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Caravan of migrants tests Trump's anti-immigrant policies

Clare Richardson Tijuana
May 5, 2018

The journey of hundreds of migrants across Mexico to the US border has become a flashpoint for outrage among supporters of US President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Asylum seekers on the Mexican border to the US
Image: Reuters/E. Garrido

Shielded from the drizzling rain by a plastic tarpaulin and kneeling on the concrete floor where she slept for the last few nights, six-year-old Suany used crayons to fill in the lines of a coloring book. After her father was killed in her native Honduras, she and her mother joined a caravan of other Central Americans fleeing violence to travel by foot, train, and bus all the way through Mexico to the United States border.

"The trip was tiring," Suany said, dressed in sparkly gold ballet flats and pink leggings. "My feet hurt the whole time we were walking."

Like the other hundred or so mostly women, children, and transgender people waiting in makeshift camps near a pedestrian crossing in Tijuana, she hoped to receive asylum in the United States.

Yet after US President Donald Trump publicly denounced the group, tweeting that the situation was a "disgrace" and saying he ordered homeland security not to let them in, the so-called caravan of migrants became a highly publicized test of his administration's anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Read more: Children on the move – the future of young migrants

A migrant kid on the US-Mexican border
Image: Reuters/E. Garrido

Admitted at last – to an uncertain future

On Friday, the remaining 83 members of the group who had camped at the border were allowed into the US port of entry to start their asylum applications, according to Alex Mensing, a member of the "Pueblos Sin Fronteras" (People Without Borders) organization behind the caravan. Despite the arduous journey, however, what happens next is anything but clear.

By law, the United States must hear the claims of asylum seekers, including the members of the caravan at the border. But the US has made it particularly difficult, initially telling the group that the processing center was full before allowing a slow trickle of people in for processing.

Victor Clark-Alfaro, the director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, Mexico, said the vast majority of Central Americans who cross to the US asking for asylum have their requests denied. They must show they have suffered persecution or have a credible fear of suffering because of characteristics like their race, religion, or sexual orientation.

"The reason they're fleeing their countries — violence from drug cartels — is not enough of a reason in immigration courts to grant asylum."

Read more: Record 65 million people displaced worldwide, says UN

Seeking asylum at any cost

A test for Trump's "America First" politics

Trump first sounded the alarm last month, when the caravan was still working its way through Mexico and included over 1,000 people. He called again for stronger immigration laws and building a wall along the border with Mexico. In a surprise move, he also requested up to 4,000 National Guard troops to be sent to fortify the border. Various US media called it an invasion. Supporters of his "America First" policy denounced them as the "Caravan of Illegals," emboldened by a president who has called Mexicans "rapists" who bring drugs and crime into the United States.

A woman carrying her child
Image: Getty Images/D. McNew

The migrants come primarily from Honduras, but also neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador — countries that are plagued by gang violence, corruption, and weak rule of law, resulting in shocking homicide rates.

Read moreThe human tragedies at the Mexican wall

They began their journey on March 25 in Tapachula, near Mexico's southern border with Guatemala, traveling some 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles) up the length of the country. Along the way, hunger and exhaustion were a constant companion. The difficult conditions led many to peel off from the group journey to try to build lives in Mexico City or other parts of the country.

They included mothers who carried small children as they walked for up to six hours a day, as well as some two dozen transgender people who are victims of machismo culture and particularly vulnerable to powerful gangs.

Read more: Number of unaccompanied refugee children reaches 'record high,' says UNICEF

A map of Tijuana
Image: GoogleMaps

Though the widespread attention it garnered this year was new, the journey itself was not. Organizers have staged a caravan every year since 2010 as a way for migrants to find safety in numbers during the dangerous journey through Mexico, as well as to draw awareness to their plight. The trips generally attract fairly limited media coverage, but this year the backlash began after Trump's preferred media outlet, Fox News, aired a story about the caravan, prompting the president and his supporters to take up the cause.

Read moreCould President Trump actually fulfill his anti-immigration promises?

What happens after their claims are heard?

The next steps toward crucial decisions about the migrants' futures will take place largely out of the limelight. Many will be held for long stretches in for-profit detention centers on US soil while their cases are heard, and could ultimately be sent back to the dangers they fled in Central America.

Activists underline that those in the caravan are simply trying to survive. "They are hoping they will be able to develop their lives free of violence," Gina Garibo, projects coordinator for Pueblos Sin Fronteras, the volunteer group organizing the caravan, told DW. "All these people are fleeing situations where they face criminal, military, political, domestic, or gendered violence. What they're looking for is a space in which they can live their lives."