Central American migrants gathered inside and outside a church in Puebla, Mexico on April 7, 2018, for a caravan hoped to travel to the U.S. border drawing the ire of President Trump.
PUEBLA, Mexico — It had become an annual event.
For the past 10 years, several hundred migrants from Central America have traveled together from Tapachula, Chiapas, through Mexico toward the U.S. border, partly for protection and partly to make a political statement.
Those earlier caravans did not attract much attention, either from the media or political leaders on either side of the border.
But this year was different. When the caravan of migrants set off on foot on March 25, instead of the usual 200 to 300 people, the group had swelled to as many as 1,600 migrants.
What changed this year was an explosion of migrants from Honduras, an impoverished country of 9.3 million people where gang violence has made the murder rate one of the highest in the world.
The gang violence has been compounded by a political crisis triggered in the wake of November’s presidential election that many Hondurans believe was stolen by the U.S.-backed president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, who won a razor-thin victory over his main rival, Salvador Nasralla. Several days of violent protests followed.
“I expected (the caravan) to be bigger,” but not this big, said Alex Mensing, an organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the group that has organized annual migrant caravans including this year’s. “The percentage of Hondurans is way higher. It’s been like 75 or 80 percent. … That is way higher than it’s ever been.”
The size of the group caught organizers off-guard, and triggered a negative reaction from the United States far bigger than any the organizers expected, even from a president already well-known for his hard-line stance on immigration and promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
After reports of the migrant caravan traveling mostly unfettered through Mexico aired on the Fox News program “Fox & Friends” and other media outlets, President Donald Trump unleashed a barrage of tweets characterizing the group as a border-security threat.
Days of tweets culminated with Trump’s decision to deploy several thousand National Guard troops to assist the Border Patrol along the southwest border to stop illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
Now organizers are left to wonder whether one of their main objectives — to draw attention to the conditions in Central America that force people to leave their countries — may have backfired.
“I don’t feel bad about the caravan. (But) I do feel upset about the National Guard, definitely,” Mensing said.
He said organizers are now evaluating “very carefully” whether to organize caravans in the future, “not because of the National Guard” but out of concern that the military response from the U.S. may embolden “anti-immigrant hate groups.”
‘Gangs control every aspect of life’
Lisandro Efrain Guerrero Figueroa, 51, and his wife, Maria Feliciana Sosa, 46, are among the Hondurans who joined the caravan this year in Tapachula.
Guerrero Figueroa said his 17-year-old nephew was murdered about three years ago for refusing to join a gang.
Gangs control every aspect of life, his wife said. Hondurans are afraid to leave their homes in the evening for fear of being robbed or killed.
“After 9 p.m., you can’t leave your house. It’s just too dangerous,” she said.
Sick of the violence and political instability in Honduras, the couple had been living part time in Mexico without documents in the town of Pijijiapan, Chiapas, Mexico’s most southern state.
There they ran a small bakery selling pastries to migrants from Central America passing through.
After selling the bicycle he used to peddle pastries, Guerrero Figueroa and his wife joined the migrant caravan hoping to travel with the group more than 2,000 miles through Mexico to Tijuana, where they hoped to open a new pastry business.
“There are many more commercial opportunities there,” he said.
He said he was dumbfounded by Trump’s decision to send National Guard troops to the border.
In the early 1990s, he lived in the Los Angles area for a few years without documents and found Americans to be good-hearted people who valued the hard work of immigrants.
“I don’t know what planet he comes from,” Guerrero Figueroa said. “People go to the United States to work and because there are opportunities. It’s as if he doesn’t see us as human beings.”
Goals of the caravan
Mensing said the annual caravan has several goals.
The first is to provide protection to migrants fleeing extreme poverty and violence in Central America.
Under pressure from the United States, Mexico has established growing numbers of immigration checkpoints to catch and deport Central American migrants. Migrants who try and circumvent the checkpoints are frequently attacked by criminals who prey on them, Mensing said.
“They are very vulnerable to being robbed, extorted and sexually assaulted,” he said.
The caravan also is intended as a political demonstration to raise awareness about the conditions in Central America that force people to seek protection and economic opportunities in other countries, and the role the U.S. helps play in creating those conditions.
A list of demands written by migrants at the start of the caravan included calling for an end to political corruption in their home countries and an end to U.S. aid for weapons in Central America.
The caravan arrived in Puebla on Friday with about 650 migrants, largely diminished from the approximately 1,600 migrants who originally started out in Tapachula.
Some migrants decided to break off and continue on freight trains toward the U.S. border.
Others have decided to remain in Mexico. In Matias Romero, a town in Oaxaca where the migrant caravan paused for nearly a week following Trump’s Twitter-storm, Mexican immigration officials passed out documents for migrants to apply for transit permits allowing them to travel throughout the country freely for 15 to 30 days without being deported back to their home countries, Mensing said.
Unclear how many migrants qualify for asylum
In Puebla, the migrants are staying at shelters, including a Catholic church, where a team of lawyers from the U.S. and Mexico are holding meetings to inform them of their rights as migrants and refugees and explaining asylum laws in both countries.
“Essentially, people have the right to arrive at the international border to have their asylum case evaluated,” said Allegra Love, an immigration attorney from Santa Fe, New Mexico, who traveled to Puebla to meet with migrants from the caravan. “They don’t have the right to political asylum, but they have the right to ask for it.”
At ports of entry, migrants who ask for asylum meet with border agents, “and let them know they have fear of returning to their home country.”
Migrants who then pass “credible fear” interviews would be allowed to open a case for political asylum, she said.
“That might be in detention, that might be out of detention. It really depends on a case-by-case basis,” she said,
Love said during one-on-one meetings with migrants with the caravan she has heard “a lot of stories of violence and threats from the gang, or police.”
It’s hard to say how many of the migrants might qualify for asylum.
“I’ve met some people with extraordinarily strong asylum claims, and I’ve met some people who don’t have asylum claims at all, and I would say the majority of people are in the middle where it would depend a lot on the judge they get, whether they get a lawyer or not, whether they are detained, how much proof they can get,” she said.
She said the lawyers were also encouraging people to learn about asylum in Mexico. “For some families, requesting asylum here might be a better option,” she said.
The caravan plans to continue on to Mexico City, where it will end following several planned demonstrations, including one at the Honduran embassy.
Meanwhile, Guerrero Figueroa said he had no intention of crossing into the United States once he makes it to Tijuana, even though he has a sister in Houston.
“Trump doesn’t want us there,” he said.
They will be meeting one on one with volunteer Mexican and U.S. lawyers.
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