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Migrant Caravan Energizes Immigration Debate: Q&A with Prof and South America Expert Russell Crandall

Russell Crandall
Prof. Russell Crandall

As the 2018 midterm elections near, a group of thousands of migrants moving slowly through Central America toward the United States has thrust immigration policy to the forefront of the national conversation. We talked to Political Science Professor Russell Crandall, an expert on Central and South American politics about the potential implications and outcomes of the migrant caravan.

Crandall also recently published a blog about the political impacts of the caravan for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Who are the migrants in this caravan?

This caravan formed a little over a week ago in the Honduran provincial city of San Pedro Sula. Starting with roughly 600 overwhelmingly Honduran migrants, the group has swelled to several thousand since passing through Guatemala (mostly walking, hitchhiking, and riding on the back of trucks). A good share of the migrants are families—or parts of families—making the arduous trek north.

Is the process of forming a caravan new?

No. For at least a decade, Central Americans have resorted to organizing large caravans, usually over 100 migrants all the way to the border, to fend off gangs and others seeking to harm or exploit the vulnerable migrants.

How do caravans form? Is there a single organizer?

That is a tricky question. The caravans often self-organize via radio and social media outlets like Facebook. In this current case, it's more complicated and political. Conservative Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has blasted at least one of the caravan's organizers as a "professional coyote," intent on harming "the image of the [Honduran] government." The caravan leaders counter that they are simply humanitarian, not political, actors.

Why are they leaving their homes?

All sorts of reasons, most of which are unsavory or horrifying. Some are looking to join relatives already living in Guatemala, Mexico, or the United States. Some are economic migrants who might have hopes of landing a seasonal job on an artichoke farm in Salinas, California. Some have been threatened by drug-fueled gangs active in the isthmus like MS-13 or Barrio 18.

Unlike Trump's divisive and misleading rhetoric to the contrary, there is no single factor-either those "pushing" from Central America or "pulling" from el norte, or the United States-driving all of these migrants. One single illustrative fact is that some of these migrants want to end up in Mexico, not the United States.

Assuming border control stays at the current level—that is, President Trump doesn't bolster security-and the policies stay the same—what will happen to the migrants?

It's important to note that many of these migrants won't make it to the U.S. The majority will likely cease their trip- intentionally or otherwise-in Mexico. In April 2018, there were reports of a 1,200-person strong caravan en route from Guatemala into Mexico—and presumably onward to the United States. In the end, only a few hundred of those migrants managed to make it to the U.S. border.

However, the migrants that do make it to the US border will likely declare to U.S. authorities an inability to return home—which then leads to the migrants' release with an order to appear before a judge at a future date.

How are these caravans viewed in Mexico?

The Mexican government insists it has a right to enforce its border laws. At the same time, migration officials have not done very much to impede the caravan's advance through Mexico. I haven't seen any polling, but my sense is that Mexicans very much sympathize with the migrants' wrenching plight. That does not mean, however, that Mexican immigration policy has always been welcoming towards Central Americans.

President Trump threatened to reduce or eliminate foreign aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for letting the caravan pass through their countries. What effect would that have on the region?

It would be an enormous self-imposed wound. So much of the task at hand-Vice President Pence said as much during a recent trip to the region-is defusing the "push" side of this wrenching humanitarian crisis. That means providing greater pacification and opportunity.

The U.S. government provides approximately $200 million a year in aid. In relative terms, that is a modest sum to attempt to improve these violence- and impunity-plagued Central American nations.

Jay Pfeifer
japfeifer@davidson.edu
704-894-2920