Trump plays to his base on Central American migrant caravan — few will ever reach the US

Trump plays to his base on Central American migrant caravan — few will ever reach the US
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE's tweet on Easter Sunday was the first many people in the U.S. had heard about a caravan of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico heading north.

"Getting more dangerous. 'Caravans' coming," Trump tweeted, while threatening to torpedo a DACA deal with Democrats unless Congress agreed to stricter border measures. On Monday, Trump accused Mexico of being weak on border security, threatening to walk away from NAFTA, and on Tuesday, he announced he would send the U.S. military to patrol the border.

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What is the Central American migrant caravan, and is it really a threat to border security? Its organizers say of course not.

 

The caravan, sponsored by the humanitarian organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, or "People Without Borders," had been traveling through Mexico since March 25, picking up migrants along the way. By Easter Sunday, the group had grown to around 1,500 people. Most are from Honduras, with smaller numbers from Guatemala and El Salvador.

Organizers stress that there is a long tradition of such caravans during Holy Week. The purpose, they say, is not to encourage Central American migration, nor to "storm" the U.S. southern border. Rather, by traveling in large numbers, the caravans provide protection for Central Americans who are vulnerable to abuse as they cross through Mexico. Many Central Americans fall prey to extortion, rape or even kidnapping by gangs and drug cartels as they make their way through Mexico.

Another reason to travel in a group is to highlight the reasons why Central Americans are being displaced, as well as their petitions for asylum. Many members of the Central American migrant caravan identify as LGBT and say they are victims of persecution in their home countries.

In the past year, migrant rights organizations have accused U.S. border agents of interfering with the right of refugees to apply for political asylum. In July 2017, a group of immigration lawyers, advocacy organizations, and asylum seekers filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security alleging that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, who operate at national points of entry, are illegally turning away asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

On April 3, the Latin America Working Group, an umbrella organization of human rights groups based in Washington, D.C., released a report on the conditions driving the migrant caravan. “Between a Wall and a Dangerous Place” documents human rights abuses, corruption and public security risks in the northern countries of Central America. 

The LAWG report also documents violent repression against citizens in Honduras following a national election last November that international observers and some U.S. political leaders say was tainted by fraud.

"We are reaping what we sow in Honduras," said LAWG director Lisa Haugaard, in a press release Tuesday. "A failure of the international community including the United States to take a strong stance against repression is intensifying the human rights crisis in the country and contributing to the outflow of refugees."

This year's caravan of Central American migrants might be the largest yet, but it is not fundamentally different from previous years. Why, then, has it grabbed headlines?

One reason is that, this year, a Buzzfeed reporter was embedded with the caravan, sending out ominous-sounding updates like "A Huge Caravan of Central Americans is Headed for the U.S. and No One in Mexico Dares to Stop Them," which made the group of migrants sound like they were a meteorite about to hit Arizona or Texas. Conservative news sources picked up the story.   

Another reason appears to be that Trump this weekend was huddled at Mar-A-Lago with hardline anti-immigration advisors such as Stephen Miller.

Central Americans have been in the crosshairs of the Trump administration since 2017. Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTo understand death behind bars, we need more information White House backs Stephen Miller amid white nationalist allegations The Hill's Campaign Report: Late bids surprise 2020 Democratic field MORE escalated rhetoric against Central Americans, linking migrant youth to criminal gangs. White House chief of staff and former Homeland Security Secretary John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE complained that DHS wasn't deporting Central Americans fast enough, amid debates early this year over revoking Temporary Protected Status for Central Americans.

Mexico, for its part, announced that it would grant temporary permits to some migrants and allow others to apply for asylum. By Tuesday evening, the caravan was stalled in a soccer field in the town of Matias Romero, in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, while Mexican officials took a census.

If the march proceeds as it has in the past, say organizers, only a small percentage of the migrants will continue all the way to the U.S. border. Many simply want safe passage in Mexico, as they look for work or petition for asylum in Mexico. 

As migrant rights advocates are quick to point out, overall unauthorized U.S. border crossings are at an historic low. Central American border crossings have risen in recent years, and requests for asylum by Central Americans rose 25 percent in fiscal 2017.  It is difficult for Central Americans to receive asylum in the U.S. based solely on generalized violence in their countries, although sometimes U.S. courts have interpreted gang violence as a form of social persecution directed at children, teenagers or women. 

Trump's Twitter frenzy since Sunday is not based on a substantial change in Central American migration. It will play well with his anti-immigrant base, however, especially in an election year. What it won't do is provide any solution to the conditions in Central America that are propelling people to leave.

Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She is co-editor of “The Guatemala Reader” and a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.