From Migrant Caravan to Exodus: Myths, Origins, Implications
“We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught… about the meaning and possibility of politics: first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”
- Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (1985) (emphasis added)
The migrant caravan that is currently winding its way through southern Mexico headed to the US-Mexico border, has unleashed a storm of conflicting and often confusing coverage and analysis. This includes the targeting of the caravan by the Trump administration as part of its closing electoral strategy in the imminent mid-term elections, and its use as a pretext for the decision to send as many as 1,000 US Army troops to the border to address the “national emergency” that the caravan supposedly embodies. It is reported meanwhile that the administration is preparing to announce drastic new executive actions targeting Central American migrants- including asylum seekers- at the border that echo its reiterated Muslim and travel bans. These include apparent contingency plans within DHS for potentially using deadly force against the caravan, according to Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Many research and advocacy organizations have circulated fact sheets or Q&A’s seeking to clarify key facts and context regarding the caravan, and to dispel the kinds of distortions that have prevailed. Our focus here is on outlining dimensions of the caravan that have received less attention or that are especially relevant to our work at Hope Border Institute within the context of the US-Mexico border region. What are the true origins of the caravan? What does the caravan tell us about Mexico’s role in regional migration policy? What is the relationship between the caravan and the still unfolding crisis of immigration enforcement that affects border communities? To what extent does the caravan provide a context for understanding the convergence between Catholic Social Teaching and human rights principles which is at the heart of our community-based research, advocacy, and leadership development agenda?
The caravan and its origins
The caravan currently numbers somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 people (with about 2,000 of them being migrant youth and children). The numbers vary because in addition to a core group of at least 3,600 that is on the move between Chiapas and Oaxaca, there are additional contingents of several thousand who are reportedly assembling in Honduras, Guatemala, and at Mexico’s southern border in Tapachula, seeking to join the others in what is to date the largest exodus of its kind.
This caravan is the latest in a series of similar mobilizations that have sought for over a decade to provide protection for migrants and asylum seekers from the endemic violence that awaits them during their transit through Mexico. The most recent previous example of a caravan of this kind, with several hundred participants, reached the US-Mexico border at the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego/Tijuana on Sunday, April 29, 2018. The origin and core of these efforts has been primarily faith-based, and organized by Catholic migrant shelters in Mexico and others within the framework of symbolic reenactments during Easter season of the Stations of the Cross (Via Crucis), or Christmas-time posadas (the novena commemorating the pilgrimage in search of shelter of Jesus’ migrant family).
Both of the most recent caravans build directly on direct organizing by migrant families and returned migrants that has been pioneered in Honduras by COFAMIPRO (Comité de Familiares de Migrantes de El Progreso) and in El Salvador by COFAMIDE (Comité de Familiares de Migrantes Fallecidos y Desaparecidos del Salvador); another similar organization in Honduras is the Comité de Familiares de Migrantes Desaparecidos del Centro de Honduras (COFAMICENH).
It is these grassroots migrant organizations that have been central in regional advocacy efforts focused on demanding justice for the thousands of migrants disappeared en route through Mexico since 2006, and the hundreds of migrant victims of mass killings such as the San Fernando (Tamaulipas) massacre of August, 2010 and mass graves found there in April 2011, as well as the case of the Cadereyta massacre in May 2012. These organizations have also played a key role in the caravans of mothers of disappeared migrants which have mobilized to Mexico each year since 2004, employing the same methodology of human rights organizing and witness that was first developed by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina during that country’s military dictatorship (1976-82). This method has been emulated throughout Latin America, including Mexico and Central America since then. All of this is a far cry to say the least from the rhetoric about dangerous criminals and “unknown Middle Easterners” directed at the caravan’s participants by the Trump Administration.
