The Trump administration sees a group of thousands of Hondurans as a threat to the US’s “border and sovereignty” — but they haven’t even reached Mexico yet.
The Trump administration is threatening to cut off aid to the government of Honduras — and possibly Guatemala and El Salvador as well — if a caravan of as many as 4,000 Honduran migrants, which has already crossed into Guatemala, isn’t stopped before it reaches the United States.
The threat initially came from President Trump’s Twitter account Tuesday morning, which makes it hard to know how serious it is; the president tweets a lot of threats that don’t go anywhere, and actually made an identical threat to the government of Honduras over a previous migrant caravan this spring. But Vice President Mike Pence tweeted something similar later Tuesday morning after a conversation with the president of Honduras.
Spoke to President Hernandez of Honduras about the migrant caravan heading to the U.S. Delivered strong message from @POTUS: no more aid if caravan is not stopped. Told him U.S. will not tolerate this blatant disregard for our border & sovereignty. https://t.co/d0fOMcpoUi
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) October 16, 2018
By Tuesday night, Trump had expanded the threat to the other two countries in the “Northern Triangle” of Central America:
We have today informed the countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that if they allow their citizens, or others, to journey through their borders and up to the United States, with the intention of entering our country illegally, all payments made to them will STOP (END)!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2018
Mexico is preparing to stop the caravan. The Mexican government has already announced that caravan members who enter Mexico illegally will be “rescued” and deported, and that caravan members can request asylum in Mexico but may be detained for up to 90 days if they do. (In April, Mexico allowed a caravan of more than 1,000 migrants to enter the country, but later forcibly dispersed them by offering a similar choice.)
According to NBC News, the Mexican government sent 500 federal police to the Mexico/Guatemala border Wednesday in anticipation of the caravan’s arrival. A video posted by Karla Zabludovsky of BuzzFeed News shows two planefuls of police, armed with riot gear, touching down near the border with Guatemala.
But the Trump administration doesn’t appear sanguine about this possibility. As he was in April, the president is again fixated on the idea of a large group of people seeking to migrate to the US. And just as the April caravan helped spur a border crackdown that is still ongoing, the president’s current fixation is likely to drive US policy at the US-Mexico border and beyond.
Trump’s simplistic view of migration — in which people immigrate because their government is “sending” them, and governments ought to try to keep people from leaving so they can “make their countries great again” — doesn’t fit Central American migration to the US. The continued flow of people, often children and families, and often seeking asylum, from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador through Mexico to the US is both a complicated policy problem (in which issues of economic and humanitarian migration get tangled up) and a matter of really sensitive diplomatic dynamics.
To accomplish Trump’s aim of preventing people from even reaching the US-Mexico border, much less being allowed to seek asylum in the US, the government needs all the help it can get from Mexico and Guatemala. Trump’s bullying makes it harder for his government to ask for that help. But when other governments do help the US with “border security,” the asylum-seekers themselves are often the ones who lose out.
Trump and Pence see a caravan of 1,600 Hondurans that hasn’t even made it to Mexico as a threat to the US border
For the past several years, a majority of people crossing illegally into the US from Mexico haven’t actually been Mexican — a growing share have been Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran. Central American migrants face a dangerous journey through Mexico, not least because Mexican immigration officials, acting at the behest of the US, have aggressively detained and deported (or worse) nearly a million Central American migrants in recent years.
So “caravans” have become a way for activist groups to call attention to the plight of migrants and to provide strength in numbers.
Last Friday, a group of about 160 Hondurans set out from San Pedro Sula, frequently labeled the murder capital of the world. According to the Associated Press, the Honduran caravan gathered strength as it made its way to Guatemala — with migrants choosing to join out of economic desperation, fears for their safety, or both — and numbered an estimated 1,600 once it arrived at the Guatemalan border Monday.
Guatemalan officials initially didn’t allow the caravan to enter, but after an hours-long standoff they relented.
In other words, while the Trump administration is threatening to punish Honduras if the caravan doesn’t return, the Honduran government can’t actually bring the migrants back (at least not without invading Guatemala). Stopping the caravan is now up to the Guatemalan government, or, more likely, the Mexican government.
Mexico’s response to the spring caravan shrunk the group heading to the US from more than 1,000 to about 300. But Mexico also responded to that caravan by giving migrants the opportunity to get humanitarian visas to stay in Mexico, while it appears to be taking a harder line with the current group.
But even though the caravan is several weeks from arriving at the US-Mexico border — and will almost certainly be apprehended before that — both Trump and Pence view its existence as a violation of America’s “border and sovereignty.”
That’s consistent with Donald Trump’s understanding of immigration policy, at least as it’s been portrayed in his own comments and reporting from inside the White House.
Trump doesn’t appear to understand that the US can’t simply shut down the US-Mexico border; that people coming to the US without papers can’t simply be repelled or deported (because they might have valid grounds to claim asylum).
