Translating the “Caravan Crisis” into a Human Issue

“Con la inclusión y protección de las personas migrantes ganamos todos.” — A mural facing the Suchiate River, which divides Mexico from Guatemala, in Ciudad Hidalgo. (Aria Cataño | Daily Trojan)

President Donald Trump’s public outrage was most recently channelled toward Central America, this time specifically targeting a “migrant caravan” that started in Honduras with the intent of reaching the United States. Currently traveling through the southern states of Mexico, this group of approximately 7,000 people is fleeing the violence and economic instability (to which the U.S. has contributed) that has made many regions uninhabitable.

Of course, the president and much of his administration have refused to acknowledge the realities that are pushing people to make the incredibly difficult choice to migrate. Instead, Trump took to Twitter to chastise Central American governments, claiming that they were “unable to do the job of stopping people from leaving their country and coming illegally to the U.S.” As punishment, foreign aid to the countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras will now be “substantially reduced,” and he’s labeling the group of migrants as a threat to national security due to the presence of “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners.”

While Trump’s statements regarding who the caravan consists of are flat out untrue, the more coherent arguments against allowing the caravan’s entry into the U.S. need to take a few key perspectives into consideration.

First, with regard to the numbers: Putting aside the question of general immigration policy, this specific incidence relates to 7,000 people. While this is undeniably a large group of people, we must contextualize this number with the existing population of the United States. At 325.7 million people strong, an additional 7,000 people would represent a mere 0.002 percent of society. This would equate to seven migrants for every 325,700 Americans. Even on the smaller scale of American border states that the migrants would either pass through or settle in, such as California, Arizona and Texas, the group would make up 0.017 percent, 0.09 percent and 0.025 percent of the populations, respectively. These numbers also assume that all 7,000 people would stay together in one place, which is highly unlikely.

The fear regarding migrants’ impact on America may therefore be overinflated. The more plausible reality is that this group would be seamlessly absorbed into the workforce and into communities without creating any negative change.

Of course, there are many arguments being made as to why allowing undocumented entry is unjust, regardless of the proposed lack of societal impact. The morality of allowing people to break the law, from what I’ve observed, is a top concern. To this, I urge that we try our best to understand these migrants’ circumstances, and how they were left with no other option but to attempt to move to the U.S. without papers.

There are two main elements that have contributed to this lack of choice: the violent environment and unstable economy from which escape is necessary, and the extremely slow process of obtaining legal status in the U.S. by seeking asylum.

The Suchiate River, which many migrants who are part of the caravan used to informally cross into Mexico (as is done on a regular basis). (Aria Cataño | Daily Trojan)

In Honduras, for example, 60.9 percent of the population is living in poverty due to high levels of unemployment. To worsen the burden of this economic crisis, widespread gang violence exacerbates instability by means of threats and extortion. For many, the meager income earned is frequently lost to organized crime as a form of “payment” for being left alone.

However, due to actions taken by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the workings of U.S. case law, U.S. courts rarely recognize gang threats as a viable reason for seeking asylum. As such, winning asylum status is not an easy task; for those who must flee in order to protect their lives, waiting for this process (which does not guarantee the granting of asylum status) is a privilege that they cannot afford.

Florence Weinberg, an immigration lawyer based in Oaxaca, Mexico, offered me an example of how the U.S. legal system fails to take many migrants’ circumstances into consideration.

“I represented a young woman from El Salvador who was stalked by a gang leader, and the immigration judge did not believe this was threatening– the man probably just wanted to be her boyfriend, according to him,” Weinberg told me. “This man was, in fact, a murderer with ties to the MS-13. And what proof did she have that this man was a murderer and a gang member? She had her word and the word of those who lived in her town. But this was not enough for the judge, and she was denied asylum.”

Taking this woman’s situation into consideration –– one that parallels thousands of others who are trying to flee –– suggests why migrating the “fair” or “right” way is not an option for many. If it’s probable that you won’t be able to legally prove your experiences in a way that satisfies the judge, is it worth waiting through the process while your life and the lives of your loved ones continue to be threatened? In response to arguments referencing the lack of legality surrounding the entry of the caravan, I therefore ask for the consideration of situations to which our laws have failed to provide justice in the first place.

Finally, while there are many who deem allowing entry the moral choice for the U.S. to make, they may not see this as a politically viable option. Concern over the message that this action would send to opposing political parties (especially in light of the upcoming midterm elections), coupled with the signal it may send to prospective migrants, may discourage support. A large part of the former is rooted in the hyper-politicization of a humanitarian issue; the caravan is viewed as another pawn with which political parties can seize power. With this in mind, it’s important to be reminded of the humanity of this crisis. These are decisions that impact thousands of vulnerable families, and the ability to see past politicization that we’re being confronted with is essential.

Speaking to the potential encouragement of more migration, it’s worth noting that Trump’s reduction of foreign aid sent to Central American countries is more likely to increase migration rates than anything else. The further erosion of these countries ability to invest in social services and the reduction of violence will only worsen living conditions, potentially inspiring more movement north. Since the population of undocumented migrants has remained stagnant at 11.3 million for the last years, Trump’s diminishment of foreign aid has a higher likelihood of changing these numbers than anything else.

As this group of migrants continues to travel toward the U.S. border, we must try our best to stress their humanity, which is often lost in a sea of legality, politics and media coverage. Having just visited the Suchiate River that separates Guatemala from Mexico and seeing the migrant shelters that many will pass through in the sweltering heat, the intensity of their journey has made it clear that the choice to migrate is not one taken lightly. Unimaginable sacrifices have been made in an attempt to reach safety, and we share the responsibility of ensuring their stories are heard.