Season 2: Current Events

Current Events Ep. 8: Central American Migration or, “THE CARAVAN!”

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They’re coming… Can you feel it?… Their footsteps reverberating across Mexico… all along the border American troops and border patrol stand guard, gazing into the distance, waiting for them to arrive…

The caravan.

Even though the election is over, so – mysteriously – politicians aren’t talking about this enormous threat anymore, that doesn’t mean the caravan went away. In fact, the first groups of migrants in this most recent caravan are scheduled to arrive at the US border any day now. Border patrol is making plans to receive and process thousands of asylum claims while the US soldiers are preparing to… What are they preparing to do exactly?… No really. What exactly is a “faithful patriot?”

Today I want to get some background information on the caravan – who is in it, why are they leaving their homes, and what’s going to happen when they get here. Based on our government’s long history of welcoming immigrants and celebrating diversity, I predict everything will be perfectly fine!

This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context…

Act 1: What is a Caravan?

So, as per usual, the news media has oversimplified a very complex issue in favor of a snazzy headline. There are a lot of people coming toward the U.S. southern border, hoping to gain entry. But calling them “The Caravan” is a little misleading. Mostly, it implies that they are all united in one massive, well organized group. Not really. If anything, there are multiple caravans – or traveling groups – that have slowly coalesced as they trekked up through Mexico. But, similar to early Americans heading westward toward the frontier, they’ve decided that it’s safer to make the trip in a larger group. We’ve all played Oregon Trail – we know how this goes. Every person in your covered wagon is another person between you and that snakebite.

But seriously, the path between Central America and Mexico is a treacherous one. Of individuals traveling this route in the past, 68% have reported being victims of violence during the trip, with nearly ⅓ of women being sexually assaulted along the way. As they trek up toward southern California, they walk right through parts of Mexico dominated by the Sinaloa cartel. Cesar Gomez is a 20-year-old Guatemalan who said that he “jumped at the chance to join the caravan to avoid the dangers of traveling alone and paying thousands of dollars to smugglers.”

This brings up another benefit: not only do you gain strength in numbers, but you gain attention. When just one family is traveling this route, they can easily get lost in the shuffle and it’s hard for organizations to justify redirecting precious resources for just a few people. But, when we’re talking about thousands of refugees, international organizations take notice. Many human rights organizations, including representatives from the United Nations, are helping oversee the progress of the caravan, providing basic necessities and organizing safe shelter along the way. There are organizations in these countries, like Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders), that help organize caravans like this, providing humanitarian and legal aid along the way.

This is also not the first caravan. Over the past few years, there have been waves of immigrants coming from Central America seeking refuge in Mexico or the U.S. A few years ago hundreds of unaccompanied children made headlines when they arrived en masse. And they are mostly coming from Central America because of violence and economic hardship, but more on that in a few minutes.

This group originated with 160 people who gathered together in Honduras to set off on the journey together, after months of planning. It gained attention when a former politician posted about the plan on Facebook and more people wanting to come to the U.S. joined. By the time the group left Honduras, their numbers had reached over 1,000.

They began walking on October 13 and will eventually travel over 1,750 miles. The total numbers are different depending on who you ask, but most recently estimates are between 5,000 and 7,000 people.  

Many of the migrants are seeking asylum in the United States, claiming that they would be in danger if they were to return to their home country. Asylum is an immigration protection that is granted to people “with credible fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” More on that definition later. You cannot apply for asylum remotely – you have to present yourself in person in the United States. So, the general idea is that they show up at a port of entry, request asylum, and then wait while their request gets processed.

Even with the help of organizations, and citizens of Mexico who have been providing support along the way, the journey is incredibly difficult. They often sleep on the streets or in makeshift camps, lacking access to clean water and sanitation. Food is often scarce.

For their part, Mexico has offered the migrants temporary work visas if they choose to stay in the country. This offer comes with healthcare and the chance to enroll their children in school. Almost 3,000 migrants this year have taken them up on this offer, accepting temporary visas as they attempt to become legal permanent residents of Mexico. And this is what the Trump administration wants: for them to stay in Mexico. But, unfortunately, many parts of Mexico are not much better than the homes they left. This is because they all share a similar, tumultuous history.