The current migrant caravan draws on all of these experiences and traditions of struggle in its framing and approach. The caravan has also benefited enormously from the on the ground accompaniment and monitoring of national and international NGO’s ranging from Voces Mesoamericanas in Chiapas and the Mexican affiliate of the American Friends Service Committee, to Servicio Jesuita para Refugiados y para Migrantes, the Swiss branch of Médicos del Mundo and the Swedish branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (SweFOR), as well as veterans of the April 2018 caravan such as Pueblo Sin Fronteras. The crisis produced by the caravan has also resulted in Mexico’s request for an unprecedented level of on site presence by representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), that has assisted in the filing of over 1,700 claims of refuge or asylum by participants in the caravan.
Several reports indicate that the initial organizing for the current caravan was centered around the region of El Progreso. El Progreso is one of the poorest communities in Honduras, in the environs of the city of San Pedro Sula, which has recurrently been ranked as the city in Honduras with the highest homicide rate, related to the “drug war”, slightly below Ciudad Juárez in the 2017 ranking. The first steps toward organizing the caravan also included limited support from Honduras’ leading left of center opposition party, known as LIBRE.
It is likely, given its current size and pace (between 30 and 50 kilometers per day, depending on terrain, weather conditions, mode of transportation, and the health of its participants) that the current caravan will arrive at still undetermined points at the US-Mexico border sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or possibly sooner (for example if the caravan becomes motorized on buses). Contingency preparations led by faith-based and other human rights organizations and local and state governments are underway to potentially receive the caravan or segments of it on both sides of the Mexican border, from San Diego/Tijuana (Baja California Norte) through both Nogales (Arizona/Sonora), El Paso/Ciudad Juárez (Chihuahua), to the Rio Grande Valley (adjacent to Tamaulipas).
The caravan provides a crucial case study as to Mexico’s evolving role in regional migration policy, and as to Mexican society’s own stance towards these flows through its territory and at its borders. Also at stake is Mexico’s positioning as to the dimensions and extent of its collaboration and complicity with the US regarding the containment of migrant flows from Central America and beyond, and as to the transfer of the burden of enforcement from the US to Mexico. Its levels of cooperation and coordination with the US is reflected in the fact that more Central Americans have been deterred, detained, and deported by Mexico than by the US since 2015, and that it is even harder for Central Americans to obtain refuge and asylum in Mexico than it is in the US. All of this is at the core of US aid which is channeled to Mexico for the so-called “Southern Border Plan” as part of the Mérida Initiative. This plan in effect exports the administration’s repressive immigration control measures to Mexican territory.
At the same time tens of thousands of Mexicans have fled Mexico for the US (including large numbers in our region) as the result of the Mexican government’s inability or unwillingness to ensure the safety of its own citizens derived from its own war on drugs, endemic poverty and discrimination. Mexico is thus poorly positioned to provide serious protection to those fleeing persecution and violence in Central America. The scale of Central American migration through Mexico- some 450,000 per year, approximately 1,500 per day- in comparison with the country’s limited resources to receive refugees and asylum seekers, frames the dimensions of this challenge, even if maximum levels of good will were the norm among Mexican authorities.
Mexico’s dualities and divisions as to these issues have been evidenced by its at best ambivalent approach to the caravan. Its responses so far have ranged from its violent, indiscriminate repression (including beatings and gassing) of its participants at the Rodolfo Robles bridge over the Rio Suchiate between Tecun Uman, Guatemala and Ciudad Hidalgo (Chiapas, adjacent to Tapachula) in Mexico last Friday, to its current stance of permitting the caravan to continue its advance, for now, with limited humanitarian support.
But most of the most concrete burden of solidarity has fallen on the country’s poorest, most marginalized communities in regions such as Chiapas and Oaxaca, which have in fact mobilized generous, ongoing support throughout the caravan’s trajectory. This is in stark contrast to the reaction among many in the US, who instead, see the caravan as either an untimely distraction within the context of the impending midterm elections, or as a tool by the Trump administration to further incite fear with anti-migrant rhetoric or by the Democrats to undermine US interests. But the calendar of indigenous social movements in the Global South like the caravan moves to a very different rhythm. From this perspective there is no reason to assume that the desperate human needs and struggles for justice it embodies and projects should be placed within the much narrower frame of the US’ domestic electoral timeline.
