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Opinion: The Caravans are Coming—And Trump's Tactics Won't Stop Them

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Honduran migrant Sandra and her son, Angel, have been staying at the Todo por Ellos migrant shelter in Tapachula since June. She left behind her husband, a gang member, out of fear that her children would inherit the gang life or be killed. Image by Jose Cabezas. Mexico, 2018. 

Honduran migrant Sandra and her son, Angel, have been staying at the Todo por Ellos migrant shelter in Tapachula since June. She left behind her husband, a gang member, out of fear that her children would inherit the gang life or be killed. Image by Jose Cabezas. Mexico, 2018. 

As the Honduran caravan makes its way through Mexico toward the U.S. border, and as two other caravans have set forth from El Salvador into Guatemala, the United States seems to be preparing for battle. President Donald Trump vows that by the time the Honduran caravan arrives, up to 15,000 troops will have made their way to the American border with Mexico in anticipation of their arrival. It’s unclear what, exactly, will happen if and when the migrants make it to the shining red line that separates the United States from Latin America.

But any faceoff will pit well-armed, well-trained U.S. forces against what will, by that time, likely be a fraction of the number of bedraggled migrants, many of them parents and children, who have walked several thousand kilometres from home in search of refuge. According to Trump administration officials, the United States might close its border altogether to asylum seekers—an affront to international law, human decency, and the very foundations of refugee policy.

The administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy strategies are by now well known.Since first hitting the campaign trail in 2015, Mr. Trump has centred much of his nationalist bombast on curbing migration and casting Latin American immigrants as ravenous gang members, murderers, rapists and animals. Millions of U.S. citizens have taken the bait. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has continued to erode decades of legislation that offers protection to migrants seeking safety and security, asserting that fleeing gang violence and domestic violence are no longer widely permissible grounds for asylum, in spite of the legal precedent that has made them so.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has increased the number of immigrants detained each day to more than 40,000—which costs taxpayers US$8.43-million a day. It has also arrested undocumented guardians who have come forward to claim children in detention, and has threatened to criminally prosecute parents who have paid for a coyote, or human smuggler, to bring their children north from danger. (Though risky, travelling with a coyote is generally much safer than a child travelling alone.) While family separation is not Donald Trump’s invention, last summer the Department of Homeland Security opted to make it a standard practice; hundreds of children remain separated from their families, and may end up in the custody of adoptive parents in the United States, perhaps never to see their own parents again. This week, Mr. Trump announced his intention to issue an executive order to end birthright citizenship—the long-held and constitutionally protected practice that ensures that people born in the United States are citizens, regardless of the immigration status of their parents.

The goal of these wide-reaching strategies is twofold. First, they aim to rally political fervour against immigration; throughout history, in times of economic strife, people tend to galvanize around a purported common enemy when instructed to do so by autocratic leaders. Equally important, they aim to terrorize migrants: If conditions in the United States are wretched enough, the administration hopes, the news will spread home quickly and people will stop coming.

The problem is, this deterrence strategy doesn’t work. People simply keep leaving the Northern Triangle of Central America, a region now known for its wrenching community violence and its politics of corruption and impunity. In May, before the height of the family-separation policy, 9,485 family units were apprehended along the southern U.S. border.

And yet, in spite of the horrors and the fears of parents and children being separated, the families have kept coming. In August, 12,774 family cases were apprehended. In September, more than 16,000 families were caught and put into detention—an increase of nearly 70 per cent compared with May.

If the risk of having your child taken away at the border isn’t enough to keep people from coming, it should be no surprise that deportation and prolonged detention aren’t much of a deterrent either. Though studies show that prolonged detention tends to weaken the will of immigrants—so that they opt not to fight their case, and instead find themselves deported home—many return later.

Even with soldiers standing guard at the border, these journeys north will not end until conditions in Central America change.

In September, I spent time in the city of Tapachula, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, six weeks before the migrant caravan would pass through the town. I was there to investigate the impacts, if any, of Mr. Trump’s deterrence policies. After years of reporting on migration from Central America, I knew that deterrence didn’t tend to work, but I was interested in the textures of the decisions people were making: How did the family-separation policy—along with decades of mass incarceration of detained migrants, deportations and casting migrants as affiliated with the notorious MS-13 and other gangs—affect the decisions migrants were making regarding where to go and how to get there?