Act 2 : The Northern Triangle

Most of the migrants are coming from three countries, known generally as “The Northern Triangle”: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. And to understand why people are fleeing, we have to go back to the good old Cold War…

Ah the Cold War. When all you had to do was say you hated communists to get the full might of the US to secretly support you. It was a simpler time.

In Central America, many countries were rocked by violent civil wars and uprisings, typically between leftist rebels and the conservative militant government. During the civil war in El Salvador, the Carter and Reagan administrations gave $1-2 million each day to support the Salvadoran military government as they fought the FMLN, a leftist umbrella group that included communist and socialist organizations. From 1980 to 1992, 75,000 Salvadorans were killed, mostly by the government. The war was brutal and involved government-sanctioned death squads, child soldiers, and mass disappearances.

Similarly, in Guatemala the US backed a military coup overthrowing the democratically-elected leftists. The new government eliminated critics, destroyed entire villages, and committed ethnic genocide against the Mayan people and other indigenous groups. Over 200,000 civilians were killed between 1960 and 1996.

Honduras didn’t have a civil war itself, but it served as the staging ground for the US-backed Contras who were fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s. If you remember from season one, the Nicaraguan civil war was the one where Reagan was secretly selling arms to Iran and sending that money to fund the Contras, even though Congress had told him not to. So, you know. That’s a thing.

These three countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – make up what is known as the Northern Triangle and they are the home countries to the vast majority of migrants making their way to the U.S. These countries have experienced insane violence and corruption over the last 40 years – some of which ended relatively recently. The Guatemalan civil war, for example, overlapped with the first two seasons of Friends. I find that explaining time through TV shows is the most effective way of reaching my teenage audience. And then they remind me that they were born the year Friends went off the air and I quietly weep at my desk.

The legacy of this violence is a shaky government that is often unable to prevent the rise of organized crime. When the wars ended, hundreds of thousands of former soldiers found themselves unemployed and with easy access to weapons. Not to mention the fact that these civil wars also coincided with coordinated efforts by the US and South American governments to crack down on the drug cartels. Essentially, when we pushed down on the cartels in Colombia, they were just squeezed out of South America and ended up finding refuge in Central America and Mexico instead.

Today, the cartels and gangs essentially rule many parts of the Northern Triangle, all of which are experience “unprecedented levels of violence outside a war zone,” according to a report by Doctors Without Borders. They continue, “citizens are murdered with impunity, kidnappings and extortion are daily occurrences. Non-state actors perpetuate insecurity and forcibly recruit individuals into their ranks, and use sexual violence as attool of intimidation and control.” All three countries are in the top 10 in the world for homicide, with Honduras placing 2nd and El Salvador winning the notorious award for “Highest Murder Rate in the World.”

When organizations have surveyed members of the caravan as to why they are fleeing, here are some of the statistics they gather:

  • 39% cite attacks or threats to themselves or their family as the reason for leaving
  • More than 40% had a relative who was killed in the past two years
  • 31% knew someone who was kidnapped
  • 17% knew someone who disappeared

Who is committing this violence? Mostly gangs that are associated with larger transnational criminal organization, often linked to cartels and other drug traffickers. Some of the most famous gangs, or maras, are Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (M-18). Both of those groups are estimated to have over 85,000 members. Both were formed in Los Angeles – M-18 was founded by Mexican youth in the 1960s while MS-13 – the one Trump loves to talk about – started in the 1980s by young Salvadorans who had fled the civil war. In the 1990s, large-scale deportations by the US government sent a lot of these gang members back to Central America, fueling the rise of organized crime there. But the FBI still estimates that there are 10,000 MS-13 members in the US today.

It’s really ironic and complex, isn’t it? Young people ended up in the US after they fled violence at home, only to join organizations that would eventually end up creating more violence in their home countries that is forcing a new generation of migrants to flee. To be clear, the vast majority of migrants that escaped the civil wars in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t join these organizations. For example, today it is estimated that almost 2 million people in the U.S. are from El Salvador alone (or their parents are). And, many of those who are in these gangs are not there by choice.

In El Salvador, law enforcement seems unable to defend against the constant bribery, extortion, forced recruitment of young people, and the deaths of kidnappings of those who resist. According to a journalist in the country: “The gang identifies the kid it wants. Either he joins or he is killed or his family has to move.”