Mexico’s President-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (who takes office on December 1st) has meanwhile stated that Central American migrants in Mexico should be welcomed, that jobs should be provided for them, and that the solution to the root causes of their exodus should include a new tripartite development pact between the US, Mexico, and the countries of the Northern Triangle. This may also be the most functional solution from the standpoint of the Trump administration’s interest in securing continued Mexican cooperation with the containment of these migration flows.
US responsibility and root causes
The imposition by the US of unequal free trade pacts on the Mesoamerican region such as NAFTA and CAFTA has seriously eroded the conditions necessary for a dignified life among the poorest communities in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These drivers of migration have been intensified by the effects of the drug war, mega-development projects, and climate change. Under these circumstances the caravan illustrates how processes of forced migration that are sometimes described in terms of “mixed flows”, transcend traditional distinctions between “voluntary” and “involuntary”, or “economic” and other causes of migration. These tendencies reflect deeper regional and global trends in contexts such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, or in the Euro-Mediterranean region.
The unsustainable conditions of life which prevail in Central America have exacerbated the devastating legacy of US intervention in the region, in support of authoritarian militarist regimes aligned with US interests during the Cold War in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This includes massive US support for dictatorial, genocidal governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras throughout this period. It is as a result of these policies that the first waves of mass migration from this region towards the US were unleashed, giving rise in turn to the sanctuary movement of the 1980’s.
Many of the same communities where current migration flows originate coincide with those that were most heavily impacted by the regional conflicts and generalized human rights abuses that were stoked by US intervention. This includes the US’ continuing role under both Democratic and Republican administrations in supporting corrupt ruling élites that promoted the June 2009 military coup in Honduras and a bitterly contested election there last November that many international observers considered to be fraudulent.
The caravan poses an extraordinary test of broad historical and ethical dimensions for human rights advocates and scholars engaged with migrant rights issues, and for those who approach these issues from a faith-based perspective. The images of unarmed migrants- most of them women, youth and children, elderly people and the disabled- primarily from the region’s poorest communities, being beaten and gassed by Mexican authorities at the Rodolfo Robles bridge, conjure deep resonances. For many of us this represents a kind of “Selma moment” that evokes one of the key turning points in the African-American civil rights movement in March, 1965. This refers to the process whereby peaceful marchers led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., struggling for recognition of their basic humanity and dignity, were initially turned back by indiscriminate state violence at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and then were finally able to resume their march 2 weeks later towards an ultimately triumphant conclusion with
Years from now last Friday’s confrontation at Mexico’s southern border will be commemorated as the beginning of an equivalent kind of juncture. This will be understood as having framed a “kairos” or “messianic” moment reflected in the emergence of a powerful new transnational migrant rights movement, that is undermining long held orthodoxies regarding the imperatives of state sovereignty within the context of migration policy and human rights. All of this also lays the basis for fully incorporating migrants as collective subjects as to the mass human rights crimes which have been committed against them with convergent responsibility on the part of the US and Mexico, within the framework of Mexico’s incipient transitional justice process, and of a convergent process on both sides of the border. Upcoming hearings in Mexico City in November of the International Tribunal of Conscience of Peoples in Movement, within the framework of the VIII World Social Forum on Migration, will have the opportunity to contribute to this emerging huipil, with participation from members of the caravan and representatives of human rights organizations that joined it to accompany them.
The analogies between the US civil rights movement of the 1960’s and current developments go deeper as well. The marchers at Selma were impelled by the demand that equal voting rights be recognized for African-Americans in the South who were denied such rights by prevailing state laws and practices. Today the migrant caravan is rising in defense of the recognition of rights to a dignified life and to freedom of movement (or to free human mobility) which are generally negated or marginalized by the policies of countries such as the US and others within the Global North. This is indeed a moment of Exodus. Today’s caravan (and those that will surely follow) is in effect a Latin American version of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. The landscape of such issues has been transformed by the caravan, from below, as has always been the case with the social movements of the oppressed, throughout the long curve of human history. Our obligation is to defend and stand with them
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