Donald Trump has found a new immigration obsession, and it doesn’t look like he’s letting go of it anytime soon.
For nearly a week, Trump has been fixated on reports of a “caravan” of hundreds of Central Americans who crossed into Mexico last week en route to the United States. Initially, the Mexican government didn’t try to stop them, spurring panicked reports from Fox News and several days of angry tweetstorms.
Ultimately, the Mexican government did step in to “dissipate” the caravan, offering some of its members permission to stay in Mexico and seek humanitarian visas (though an unknown number of immigrants are continuing on).
But Trump hasn’t let go of the idea. On Thursday, at a roundtable in West Virginia (which was theoretically supposed to be about tax reform), Trump veered off into a digression about “the caravan of thousands of people coming up from Honduras” — then later appeared to circle back to the caravan by remarking, “Yesterday, it came out where, this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don’t want to mention that.”
It’s not clear where Trump got this idea: Caravan organizers say they’ve heard no reports of rape. Adolfo Flores, a reporter for BuzzFeed who has been traveling with the caravan, tweeted this on Thursday:
In fact, the point of the organized caravan is to protect immigrants from rape and other dangers that face immigrants traveling to the US on their own or in small smuggler-led groups.
But this is how Trump works. He sees a news story, obsesses over it, and embellishes it in his own mind to make it even more terrifying. It’s unlikely we’ve heard the last from Trump about the “caravan.” Here’s what you need to know.
Hundreds of Central American asylum-seekers set out in a “caravan” — traveling together to protect themselves from threats like rape
For several years now, Central Americans have made up the biggest share of people crossing the US’s southern border — often to seek asylum from gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
They have to get through Mexico first. The weeks-long journey is often dangerous — migrants are subjected to rape, extortion, and sometimes violence by smugglers (or by Mexicans who lie in wait for migrants to come their way). And their odds of making it all the way aren’t good.
Since 2014, the Mexican government has been cracking down on people traveling through to the United States, partly as a way to retain the goodwill of the US government. Their crackdown has resulted in the detention and deportation of about 950,000 Central Americans, as well as the detention of many indigenous Mexican citizens living in southern Mexican states like Chiapas, and, according to a 2015 UN report, widespread torture. (A Guardian article about the UN report says that “methods used include beatings, electric shocks, suffocation, waterboarding, forced nudity” — and, notably, rape.)
What distinguishes the caravan that’s attracted so much attention is that it’s traveling out in the open. The nonprofit Pueblo sin Fronteras has organized caravans annually to draw attention to the plight of Central American migrants and to the logic of safety in numbers.
This year’s group was the largest by far — at its peak, it was estimated to number 1,200 people. Because it was such a large group, Mexican agents didn’t make an effort to stop them as they crossed into Mexico, as BuzzFeed’s Flores reported:
The Mexican government “dissipated” the caravan — but some of its members plan to continue to seek asylum in the US legally
Trump’s fixation with the caravan may have played a role in his decision Wednesday to deploy National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border. Certainly, the decision wasn’t motivated by the situation at the border right now, where apprehension levels are still way lower than they have been for most of recent history.
Perhaps ironically, though, by the time Trump signed the proclamation to mobilize the National Guard, the Mexican government was already cracking down on the caravan. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tweeted Wednesday night:
On the ground, though, it seems like it wasn’t quite that simple. Some caravan members who weren’t deported back to Central America don’t plan to stay in Mexico, either.
For many, this was always the plan: to present themselves to Border Patrol agents and seek asylum, as hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have done in recent years. They’ll now have a much harder time getting to the US-Mexico border. As other migrant-rights advocates have pointed out, the Mexican government tends to redouble its anti-migration efforts after “caravans” come through.
But if they make it, seeking asylum is perfectly legal under US and international law.
Just presenting yourself for asylum doesn’t mean you’ll get it, but someone who enters the US without papers isn’t violating the law if they present themselves at a port of entry — an airport, seaport, or road checkpoint — to seek asylum or another humanitarian status.
(If they enter between ports of entry and present themselves to Border Patrol, they’ve entered illegally, but they’re still seeking legal status, and the US is legally obligated to give them a chance to prove they qualify for it.)
Many border hawks think Central American migrants are taking advantage of the US asylum system — that they’re being coached in what to tell government officials at the border to show they have a “credible fear” of persecution, and that once released from federal custody, they will abscond into the US rather than showing up in court to pursue their asylum cases.
(In Trump’s mind, this has been warped into the belief that all immigrants crossing into the US are subject to “catch and release”: “if one foot hits our country, we have to take those people gently, register them, and then release them,” he said at the ostensibly-about-tax-reform roundtable Thursday).
The Trump administration has started subjecting asylum seekers to harsher treatment, like separating children from their parents in detention, but what it can do is constrained by federal law. So administration officials have called on Congress to pass legislation that gives the federal government more authority to detain asylum seekers, deny their claims, and send them back.
In other words, they want to become more like Mexico, whose laws Trump has praised as “very tough,” while the US’s are “very weak.”
But what media outlets and NGOs have seen in Mexico in recent years isn’t legal “toughness.” It’s extralegal impunity. It’s the sort of threat that Pueblo Sin Fronteras is calling attention to by organizing caravans to begin with — and that the caravan’s remnants will be much more vulnerable to as they travel on their own.