The Migrant Caravans traveling from South-Central America to the United States in search of an escape from the unstable and dangerous environments in their native countries have captivated the attention of much of the world. The caravans, often made up of more than 12,000 people are unique not only in their size but in their purpose; their border crossing, while at its core is a sheer determination for a better life, has also been transformed into a massive political demonstration. Jacobo García, a reporter for El Pais, and an expert correspondent on Latin America explains the facts and figures behind the caravans and how they are changing the ways that migrants are crossing borders and how the world perceives them.
García explains that media reporting and popular rhetoric on the caravans is incredibly influential to how the public perceives them, despite the realities demonstrated by facts and statistics. While President Donald Trump portrays the crisis at the Southern Border as a huge influx of “dangerous criminals” entering the United States, the number of border crossings have steadily decreased over the past two decades and in 2017, they reached their lowest point since 1971. Garcia explains that the rhetoric used by Donald Trump and other right-wing leaders can be incredibly problematic since the words of these political figures are often the only source of information that people are getting about the caravans. Subsequently, many people are unaware of the real reasons that people are choosing to leave their native countries and journey to the United States.
According to Jacobo, there are three main reasons why people traveling in the caravans are fleeing are a lack of jobs, political instability, gang violence and in the countries they are leaving. While the first reason has long been a cause of migrants from Central America to come to the United States, the second two factors have developed more recently with the increase of violence in the region. In fact, the violence is so severe that death rates in certain Central American countries are comparable or higher to those in Afghanistan and Syria, places that pop into the heads of the general public when they consider regions that are “war-torn”. This marks an important transition in the way that we think of these migrants when they are not really migrants at all, but refugees. The difference, while subtle, is incredibly important for understanding the situation and empathizing with the people coming to the U.S. A migrant is defined as someone crossing an international border to leave their habitual place of residence where a refugee is defined as a person forced to flee their country because of violence or persecution. By characterizing the people in the caravans as refugees and knowing about the dangerous situations that exist in Central America help to explain why these people are willing to make an incredibly dangerous and life-threatening trek.
García also explains the fundamental reasons behind why people are choosing to cross the border in a 12,000-person caravan instead of the traditional clandestine border crossings that have been the norm for decades. Unlike these traditional methods, caravans provide an additional level of security and convenience for the people in them. Oftentimes, people living in Central Americans see on social media that a caravan will soon be passing through their town and they decide spontaneously to take advantage of the opportunity and join the caravans in search of a better life. The caravans are typically organized on Facebook yet they are never orchestrated by a specific person or group. In addition to added security, the caravans also provide a sense of empowerment for the people in them; for many, they are a chance to make their voices, and their frustrations with the political systems in their own countries, heard.
Because of this, explains Garcia, most Central American governments are wary of the caravans. After all, no political leader is going to be very inviting towards large crowds of people protesting their own governments. For example, the former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto attempted to construct a wall (similar to the one notorious in the United States) along the southern border with Guatemala in order to try to decrease border crossings. While the media portrays final destination of the caravans to be the United States, many decide to stay and find work in Mexico, crippling the already fragile socio-economic system of the country. However, the recently-elected President Andrés Manuel Lopez-Obrador has taken a much more open approach to the migrant crisis: when people arrive at the Mexican border they are given a wristband and allowed to legally live and work in Mexico for one year. While it is too soon to determine the effects of this system, streamlining the legalities of the immigration process can potentially allow for migrants to contribute to the economy sooner, improving the overall situation.
Spurred by the growing instability of Central American countries, the caravans have completely revolutionized the way in which people migrate. Instead of the traditional border-crossings that have been done for decades, that are typically clandestine, secretive and always done in the dark, caravans have made the process both public and political. Despite the oftentimes negative press the caravans receive, their size and increased safety. allow for the people in the caravans to raise their voices about the issues occurring in the countries they’re fleeing from and their right to better lives.