Anybody entering the United States illegally will be arrested and detained, prior to being sent back to their country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2018
Nor does he appear to understand that people apply for visas to come to the United States rather than being preselected and “sent” by home countries trying to get rid of them. Given all that, it makes perfect sense that Trump would blame Central American countries for failing to prevent people from leaving — and would see it as an insult to the US that they didn’t.
Others in the Trump administration, however — not least White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who served as director of the US military’s Southern Command (including Central America) before becoming Trump’s first Homeland Security secretary — understand that it’s much more complicated than that.
Trump is bullying the very people he needs to help him
To anyone who isn’t Donald Trump, it’s obvious that simply preventing people from leaving a country is both a violation of human rights (since they may be fleeing persecution, including government persecution) and an unworkable solution. If the US can’t prevent literally everyone from illegally crossing the US-Mexico border, it’s odd to think that a much poorer and less well-governed country could do a better job with theirs.
The US’ line on the current wave of Northern Triangle migration, under the Obama administration and the first months of Trump (when Kelly was running DHS), was that it had to address the “root causes” — to stop people from wanting to leave. Generally, that meant encouraging investment in the economy of those countries and the “rule of law” of their governments.
This attitude — taken both by the Obama administration, and by Kelly’s DHS — justifies denying asylum to Central American migrants because it paints them as economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing violence. It also makes migration seem more “solvable” than it really is, as the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Kevin McAleenan, learned during a recent trip to Guatemala. (Alicia Caldwell’s article about McAleenan’s trip for the Wall Street Journal is well worth reading to understand just how complicated the issue is.)
But it’s good for relations with Mexico and Northern Triangle countries, who will happily agree that the problem with their countries isn’t violence or human rights abuses but simply that not enough people are giving them money.
Under Trump, however — and specifically once US-Mexico apprehensions returned to normal levels after an early-2017 dip — the attitude has shifted. Trump characterizes the problem with Central America as gang violence, but uses that as a reason for the US not to accept Central American migrants, rather than a reason to extend asylum to them.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who’s led the charge to narrow asylum grounds so that it’s harder for Central American gang victims to qualify for legal status in the US, has made it clear that he doesn’t believe gang violence is a type of persecution covered by US asylum law.
It’s essentially the “shithole countries” view. Central American countries are poor and crime-ridden, and instead of being a reason for the US to help them, it’s a reason for the US to build up walls.
The problem is that callousness and bullying make the governments of these countries less inclined to do what the US wants — as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto gently chided Trump during the last caravan crisis.
As long as the Trump administration wants to prevent people from making it even within sight of the US-Mexico border, it desperately needs Mexico and all of the Northern Triangle countries to cooperate in apprehending migrants en route. After all, millions of the dollars that the US currently sends to Honduras are aid for military and border security.
In other words, the US is already exerting substantial control over the way that the Northern Triangle countries and (especially) Mexico engage in immigration enforcement — it’s just doing it with carrots for foreign governments, so that they’ll give the stick to asylum-seekers.
The lesson of the last caravan: when other countries do the US’s bidding, asylum-seekers lose
The crackdown at the US-Mexico border can be traced back to Trump’s fixation with the caravan this spring: By the time 300 caravan members arrived at the San Ysidro port of entry (near San Diego), the Trump administration had put into motion the zero-tolerance prosecution effort that would lead to widespread family separation and had stepped up its restriction of asylum-seekers coming legally into official ports of entry.
The administration characterizes the latest caravan as yet more evidence that further enforcement is needed; “The current reporting on the migrant ‘caravan’ from Honduras is what we see day-in and day-out at the border as a result of well-advertised and well-known catch-and-release loopholes,” DHS spokesperson Katie Waldman said Monday.
It’s already an international effort. At some ports of entry, Mexican immigration officials are responsible for organizing a weeks-long line of asylum-seekers waiting their turn to be allowed to enter the US legally.
But human-rights observers claim the Mexican government isn’t primarily interested in protecting an orderly asylum process — it’s interested in helping the US stop people from crossing, legally or otherwise.
Advocates recount stories from asylum-seekers of officials on both sides telling them they aren’t allowed to seek asylum in the US, or of Mexican officials detaining them or threatening them with deportation after they tried to present themselves at a US port.
When the caravan arrived at San Ysidro this spring, the US didn’t allow any of its members to enter initially, due to the restrictions at the port of entry. It gradually allowed a few at a time to enter legally over the next days and weeks.
In the meantime, a Human Rights Watch report published last week alleges that Mexican police arrested two of the asylum-seekers and beat one of them, and a group of armed men attempted to burn down the shelter where another group of asylum-seekers was staying.
One Mexican official told Human Rights Watch that the US had asked the Mexican government to clear out the plaza where asylum-seekers were waiting — with the implicit understanding that anyone whose Mexican travel visas had expired would be deported. If Mexico had complied, it would have, essentially, deported people from Mexico because they had to wait in Mexico before being allowed to cross legally into the US.
It would have been an act of “border enforcement” without US involvement. That’s exactly what Trump and Pence are calling for now. The point is to prevent people from arriving — how that happens, and what happens to the people instead, appears to not be the US government’s concern.
Author: Dara Lind