Just to look around Tapachula, I was hard-pressed to see much of an impact at all. The migrant shelters were full and getting fuller. People lined up in the early mornings to process temporary humanitarian visas in Mexico. Migrants boarded boats along the river that separated Mexico from Guatemala and they filled up the Mexican government’s detention facilities. They also filled up the buses that left several times a week to deport people back to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Everywhere I went were migrants from Central America who had left home and were in search of some form of security abroad.

But they weren’t travelling willy-nilly; they were relying on hard-earned information to help them get to where they were going as safely as possible. Amid the horrors of Central American migration and the conditions that propel people from their homes, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that migrants are deeply savvy: Their survival depends on it. They shift and bend their paths and strategies in response to what’s happening up ahead.

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Migrants line up in Tapachula to have their paperwork processed. Image by Jose Cabezas. Mexico, 2018.

Migrants line up in Tapachula to have their paperwork processed. Image by Jose Cabezas. Mexico, 2018. 

As I found in Tapachula among the thousands of migrants I saw there—in just a few short days—and the scores with whom I spoke, people weren’t being deterred from leaving their home countries, though some were, indeed, thinking twice about heading to the United States. I met dozens of families who were going to try their luck in Mexico, where they hoped they could find jobs and apply for asylum. (Asylum applications in Mexico increased 11-fold between 2013 and 2017.)

A few migrants even told me they were planning to cross into the United States, have a friend or family member pick them up, and then move north to Canada, where they would apply for asylum. “It’s better in Canada,” one young man from Nicaragua told me, because there they don’t hate immigrants. Another Salvadoran texted me the other day: “Do you know any way that we can get help to travel to Canada?” The United States, he had decided, would be too clogged and complicated. “Mejor alla,” he said. Better over there—by which he meant Canada.

The majority of migrants I spoke with were, however, still heading toward the United States with just a hope and a prayer that their children wouldn’t be taken from them, or that the Trump administration hadn’t cooked up some new stew of horrors. Yet, at the same time, the strategy for getting to the United States has shifted.

For the past several years, common practice among migrants—wisdom they’ve gleaned from friends and family who’ve taken the journey, as well as from news reports, local rumours and even directly from their coyotes—has been to turn oneself in at the border crossing or once safely inside the country, in order to request asylum. For many adults, that could mean indefinite detention. But initiating the asylum process would also offer them some glimmer of a chance to fight their case, win it and be able to stay.

Under current laws (ones the Trump administration is working hard to dismantle), the majority of families with children, and of youths travelling alone, would be released from detention temporarily, pending their deportation hearings. Outside, they could find work (under the table, of course). They could enroll their children in school. And they could try to find a lawyer (although securing an effective and affordable immigration lawyer in the United States is no small feat). Central Americans fleeing violence at home—extortion, forced gang recruitment, rape, murdered family members and the risk of being murdered oneself, domestic violence committed with impunity—had a shot, if a slim one, at winning asylum.

But under the Trump administration, more and more people told me, they were opting not to turn themselves in. Rather, they would try to find a weak spot in border surveillance or a break in the wall, slip across the line as if a spectre, evade authorities, move well away from the border and into the interior, and live beneath the radar—and hope to remain that way. To accomplish this requires making a run for it through some of the most brutal and deadly territory along the southern U.S. border, risking death at the hands of the elements and extortion at the hands of their guides. Yet, opting not to turn oneself in and try for asylum is an understandable choice in the face of a U.S. government that has made it clear as day that it does not and will not uphold the rights of migrants, or even respect basic human decency.

Of course, the one glaring exception to the “migrate below the radar” strategy is the migrant caravan.