How are these groups growing and making money? Well, the main answer is the drug trade. Thanks to US-led efforts to stamp out the drug trade in Colombia, Mexico, and the Caribbean, 90% of the cocaine that enters the U.S. travels through Central America instead. And the U.S. demand for drugs is not slowing down. Former Secretary of Homeland Security and now Chief of Staff John Kelly said in 2017 that, “The reason for the drug flow is due to our drug demand and we do almost nothing about it.”

These groups also make money selling illegal weapons, most of which come from the United States – where it is way easier to buy a gun than it is in the rest of Latin America. It is estimated that almost half of unregistered weapons in Honduras, for example, originated in the U.S. And the region is still filled with weapons stockpiles from the Cold War conflicts, often provided by the US and the former Soviet Union.

Extortion is also rampant in the region. Apparently, Salvadorans and Honduras together pay an estimated $390 million each year just in annual extortion fees to organized crime groups. Often, if you want to use public transportation, operate a small business, or live in a poor neighborhood, you are expected to pay “protection fees” to the gangs… or else. Some of their income also comes from ransom for kidnappings and profits from human trafficking – that’s our modern day euphemism for slavery.

Many in the governments of those three countries benefit from this violence thanks to corruption. Just in the past 10 years Honduras has experienced a coup and a contested presidential election. In some parts of these countries, as many as 95% of crimes go unpunished by law enforcement and the public has no faith in its police and security forces. Especially because the police and military were often the ones perpetrating the human rights abuses during the Cold War era conflicts.

Guatemala has become so cynical about its political situation that, after their former president was ousted and arrested for customs corruption, they elected a comedian with no political experience. Unfortunately, he just recently was embroiled in a scandal when they found out that he hadn’t accounted for $800,000 of campaign funds and had attempted to eliminate the head of the International Commission that was supposed to be investigated corruption in Guatemala. Whoops.

In El Salvador, the FMLN – the former leftist guerrilla group that was fighting the military dictatorship – is now the leading party and they have done a terrible job of governing the country. Supported in elections by criminal groups, they have repeatedly broken the law and ignored the established judicial system. For example, just recently the government’s key “mediator” who was supposed to be orchestrating a truce between the government and MS-13 was sentenced to 13 years in prison for aggravated extortion and complicity with the gangs. ::sigh::

So, have the Central American governments been doing anything? Of course. In the early 2000s, the Northern Triangle governments enacted a series of policies they called mano dura, or “heavy hand.” They expanded police powers, put in harsher punishments for gang members, and deployed the military to carry out police functions within the country.

Here’s an example of Mano Dura in El Salvador: In 2012, the president brokered a truce between two rival gangs – MS-13 and M-18. Homicides fell by 40% but crimes against civilians continued and when the peace deal unraveled just two years later, killings doubled. The government then granted authorities the right to use force “without any fear of suffering consequences” – uh oh – leading police to kill eight times as many gang members in 2015 as they had just a few years earlier. The Salvadoran congress backed these measures by creating an elite police force that has insane freedom to conduct searches and seizures and invoke military force. So while the rhetoric and action is becoming more aggressive on both sides, civilians are getting caught in the middle.

Even though a lot of these new, tougher policies were popular with many members of the public – people were happy that the government was doing something – they were, in general, unsuccessful. In fact, by throwing so many people into now overcrowded prisons, there is some evidence that there was actually an increase in gang membership. Oh, and the gangs also run the prisons. Whoops.


Act 3: US Response

So what has the United States done to help these Central American countries combat violence within their own borders? I think it’s a fair question especially considering the U.S. government supported the brutal dictatorships that sparked this cycle during the Cold War.

President George W. Bush focused on fostering economic growth through increased trade and free-market reforms. His administration gave hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. In 2004, the U.S. founded the Millennium Challenge Corporation as an independent foreign aid agency to make time-limited investments in countries around the world in support of building infrastructure, solidifying good governments, and helping citizens of those countries develop their own companies. Based on the skyrocketing rates of immigration from those countries in the last decade it’s not clear just how much these investments have paid off, but it’s definitely a good start and the right idea.

