Journey into the unknown: A feature on the Migrant Caravan

US troops have been deployed on the Mexican border before. In 1846 the young state fought its southern neighbour to wrest control of Texas. In 2006, George W. Bush sent 6,000 troops who carried out surveillance and built infrastructure. In 2011, after being challenged about the threat of drug cartels, Barack Obama sent 1,200 more, with the long-term ambition of incentivising Republicans to come to the table on immigration reform.

 Donald Trump’s decision to send troops to the border in 2018, therefore, is not the first of its kind, but it is unique. Because this time the army has not been sent to meet a foreign foe or violent criminals, but several thousand hungry, tired, poor, sick and ordinary Latin Americans who have banded together to make the perilous journey to the United States; the “migrant caravan”.

People without borders (not the organisation – they have no affiliation to the caravan) organised the first caravan in 2017 but it received relatively little attention until March of the next year, when a group managed the 2,500 mile journey and made it to Friendship Park in Texas. Over 150 applied for asylum and many are still waiting in limbo. Another, 4,000 strong, began their journey in October.

Attempting to travel to and cross the border usually comes at a price; “coyotes” demand $7,000 to ensure safe passage

It is not difficult to see why so many Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans have joined the caravan. These states are wracked with poverty and gang violence, exacerbated by often absentee states. Honduras was once labelled ‘the murder capital of the world’ by the United Nations and El Salvador was the most dangerous country outside of a war zone in 2016, with a murder rate of 100 per 100,000 people.

Political instability and corruption mean that foreign direct investment is scarce and gangs demand “war taxes” from ordinary people who are murdered if they do not comply. Attempting to travel to and cross the border usually comes at a price; “coyotes” demand $7,000 to ensure safe passage, which many can not afford or fear being indentured to the smuggler once they arrive in the USA. Even life in the caravan itself carries great risk. Followers have reported widespread coughs, colds, blisters, sunburns, insect bites and eye infections, as well as child-catchers shadowing the trail. Last week the UN estimated the number of children in the caravan stood at 2,300. Leaving them behind or with relatives is not an option when gangs seek to recruit and assault vulnerable targets.

The response to the travellers has been overwhelmingly negative.

During the midterms, the threat of the advance was described by Fox News as an “invasion”. Images of the group marching towards the border are perfect for b-rolls; images or videos that can play silently while a newscaster is speaking to instil dread. In a shocking turn of events, Donald Trump took to Twitter to describe them as “very bad thugs and gang members”.

Donald Trump’s decision to send troops to the border in 2018, therefore, is not the first of its kind, but it is unique

 The language of invasion is poignant for Trump’s base. A 2012 study showed that people with higher levels of animosity towards Mexicans estimated the straight-line distance between New York and Mexico as being much smaller than those with lower levels of animosity. The thought of Mexico City approaching them on foot is easily wielded as a political weapon. In Mexico itself, Peña Nieto is being pressured by the Trump administration to stop the group before it can reach Texas, and to that end has offered temporary work permits, healthcare and education.

The United States must take some responsibility for the problems in its back yard.

On the road, local Mexicans have been giving out food, clothes and assistance. However, there is a current developing which fears the cost of jobs and welfare being funnelled into non-citizens. In 2017 Mexico processed 14,596 asylum claims, ten times what it was in 2013. If domestic opposition to their presence rises the caravan members risk becoming stuck in the middle, between the rock of gang violence at home, and the hard place of the often brutal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement that awaits them in Texas.

What should be done about the caravan?

The United States must take some responsibility for the problems in its back yard.  The cocaine supplied by cartels is in high demand in the United States and the militarised response to this has turned the passage states into battlegrounds. The chaos of the 2009 military coup (backed by the United States) has led to lawlessness and political repression.

Additionally, the United States deported gang members to Central America, where they set up amid the chaos following the civil wars, which were the result of coups backed by (you guessed it!) the United States. 

Although allowing the caravan to enter the United States seems like a compassionate response, it is a knee-jerk one. People seeking to migrate are attuned to shifts in policy, and if the caravan is successful more will follow. This would not be ideal for several reasons. It would be practically difficult for the United States to accommodate the 56% of Hondurans who want to move to the United States, due to their numbers and pressures on infrastructure and public services.

In Frum’s words “If liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals will not do”

That said, for a country as rich as the United States it would not be impossible. The more compelling case, as made by David Frum, is that it would send a devastating message that America’s borders have been opened and anyone is free to walk into the country. Considering Trump ran on a platform which called migrants rapists and criminals, this would only enflame nativist sentiment. This, in turn, could lead to reduced political capital for comprehensive immigration reform, and even animosity towards Hispanics in the United States. In Frum’s words “If liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals will not do”.

What can they do then?

Firstly, follow through on aid promised to Central America to repair broken institutions. Of the $1.6 billion in law enforcement support promised by the Merida initiative in 2007, only $20 million has been spent.

Even the ICE and Trump might be preferable to the chaos they left behind.

 Additional aid needs to cover education, infrastructure and job creation so that poverty doesn’t push migrants out, and gangs have less to offer the desperate. The United States also needs to reduce demand. The strategy on this front has been chiding public health campaigns and long prison sentences. A better alternative is providing addiction treatment, and even decriminalisation so that drug users can come forward and access it. An even bolder strategy has been suggested by economist Paul Romer. “Charter cities” could be run autonomously from the rest of a state, and in partnership with other governments.

Migrants would be free to move in and out of them, and by relying on independent Transparency Commissions, investment would not be deterred by corrupt local governments. Romer had been involved with a plan to pair a Honduran city with the Canadian and Mauritian governments, but the plan failed.

 This strategy has been dubbed neo-colonial, but without oversight from reliable actors it seems unlikely that inclusive economic bases can take off within these states, leaving ordinary people lacking and compelled to go elsewhere.

At the time of writing the caravan has passed Mexico City, with just over 1,000 kilometres to go until Texas. When they arrive they are unlikely to be welcomed with open arms, but I doubt that the migrants need Western commentators to warn them of that. Because rationally, even the ICE and Trump might be preferable to the chaos they left behind.

Photo Credit: Pixabay via Creative Commons

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