Why Migrant Caravans Keep Forming

Just days after a group of Hondurans began their trek to the U.S.-Mexico border, a second caravan began to gather. It could signal a trend toward more people traveling in groups.

Central American migrants traveling with a caravan to the U.S. crowd onto a tractor. (Rodrigo Abd / AP)

It seems as though overnight, the words “migrant caravan” have become embedded in the nation’s vocabulary. The term is splashed across television networks’ chyrons and national newspapers. President Donald Trump has raised the ongoing caravan at rallies as a threat to the United States and cited it as a reason for an overhaul of the country’s immigration laws.

But migrant caravans aren’t new—and they’re not going away.

For years, advocacy groups have organized caravans to help those fleeing danger in Central America safely reach the United States, and, in the process, highlight the dangers migrants face in trying to reach the American border. A group called Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which has been organizing caravans since 2008, was behind the group that caught the attention of Trump and other Republicans in March. Trump eventually signed a proclamation to send the National Guard to the border.

What makes the latest venture unique is its apparent spontaneity.

“It appears to have gone viral,” said Maureen Meyer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights advocacy organization. “People who had thought about it then decided this is the time to do it. I don’t think anyone had expected this very unprecedented number of people to be able to travel and gather together so quickly.” In response, Defense Secretary James Mattis is reportedly expecting to send 800 more National Guard troops to the border, where they’d assist Customs and Border Patrol but wouldn’t be involved in migrant apprehension.

According to the Honduran government, the caravan currently making its way through Mexico can be traced back to a Facebook post by Bartolo Fuentes, an activist and former Honduran lawmaker. On October 5, Fuentes posted a graphic listing a date, time, and place to meet. “We’re not leaving because we want to,” the graphic reads. “Violence and poverty chase us out.” A group of about 160 Honduran migrants set out from San Pedro Sula, in the country’s northwest, eight days later.

The group’s numbers grew as it made its way north, as people—who either saw news of it on television or got word from others—joined. The caravan, which at its peak was estimated to consist of as many as 7,000 migrants, offers those who for years might have considered leaving their origin country—whether because of violence or economic insecurity—the opportunity to do so without paying steep smuggling costs. It also provides some security for what is a dangerous journey riddled with extortion, kidnapping, and sexual abuse.

“From a social perspective, they have seen in the news, because of all the coverage in the news, that it’s a successful mode,” said Sofia Martinez, an analyst focusing on Central America at International Crisis Group, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization. “I would not be surprised if people travel in groups from now on … though maybe not in the thousands.”

Trump’s public criticism may have actually fueled caravans’ popularity by raising awareness of their existence. “The irony of the caravans is that because President Trump gave so much attention to the last one, he may have set off a new wave of caravans in the future,” said Andrew Selee, the president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

A second caravan is reportedly gathering in Chiquimula, a city in Guatemala near the Honduran border. It’s not yet clear how many migrants have joined, though some estimate it’s as many as 2,500.

Selee described how traveling in large numbers is a particularly attractive alternative to paying for a coyote, a term used to describe human smugglers. “For people for whom cost matters, that’s a huge incentive,” he said. The journey from Honduras to the United States, with the help of a coyote, can cost at least $4,000 and up to $12,000 a person, Martinez said. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy prescriptions have also driven up the costs, as the presence of criminal groups, such as gangs, and security officials along the border increases.

There are a number of reasons migrants might be driven to leave their origin country regardless of the risks, which include threats on the route and the chance that they may not be accepted into the United States. Violence appears to be the overwhelming driver. One woman told The Washington Post that her husband had been killed by the gang MS-13 in El Salvador, and that after she reported it to the police, the gang started threatening her. Some are seeking to reunite with relatives in the United States. And still others have cited poverty.

“Overall, [the caravan is] a reflection of how desperate people are feeling from their circumstances in Central America,” Meyer said.

That’s what’s made this population of migrants particularly challenging to address—they’re not trying to “evade capture” at the border, as John Sandweg, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told me earlier this week. Rather, many of them want to surrender to authorities. For several years, as conditions have deteriorated in the Northern Triangle countries, many have looked to the United States for refuge. In 2016, nearly 50 percent of the people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border were from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, compared with 10 percent in 2010, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.

To be eligible for asylum in the United States, a migrant must show “credible fear.” The process can take months, if not years—and there’s no guarantee that asylum will be granted. It’s not clear how many of the migrants currently traveling through Mexico will try to claim asylum at the border, though the Mexican government said Tuesday that it’s received 1,699 requests for refugee status.

The current caravan is likely to dwindle in numbers as it makes its way north, as some people decide to stay in Mexico and others return to their origin countries. But as evidenced by the formation of another caravan so close behind, Trump’s posture isn’t even close to a deterrent.