having reached Tijuana in Mexico, hoping to gain asylum in the US. Taking a leaf from President Donald Trump’s playbook, some Tijuana residents have resorted to cries of “Tijuana First” and “Long Live Mexico,” denouncing the migrants who have sought temporary refuge in their town while they wait for an opportunity to enter the United States. The enormous strain of caring for the thousands of migrants has forced the mayor of Tijuana, Juan Manuel Gastelum, to declare a humanitarian crisis and seek help from the United Nations.

There are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 migrants in the caravan that left the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on October 13. Starting at a modest 150 people, the number swelled to several thousand as the caravan made its way from Honduras through El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, heading toward the Californian border. While this is not the first group of migrants to make its way to the US, this particular caravan is unique in that it started spontaneously, organized itself and swelled in numbers along the way, drawing international attention.

International reaction and response have been all across the spectrum for this unprecedented migration effort. It is heartening to note that many small towns in the caravan’s path did their best to provide food and rest for the travelers, the demands on their resources limited to a day or two. However, with thousands settling down in Tijuana for a long wait to have a chance to cross the California border, Mayor Gastelum has been critical of the Mexican federal government for not providing appropriate aid to help his small town temporarily house the migrants. Not surprisingly, Trump, has continued to respond with characteristic xenophobia, vitriol and hateful rhetoric against the migrants.

Trump has threatened to withdraw aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, presenting the migrants as criminals without any evidence. After deploying nearly 5,800 active-duty troops to the southern border, Trump has also authorized the use of force to protect America from the migrants, essentially likening the asylum seekers’ efforts to an invasion. Trump’s antipathy to immigrants in general, and Central American asylum seekers in particular, has been a constant in his two years of presidency thus far.

Route of Death

Under federal law, anyone from a foreign country can seek asylum if they had to flee their country out of fear of persecution over race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular group. The latter stipulation is subjective and gives each administration some latitude on how it is interpreted. The Obama administration had been more inclusive in its interpretation, allowing people fleeing domestic and gang violence to seek asylum.

That changed when Attorney General Jeff Sessions instituted a new policy in June 2018 where people fleeing gang and domestic violence no longer qualify for asylum. “Our nation’s immigration laws provide for asylum to be granted to individuals who have been persecuted, or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their membership in a particular social group,” the Justice Department said in a written statement, accompanying Sessions’ opinion. “But victims of personal crimes do not fit this definition — no matter how vile and reprehensible the crime perpetrated against them.”

The hardship of undergoing a journey of this magnitude from Honduras to the US border by foot and other makeshift transportation can be enormously trying. Some have even lost their lives in the process. A Newsweek article mentions the death of a Honduran and six Guatemalans in separate accidents involving vehicles. Traveling through the Gulf coastal state of Veracruz to reach Mexico City is known as the “route of death,” where in addition to heat and exhaustion, migrants also face dangers of kidnapping. Why then, are Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans willing to undergo such an arduous journey for an uncertain future just for the remote possibility of entering a country harboring the most anti-immigrant sentiment toward them?

Unabated violence tied to drug trafficking and gangs has made life in the three Central American countries nearly impossible. In 2015, El Salvador became the world’s deadliest country outside of a war zone, with San Salvador crowned as the world’s murder capital, though there has been a drop in homicides since. Extortion is rampant in the three countries, with Salvadorans paying $400 million annually in extortion fees, followed by Hondurans, who pay an estimated $200 million, and Guatemalans, who pay $61 million. Finding themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea, it is no surprise that thousands in the troubled trio of countries resort to the treacherous journey to seek asylum in United States.

Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an immigration rights group, has been helping Central American migrants, organizing caravans and otherwise providing logistics support along the trek to the US border. Formed more than 15 years ago, the organization stands in solidarity with displaced populations, providing humanitarian aid and legal advice to migrants and refugees. A relatively unknown group, Pueblo Sin Fronteras became more prominent after it attracted Trump’s ire when it organized another  caravan earlier this year. Unlike the April march, however, the October caravan organized itself spontaneously in Honduras, although Pueblo Sin Fronteras has provided it with logistical support along the way.

Muddled Immigration Policy

My June article for Fair Observer, “The US Role in the Migrant Crisis,” discusses in detail America’s culpability in the plight of the citizens of the countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador today. Honduras, one of the poorest Latin American countries, was thrown into chaos soon after the 2009 coup, when the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was ousted. The murder rate in the country spiked to 86.5 per 100,000 people in 2011 before declining to 59 per 100,000 in 2016. Even at 59 deaths per 100,000, the number is incredibly high compared to 5.35 per 100,000 in the United States or 0.30 per 100,000 in Iceland.

Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state in the Obama administration, has admitted to America’s role and the choices she made in the 2009 coup ensuring Zelaya would not return to office. Thanks to Clinton and the Obama administration, Honduras today is unliveable, taken over by drug trafficking gangs MS 13 and Barrio 18, while citizens get no protection from a corrupt police system. If Clinton set aside well-accepted principles of international law and human rights in 2009, the Trump administration repeated the act recently by recognizing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s questionable reelection in 2017 for a second term.

While Trump continues to spew hateful rhetoric against the Northern Triangle migrants, statistics show that the number of arrests at the southern border reduced steadily under Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama. Deportation is no longer a term that is used formally, having been replaced by two nuanced euphemisms, “returns” and “removals.” Return refers to those who are apprehended at the border trying to enter the US illegally and turned back to the country where they came from. Removal refers to the deportation of those already inside United States, as well as those who are denied entry into the country when trying to enter it legally.

Clinton removed less than a million people, and Bush removed 2 million people during each of their eight-year terms respectively. In contrast, Obama removed more than 3 million people — more than any other administration — earning him the nickname “deporter-in-chief.” On the other hand, Clinton and Bush returned more than 90% of those apprehended at the border, while Obama returned just 40% — a statistic that corroborates more people were able to enter the country seeking asylum during Obama’s tenure. While it is too early to comment on the Trump administration’s record, border crossings have dropped dramatically since his election, while interior deportations, or removals, have edged up compared to Obama.

Escalating Tensions

Deportation statistics during Clinton and Obama administrations (the last two Democratic presidents), compared with those during Bush and Trump administrations (the last two Republican presidents), will leave one wondering if any administration has really been immigrant-friendly, notwithstanding the political rhetoric and grandstanding. In the meantime, normal life and livelihood of the thousands who rely on the smooth functioning of the world’s busiest border crossing at San Ysidro in Tijuana are being threatened with escalating tensions between United States, Mexico and the migrants. The San Ysidro crossing was closed temporarily as the US beefed up security following the arrival of the migrant caravan, with tear gas used to disperse migrants trying to cross the border.

The incoming Mexican government has denied striking a deal with the United States to allow the migrants to remain in Mexico while their asylum applications go through the US courts, although it acknowledged that talks are ongoing with the Trump administration to come up with a solution. It is difficult to envision a deal happening as Trump continues to take a hardline stance on immigration issues. He reiterated his threat to close the southern border in a tweet: “All will stay in Mexico. If for any reason it becomes necessary, we will CLOSE our Southern Border.”

While America tries to sort its muddled immigration policy, the Central American migrants’ lives displaced in large part due to US policy and meddling in the region hangs in the balance. In spite of being a nation of plenty, it is appalling to see United States’ refusal to show compassion to the unfortunate migrants from Central America.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.