Migrant activists and human smugglers collaborated at the Southern border: Innocents lost

Over the past generation, migrant smugglers — at the outset known as "polleros" (or chicken herders) — have been viewed as a necessary evil by migrant advocacy groups. Smugglers acted illegally, to be sure, but for a worthy cause: To assist migrants to arrive at their destination and achieve a better life. Migrant activists, including church groups and human rights organizations, not only turned a blind eye to the law-breaking but affirmatively extended their support networks (and credibility) both to the smuggled migrants and to the (perceived) Robin Hoods who were smuggling them.

In what might have once seemed a marriage of convenience for a noble purpose, smugglers operated hand-in-hand with human rights advocacy groups along Mexico’s migration corridors. All of them viewed their activities as akin to the pre-United States civil war Underground Railroad: A network of safehouses, finances and routes through which slaves could be smuggled out of the South and brought to freedom.

Though it may have started out innocently enough, over the past ten years, the smuggling enterprise has changed dramatically and become thoroughly criminalized.

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As security conditions improved steadily on the Southwest border and irregular entrance into the United States was further restricted, the price charged by smugglers rose disproportionately. In turn, as the amount of money generated by human smuggling grew, criminal groups operating along the migration routes — including drug cartels and corrupt law enforcement authorities — became major participants, and human smuggling became a central feature of their criminal businesses.

The ballad of traditional polleros — largely mom and pop smuggling operations — has given way to the human trafficking terror of organized crime. Border gangsters nowadays routinely inflict extortion, kidnapping, rape, and assault on migrants making the arduous journey north. It has been impossible for human rights organizations and church groups to credibly deny knowledge of these abuses.

This altered nature of the smuggling enterprise and the attendant human rights violations account in part for the rise of caravans. Migrants were attracted to the movement en masse to avoid both exorbitant smuggling charges and also the dangers of the journey. Ignited initially by community organizers in Honduras, the caravans grew organically and spontaneously. When they arrived on foot in Mexico, however, migrant advocacy groups — particularly Pueblo Sin Fronteras — assumed an organizing role, arranged funding and managed the logistics to transport 10,000 migrants to the northern Mexican border city of Tijuana.

In a remarkable transformation, migrant activists and advocates became migrant smugglers themselves.

The inconvenient truth is that the results have been disastrous both for migrants and for migrant advocacy groups.

The migrants and activists who sought a confrontation with the Trump Administration achieved their aim. But in so doing, they delivered to the President a border victory at a crucial political juncture: The U.S. midterm elections and the beginning of a new administration in Mexico. At the end of the year, Trump's border wall rhetoric gains momentum. At the same time, through a rather unclear migration agreement between Mexico and the United States, asylum-seekers will be forced to wait in Mexico while their requests are processed.

The confrontation at the San Ysidro border crossing had little to do with border security and nothing at all to do with an “invasion” of the United States or a major national security threat. However, the images of people rushing the border, throwing rocks at Border Patrol agents and being repulsed with tear gas, against a background of concertina wire installed by the U.S. military, could not have been better devised to foster the impression sought by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE. The episode, in short, was a political disaster for refugees and the migrant community in general.

Moreover, it has placed the new Lopez Obrador Administration in an untenable position as it tries to shape a new immigration policy for a Mexico which is increasingly sending fewer migrants itself but is now a transit zone and soon to be a destination for Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty.

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Paradoxically, as the U.S. President has mentioned several times, it seems that Mexico will indeed be paying for Trump’s wall, at least indirectly — or at least for a part of it. Mexico will pay by being forced to provide support for migrants of the caravans and asylum-seekers waiting in Mexican territory for their cases to be resolved.

At the same time, it has become clear that the organizations which brought the caravan to Tijuana have brought no benefits to the migrants themselves. To the contrary, migrants have been exploited as political pawns and left helpless in an increasingly hostile Tijuana.

As the Mexican and U.S. governments negotiate how to handle the situation, time passes and U.S. soldiers return home while the migrants remain out in the cold mired in squalor with no chance of having their asylum petitions processed any time soon.

It is unlikely that those responsible will be held accountable at this point for the unsatisfactory outcomes let alone for the crimes of smuggling that caused them. But perhaps — as a new caravan is forming in Honduras — an opportunity is presented for a reckoning that will reconsider the unholy and unspoken alliance that has existed between human smugglers, on the one hand, and human rights and migrant advocates on the other.

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Government and Policy at George Mason University and an expert in the fields of migration, human smuggling, organized crime and trafficking in persons. Follow her on Twitter @GCorreaCabrera.

Alan Bersin served as the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Assistant Secretary and Chief Diplomatic Officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He previously served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California.