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U.S. struggles to halt Central American migrant caravan

The Trump administration and Central American governments have met several times in recent months to discuss plans to crack down on illegal migration, but apparently to no avail.
17 Oct 2018 – 12:27 PM EDT

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A caravan of more than 1,500 Honduran migrants pauses at a Guatemalan police checkpoint after crossing the border from Honduras on October 15, 2018 in Esquipulas, Guatemala. Crédito: Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

A caravan of as many as 2,000 Honduran migrants headed for the U.S. southwest border has surprised authorities by its rapid advance, despite recent stepped-up efforts by the Trump administration to demand Central American countries do more to fight illegal immigration.

On Tuesday the caravan was making its way by foot and volunteer transport across Guatemala after crossing the border from Honduras on Monday afternoon, potentially creating another immigration headache for Mexico and the Trump administration.

At a meeting in Washington last Thursday Vice President Mike Pence told leaders of the so-called 'Northern Triangle' countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador last Thursday that the U.S. is ready to do more to help their economies if they make a greater effort to impose stricter immigration controls.

“If you do more ... we’ll do more,” Pence said as he opened the conference at the State Department. “We are going to continue to enforce our borders, strengthen public safety, and promote economic growth across the region, all of which is designed to stem the flow of illegal migration.”

Yet, on Monday the migrants easily pushed past outnumbered Guatemalan police sent to stop them at the border.

“Curbing irregular migration is going to require more than warnings and demands,” said Adriana Beltran, with the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington DC-based policy watchdog. “A focus on addressing the conditions driving migration, including the endemic corruption, would be more effective,” she added.

The migrant caravan is the second mass migration in the last six months of Central Americans fleeing gang violence, crime, government corruption and poverty in their countries. In April, about 1,000 migrants in the so-called Viacrucis Caravan reached the U.S. border, though only a handful are believed to have been able to file asylum requests after being interviewed by U.S. immigration officials.

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Pese a las advertencias de EEUU y México, la caravana de migrantes continúa su recorrido

President Donald Trump has made halting the flow of illegal immigration into the United States a top priority. He has pressed for a new border wall, added border patrol agents, and has stepped up enforcement of U.S. immigration laws.

Trump threatened on Tuesday to cut aid to Honduras if it doesn’t stop the impromptu caravan of migrants.

“The United States has strongly informed the President of Honduras that if the large caravan of people heading to the U.S. is not stopped and brought back to Honduras, no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately,” Trump tweeted.

The president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, pushed back on Wednesday saying his government rejected “conditions” placed on foreign aid.

Disappointing numbers

U.S. officials are disappointed with recent border statistics. Pence told the Central American leaders that 225,000 people from the 'Northern Triangle' made the journey to the southern border of the United States last year. They accounted for more than half of all the undocumented immigrants apprehended there.

Pence repeated a message to would-be migrants, telling them not to risk the dangerous journey north to attempt to enter the United States illegally. “If they can’t come to the United States legally, they should not come at all,” Pence said.

But there seems to be little sign yet that Pence’s message is getting through. Nor do the Central American government appear able to staunch the migrant flow.

The caravan began as about 160 people who first gathered early Friday to depart from San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city. They reportedly banded together to make them less vulnerable to robbery and assault on the trek north. Local media coverage, stirred up by local opposition politicians, prompted hundreds more to join during the weekend as the group moved toward Guatemala.

Honduras border officials were only able to prevent 37 minors leaving the country on Tuesday due to lack of proper documents. The caravan was met at the border by about 100 Guatemalan police officers who blocked the road for a couple of hours before officers eventually let them pass.

Open borders

Tougher border control are not easy to enforce in Central America, due to a regional ‘Free Mobility’ agreement that allows citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua (Convenio Centroamericano de libre movilidad) to travel freely between the four countries.

The Central American countries are also among the poorest, most corrupt and crime-infested in the world. Promises made to the U.S. to beef up immigration enforcement are moving at “glacial bureaucratic speed,” according to one diplomat, and local police are notoriously poorly paid.