Under Obama, an older group was rebranded CARSI – the Central America Regional Security Initiative. This government organization has given over $1 billion in aid to help the region’s law enforcement, counternarcotics, and justice systems. Obama also joined with the Northern Triangle governments in their so-called Alliance for Prosperity or A4P to promote commerce and security with the help of the Inter-American Development Bank. So far, Trump has continued this partnership and aid continues to flow into Central America to try to stop the violence.

But that doesn’t matter to the people trekking across Mexico. What matters to them is our immigration policy. Here’s the simplest explanation of a very complex problem: the only way people can show up at our borders without going through the very long, very complicated process of applying for a visa, is as a refugee seeking asylum. Like I mentioned before, asylum is an immigration protection that is granted to people “with credible fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” The question is not whether we will allow illegal immigrants to cross our borders – that answer has always been no. Does it happen? Sure. But does the government sanction it? No.

The most important question for the Caravan is: do we agree that these Central American migrants have a “credible fear of persecution”? Historically, this answer has been – not really? When you look at the statistics of where refugees living in the U.S. are from a relatively very small number come from Latin America. Basically, these migrants don’t fit the legal definition for asylum – they are not being persecuted or targeted because of a defining part of their identity. They are just caught in the middle of a horribly violent conflict. Previous presidents seem to agree that these migrants are in an incredibly difficult situation and have created a lot of Band-Aid temporary solutions; I guess they’re just waiting for either Central America to shape up and for these people to go home or for their presidential term to run out – whichever comes first.

Since the late 1990s, the government has offered most migrants from Central America TPS – or Temporary Protected Status. This meant that they could stay in the country because of the increased risks they would face if they returned home. It was sort of a stop-gap measure between deportation and granting full permanent asylum. Trump has announced that he is going to end this program next year, prompting many Central Americans currently living in the U.S. to wonder whether to return home and risk violence or possible death, or to stay in the U.S. illegally. From my perspective, this seems like a no brainer, right? Trump claims that his harsh rhetoric and tough stance on immigration will deter illegal immigrants from coming and there is some evidence to support this: There was a 26% decrease in illegal border crossings in 2017, but over half of those apprehended originated from the Northern Triangle. Counterargument: there are documented cases of individuals being deported, arriving back in Central America, and being murdered in their home. So there’s that.

Also, let’s be clear on how many people we’re talking about here: in 2016, the US detained 224,854 people from all three countries combined – that accounts for less than 1/10 of 1% of the US population. The fact that they are massed together in a caravan makes it seem like a wave of immigrants is about to storm the border but, relative to our population, it’s a drop in the bucket.

So.. what’s going to happen? The first migrants have already arrived – this past week a group of about 100 LGBTQ migrants split off from the main caravan because of mistreatment and are currently staying in a rented home in Tijuana as they wait for their claims to get processed. Groups like this have a higher likelihood of being granted asylum because they are a member of a targeted group – many are lesbian, gay, or transgender.

Regardless of the situation, there is a legal obligation for the government to hear all asylum claims, even if they enter the US illegally. When they arrive at the border, they have to announce to border patrol that they are seeking asylum. After this, they are moved to undergo an interview during which another official has to confirm that they do have a “credible fear.” They are then transferred to an ICE detention facility while they await a formal hearing – not in front of a jury but with an adjudicator, who often has a legal background but does not have to be a judge. At this point, their fate is in this person’s hands and there is a lot of evidence to show that the likelihood of winning asylum relies less on your actual experience and more on your access to a good lawyer and a fair immigration judge. This process is often referred to as “refugee roulette.”

In the past, domestic abuse and gang violence have generally been accepted as a “credible fear” – this means that those seeking asylum with those claims generally make it past the first interviews and to a judge. However, now-former attorney general Jeff Sessions has been pushing to limit the definition of “credible fear” and exclude these categories. It’s true that the UN definition describes clear persecution as opposed to any victim of violence, but in the past the US government has had a broader interpretation of this law – especially when they come from a country that cannot give the victim support or protection, like in Central America.