In a way, a caravan is the most rational response to Mr. Trump’s “migration crackdown”—which is, of course, a perverse and extreme manifestation of a long lineage of inhumane U.S. migration enforcement. To avoid being brutalized by the U.S. government, it’s a wise act to travel in numbers and make your presence known. As Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martinez wrote in The New York Times this week, “Millions of those who have decided to leave have done so because they understand that it’s better to leave in an avalanche.” Travelling en masse protects a person from the brutalities of the journey itself, where migrants are prone to rape, extortion, kidnapping and murder. (Nearly every young woman I’ve spoken to who has made the journey has taken birth control before leaving, in case she is raped—a fact that’s worth pausing on and a reality that’s worth considering, when weighing the common claim that these migrants are merely seeking financial gain.)

As infamous and politicized as the migrant caravan has become—seen as a grand statement about migrant rights on one side of the spectrum, a threat to the sanctity of the U.S. border on the other (and in more extreme circles and in the mind of the U.S. President, a George Soros- or Democrat-funded conspiracy)—it involves a simple equation: Migrants, many fleeing deadly circumstances and living in countries whose governments are unwilling to protect them or incapable of doing so, are travelling together toward safety and keeping themselves as safe as possible along the way. Hundreds and thousands of migrants have taken this same route in the past year; the difference is that those in the caravan have banded together.

It’s important to remember why migrants are coming to the United States in the first place. Though the Trump administration has cast them as greedy grifters, criminals looking to wreak havoc, or as poor people bringing disease and seeking to suck the U.S. economy dry (never mind that undocumented immigrants alone contribute more than US$11-billion each year in tax revenue, US$300-billion into social security and, as of 2014, made up more than 5 per cent of the work force and 53 per cent of agricultural labour), the majority of migrants from Central America are fleeing violence.

In Tapachula, while today’s migrant caravan was still just a future premise, I visited the Todo por Ellos (Everything for Them) migrant shelter, a dedicated, ragtag operation valiantly squatted in a Mexican-government building next to a local dump. In 2016, a man named Padre Ramon, who has long worked with migrant communities in Chiapas and who is an outspoken critic of the government (he travels with an armed security guard) cleared out this empty, high-ceilinged, concrete building that was full of junk, installed a sink and a basic kitchen, and set out 28 beds. The space resembles a cross between a storage facility, a horse stable and a sweltering indoor hockey rink. At the building’s northern edge, the shelter’s beds abut an archway covered in mesh-wire fencing, behind which warble a collection of several hundred chickens

A Honduran mother named Sandra, whose last name The Globe and Mail has chosen not to print out of concern for her safety, told me that, when she first arrived, the chickens kept her son, Angel, awake at night. But over time, he got used to it—he had no choice. It was September, and Sandra and Angel had been staying at the shelter since June. On the day I visited, it was Angel’s seventh birthday. Sandra had no money and was waiting to figure out a near-term plan: Where could she get a job? Where could she find a home? Where could she build a life of safety for herself and her child?

Their personal security was a big concern. Being a woman travelling alone with a small child is a risk unto itself. And then there were the reasons that she had left in the first place.

At first, she told me that she left for financial reasons: no work, stagnated economy, living as a single mom. She said it was hard for someone like her, who had little education and little prospect of finding a good job. As we spoke, Sandra tidied their living space and sat on the bed, waiting for her phone to charge. She had a worn, tired face; she could easily have been Angel’s grandmother. He was her youngest. She had left the other kids, all teenagers, back home in Honduras with her mother, far away from the town where they grew up. This was by design.

I asked if she got child support from her husband. At this, she nearly laughed. Her husband, she admitted, was in a gang. Contrary to popular assumption, gangsters don’t make much money at all, barely enough for basic survival. She’d split from him because she was worried that her children would be drawn into the gang life, or worse, be killed in the crossfire.

Yes, like many migrants, Sandra was heading north in search of a better life: stable job, economic security, perhaps even enough money to send some home to her kids from time to time. Somehow, this desire—one that propelled so many European immigrants across the Atlantic in the 1800s, including my own—has managed to be cast as an outrageous crime.

But also, barely scratch the surface and there was another set of factors pulsing beneath. Sandra’s gangster husband, she told me once we’d sat together long enough and she’d begun to trust me, had threatened to set her house on fire for divorcing him. If she told the police, she’d risk being killed.