Historian Dana Frank, an expert on human rights and U.S. policy in Honduras, said the latest group could have political implications in the United States with the midterm elections coming up.
She said that “some in the United States will be quick to raise alarms about a supposed dangerous immigrant invasion” and that “others will view these migrants with compassion and as further evidence of the need for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Frank said the caravan’s rapid growth underscores “how desperate the Honduran people are — that they’d begin walking toward refuge in the United States with only a day pack full of belongings.”

Instead, U.S. officials will now be counting on halting the caravan in Mexico, a country which has greater resources and a history of deporting undocumented migrants.

Mexico’s immigration authority sent out a warning late Monday that the migrants would have to satisfy Mexican officials individually and that only those meeting requirements would be allowed to enter.

Familes and kids

Part of the problem for the Trump administration is that while the total number of migrants arriving at the border has remained fairly stable in recent years, almost half of all migrants apprehended in recent years are kids or family groups, rather than individual adults, restricting their options for detention.

Monthly statistics on migrant apprehension totals along the U.S.-Mexico border in August showed a 38 percent increase compared to July in the number of families and kids apprehended at the border. While the number of migrants arriving at the border tends to increase from July to August due to seasonal trends, the total who were family members was the fifth highest monthly figure ever recorded.

“These figures show that the Trump Administration’s cruelties of family separation and detention are doing nothing to change the underlying problem,” WOLA said in a commentary posted online. ”People fleeing violence in Central America are not deterred from seeking safety by these threatening U.S. policies,” it added.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) blames the increased number of migrants crossing the border on weak enforcement of immigration laws in Central America as well as laws in the United States that prevent the Trump administration from taking tougher measures to deter people from coming.

“Smugglers and traffickers understand our broken immigration laws better than most and know that if a family unit illegally enters the U.S. they are likely to be released into the interior,” DHS Press Secretary Tyler Houlton said in a statement September 12. “Specifically, DHS is required to release families entering the country illegally within 20 days of apprehension. We know that the vast majority of family units who have been released, despite having no right to remain in any legal status, fail to ever depart or be removed,” he added.

Credible fear

Human rights groups argue the families, women and unaccompanied children are fleeing for very credible reasons, such as violent crime. For example, El Salvador and Honduras ranking among the top five most violent countries in the world, including nations at war.

In 2016, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) found that, out of nearly 93,000 cases, 78 percent of those citing a “credible fear” of persecution in their country of origin had a significant possibility of having legitimate claims, and were thereafter assigned a date for an asylum hearing in a U.S. immigration court.

Last week in Washington, the Central American presidents also raised economic issues, such as the effects of climate change and low coffee prices, as contributing to migration. Last week heavy rains caused flooding and landslides in Honduras, killing nine people and leaving thousands homeless.

In June Guatemala’s Fuego volcano erupted killing 159 people, with scores more missing for and thousands more left homeless.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández questioned U.S. economic support for the region noting that foreign assistance had steadily dropped in recent years. The Trump administration proposed $460 million in assistance last year, 30 percent less than what Congress approved in 2016 under President Barack Obama.

“This should not lead us to conclude that you have lost interest in your relationship with me, but it does concern us,” he said. “How does the United States view the future of our region?” he added.

While the United States has provided more than $2.6 billion in foreign assistance to Central American countries for the period 2015-2018, according to the State Department, much of that is for combatting drug trafficking.

The U.S. also supports anti-corruption efforts of the Northern Triangle by helping fund a United Nations-led effort to strengthen the rule of law through an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).

By comparison, the U.S. has spent much more on detention centers to house for child migrants.

Hernández said 90,000 families of small coffee producers in his country were also being forced into poverty because of unfair coffee prices. “We need to underscore the need for equality and fairness in the coffee industry from the bean to the cup,” he said.

Additonally, he highlighted the Trump administration’s decision to deport 57,000 Hondurans currently residing in the United States under a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) made it difficult for him domestically.
As if that wasn't enough, Hernández also reminded Pence about the Trump administration policy to separate immigrant families at the border, noting that 119 Honduran children had been caught up in the policy.

“Imagine if a child from your country found himself or herself in that situation, you could understand the rejection this has caused in my country, the huge pressure we face.”

He went on, “this continues to be a pending matter. I cannot go back to Honduras without an answer.”

(With reporting by Jose Lopez)

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