Sessions’ new approach is called the Turn-Back Policy and it is currently being challenged in court. Right now, it just means that the process of applying for asylum is even longer and more complicated. For example, migrants who express a “credible fear” are now being routed to other detention facilities with no information about future hearings or access to counsel. Basically, the Trump policy has been to put as many obstacles in between migrants and asylum as possible and hope that the backlog effectively deters them. Recently, Trump has put in a new rule that would prevent anyone who has entered the country illegally from being able to apply for asylum; the effect of this has been overcrowding at ports of entry – like in Tijuana – as migrants wait it out to see if this rule will hold up in court. No one wants to be the first to try to call Trump’s bluff and I don’t blame them.

For now, most of the migrants seem to be headed toward Tijuana. Because of this Customs and Border Protection officials have been planning all week to shut down lanes of traffic through the border into San Diego, warning travelers of longer wait times this weekend.

And now, for a few Frequently Asked Questions (by me) about the Caravan:

  1. Do stricter immigration laws deter immigrants? Answer: Yes and no.

If you are living in another country and your life is OK but it would be better if you were in the U.S., then Trump’s aggressive policies might make you rethink that decision. Or maybe you’ll just go to Canada instead.

But, if you are faced with torture, kidnapping, extortion, or death at home; some guy in a far-off country saying he doesn’t want you there is not even in your top five most pressing concerns. Harsh rhetoric and stricter immigration laws don’t do much to deter refugees, which is mostly what the caravan is comprised of.

Also, quick note. When the U.S. makes its immigration policies tougher, all that does is push more people to turn to smuggling groups and other ways to enter the country. These smuggling outfits are typically controlled by – you guessed it – drug cartels and criminal gangs. It’s a vicious cycle that just provides more money for the groups that are causing the violence that is making people want to seek refuge in the U.S. ::sigh::

2. Why did Trump send the military to the border? What can they do there?

Mostly, they are there to support Border Patrol and, in my opinion, as a political stunt. But there is a real concern about escalating the tension that already exists by adding thousands of uniformed soldiers to the equation. Especially when Trump says things like:

“Anybody throwing stones, rocks, like they did to Mexico…where they badly hurt police and soldiers of Mexico, we will consider that a firearm because there’s not much difference when you get hit in the face with a rock. … They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. We’re going to consider it — I told them, consider it a rifle.”

Now, this goes against most of the rules of engagement worldwide and within the US. An internal Pentagon memo clarified that the military can use deadly force when faced with a serious and imminent threat to their own lives. And most military experts would agree that refugees throwing rocks is not an imminent threat.

Also, The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 restricts the U.S. military from acting as law enforcement on U.S. soil. So, they cannot detain immigrants, seize drugs, or have any direct involvement in stopping migrants.

Honestly, it seems clear to me at least that mobilizing troops was mostly a political stunt to prove to Trump’s base that he’s serious about cracking down on immigration. And even though that’s probably true, that doesn’t make me any less worried about the possibility of violence when you have desperate people coming up against heavily armed security forces.

3. Should we be scared of the Caravan?

No. Although Trump and many Republicans used the threat of the Caravan to mobilize conservative voters in the midterms, President Obama said it best when he said, “They’re telling you the existential threat to America is a bunch of poor refugees 1,000 miles away.” These people are not a threat to us.

Is there a possibility that there are “bad guys” hiding in the Caravan? Sure. But, realistically, the only way they’re getting in is to go through the same screening process that everyone else has to when they try to cross the border. Honestly, with all of the attention that is getting paid to the Caravan, if I were someone trying to sneak my way into the US to do something bad, I would want to be as far away from that media storm as possible.

If you’re motivated by economic interest, then you should know that – just like immigrants in general – refugees have proven throughout history to be good for the economy of the country that takes them in. Some of them do low-skilled labor that Americans aren’t willing to do. Others help build ties, trade, and investment between their new country and their country of origin. And – talk about someone who is motivated to put themselves in an economic situation where they don’t ever have to go back home. These people don’t want to diminish our culture, or harm Americans. Honestly, they’re not thinking about us at all. They’re thinking about the terrible violence that faces them if they have to go back home.

Let me leave you with this thought: think about the irony of the U.S. government threatening military violence and turning away impoverished refugees of color over the Thanksgiving holiday. What were the Pilgrims if not religious refugees? Wasn’t Thanksgiving all about a group of Native Americans – people living in the United States – accepting and helping newcomers of a different skin color, different background to their country? Why don’t we return the favor?