Today’s gang violence in Central America is a result of shameful U.S. foreign and immigration policy. In the 1980s, Washington backed brutal autocratic regimes in order to stave off mounting leftist movements that smacked too closely of communism and operated too close to the southern U.S. border. The United States trained Latin American troops (sometimes on U.S. soil) and supplied them with guns and money. With U.S. assistance and backing, Central American governments routinely perpetrated scorched-earth campaigns: “disappearing” citizens, and killing innocent villagers before dumping them into mass graves. The United States assisted and covered up these war crimes and turned a blind eye.

During the eighties and nineties, hundreds of thousands of people fled north toward safety. Young refugees, often poor, undocumented and traumatized by war, found themselves trying to survive in low-income areas of U.S. cities that were largely controlled by domestic gangs. As a matter of survival, young Salvadorans in Los Angeles, in particular, formed their own gangs. (It is worth noting, without condoning such activity, that, from nearly every immigrant group in the United States, whether the Irish or the Italians or the Chinese, gang activity has emerged, in a country that tends to cast newcomers into the shadows and that tends to frustrate their attempts at entering the legitimate economy.)

Eventually, thousands of these young gang members were arrested and deported back to El Salvador. MS-13 and Barrio 18, as well as other, smaller and lesser-known gangs, took root back home—the same gangs that Mr. Trump uses to instill fear of what he casts as the violent, bloody migrant hordes.

The seeds of what Americans planted in the eighties are coming back to haunt the United States. Even worse, Americans are repeating the past. Instead of focusing on the root causes afflicting Central America—poverty, stagnating economies, climate change, endemic violence—Americans are criminalizing those who find themselves with little choice but to leave. As the United States deports them back home to what they were fleeing in the first place, many now further traumatized by prolonged detention, U.S. actions are stirring a brutal churn of migration and violence.

Not only is the United States closing its own border and bolstering it with troops (an astoundingly outsized response to a bunch of hungry, bedraggled pilgrims knocking at the door). By threatening to cut foreign aid, the United States is also forcing countries in the Northern Triangle to close their own borders to people trying to get out. Guatemala has tried to shutter its borders between Mexico to the north and Honduras to the south (although the caravan breached the Mexican side). And last week Honduras closed part of its border with Guatemala

The threat of reducing foreign aid is horrifying to those in power in Central America. Yet, foreign aid means little to desperate people living in a violent country whose government is unable, and even at times unwilling, to protect them. “People here are telling me, ‘What good is this foreign aid? Where does it go? Take it. I don’t see it,’ ” my friend Jose Cabezas, a photographer in the region, told me.

There are no good historical precedents for societies that close off their borders to keep their people from leaving. Nor is there particularly good precedent for mobilizing an army to ward off desperate pilgrims. What the Washington is doing today will come back to haunt Americans one day too.

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The Todo por Ellos ("all for them") shelter gives migrants a rag-tag refuge in a Mexican government building next to a Tapachula dump. Image by Jose Cabezas. Mexico, 2018.

The Todo por Ellos ("all for them") shelter gives migrants a rag-tag refuge in a Mexican government building next to a Tapachula dump. Image by Jose Cabezas. Mexico, 2018. 

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Padre Ramon, the man who first opened Todo por Ellos, speaks with migrants at the shelter. Image by Jose Cabezas. Mexico, 2018.

Padre Ramon, the man who first opened Todo por Ellos, speaks with migrants at the shelter. Image by Jose Cabezas. Mexico, 2018. 

Since it was Angel’s birthday, the group of migrants at Todo por Ellos presented him with a store-bought vanilla cake covered in whipped cream and fruit. As Sandra poured pop into plastic cups, the lodgers gathered around the table.

“Someone should sing!” someone shouted, and one of the guys ruffled Angel’s hair. After the song was over, he shouted, as is tradition, “Bite it! Bite it!” and gently pressed Angel’s face into the soft, spongy cake. Though he’d expected this, Angel didn’t like it; the icing got up his nose. He began snorting, and burst into tears. For the rest of the party he hid his head in his arms, weeping quietly, as if he were trying to disappear. “Don’t cry, don’t cry!” some of his older buddies said. Sandra just shook her head and wiped the remaining frosting from Angel’s face.

“His father wanted to take him from me,” she told me, as she tidied up. “How could I let him have that kind of life?” When she wouldn’t hand Angel over, her husband threatened, once again, to burn the house down. She had every reason to believe he would, one day, do it. The police would do nothing to protect her; he was with the gangs, after all.

“My other kids are older and okay,” she told me. “But I need a better future for him.” She looked Angel’s way. He had stopped crying, and took his mother’s phone to snap some selfies of himself with silly faces.

She took her child with her in order to save him from his dad, from gang life, from poverty. Of course, she’s worried they would take him away up north, too, but she doesn’t know if she’s even headed there. Maybe one day. She’ll see what happens. Migrants prepare for their journey as best they can—if they are afforded the luxury of time to prepare—and gather up bits of information along the way. But there’s often no perfect plan, and many of them take it day by day. “Only God knows,” Sandra says.

I’d love to ask her whether, if she’d had a chance, she would have joined the caravan. But by now she’s gone, moving along through the shadowy passages of the Mexican migrant trail, operating on whatever information she can find about where to go next and how best and most safely to get there. “Plans,” as I wrote in Politico last week, “are a luxury of the certain.”

Will the Trump administration really use the army to close down the American border and prohibit people from applying for asylum, that U.S. version of refugee law? It remains to be seen, as the whims of the President are wildly difficult to predict.

Refugee law came about after the Second World War and its horrors. Surely, the international community thought, we need an international protective framework for people who are being threatened in their home countries, and whose home countries are unwilling or unable to protect them. This is the framework that the Trump administration is now eroding with fervour. We should not ignore the fact that 11 Jews were murdered last week by an anti-Semitic gunman who had once claimed online that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is a U.S. Refugee Resettlement Agency, was bringing refugees to the U.S. to commit acts of violence against the American people. Xenophobia is once again imperiling those who most need a safe haven.

This xenophobic, anti-immigration scourge isn’t particular to the Trump administration, but rather is afflicting the entire world. Leaders and would-be leaders from Turkey to Norway to France to Denmark to Brazil—which has recently elected Jair Bolsonaro to be its new president—have campaigned on a platform of nativism and have fomented fear of the encroaching army of others, often darker-skinned people, coming to destroy a long-held way of life.

This nativism isn’t only ridiculous, racist and cruel; it walks back decades of international co-operation regarding forced migrants. This is not an academic debate, but one of dire consequences that becomes more relevant and urgent every day. With climate change exacerbating poverty and pre-existing conflict, more and more people are expected to leave their homes. Today’s vexing global question is: Where will they go, and how will they be received?

What the Trump administration will do once the caravan reaches the border remains to be seen. On the one hand, Mr. Trump is a master of clownish rhetoric and bluster. But he has also proved himself to be ruthless when it comes to enacting inhumane policies on the ground.

What is certain is that migration won’t stop, not if the root causes aren’t tended to.

As I left Todo por Ellos, a family of five—a mother, father, and three children under the age of 10—were making their way past the garbage dump and toward the shelter. They arrived, flush-faced, slightly panting and sweating in the heat, and dropped their things on the concrete outside the shelter door. “Is this Todo por Ellos?” they asked the security guard. Yes, he confirmed, but there was no space for them. Dejected, they slumped in the shade while the guard went to fetch Padre Ramon, who would see what he could do.

The family was from Honduras and had just come overland from the border with Guatemala, some 45 kilometres away. They weren’t much interested in talking. They had left Honduras, they told me, because of problems—a common catch-all for run-ins with the gangs. Where were they headed, I wondered. “Donde hay suelo,” the mother told me, with a scornful look. “Where there’s a floor” is the direct translation—but perhaps a better one is, “Wherever there’s a place to sleep.”

I figured I had misstated my question: Not just tonight, I clarified, but where were they headed eventually? What was their ultimate destination? “Donde hay suelo,” she repeated, shook her head, and looked away. Wherever there was a place to lay their heads.

A month later, the caravan would set out from Honduras and follow the same route north that this family had taken. Now, those two other caravans are following in its wake. Migrants, like all of us, just looking for a place to lay their heads, and hoping not to die.