WASHINGTON—A caravan of more than 1,200 migrants, mostly from Honduras, started trudging northwards on March 25 from Tapachula, southern Mexico, just across the Guatemalan border.
The caravan’s final destination was to be the U.S.–Mexico border, but organizer Pueblo Sin Fronteras has since said Mexico City will be the last scheduled stop. However, many of the migrants intend to carry on and seek asylum in the United States.
Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a U.S.-based advocacy group, demanded in a March 23 press release that Mexico and the United States “open the borders to us because we are as much citizens as the people of the countries where we are and/or travel.”
On its website, the group says it aims “to build solidarity bridges among peoples and turndown border walls imposed by greed.”
The annual caravan attracted many more participants this year, as well as more attention, partly because President Donald Trump has used it to highlight gaps in U.S. border security.
The caravan is helping Trump’s case for a more secure border, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.
“The first thing that it did, the size of it was so startling to people that it got everyone thinking about what would happen if a group like that showed up at the border,” Vaughan said on April 6.
“It was a perfect illustration of the issue that Trump has been trying to get Congress to focus on: that a broken asylum system is the weakest link in our immigration security right now.”
Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants are crossing the southwest border every month and claiming asylum, according to statistics by Customs and Border Protection. In March, more than 37,000 unaccompanied minors and family units were apprehended by Border Patrol after illegally crossing.
Most unaccompanied minors and family units seek out Border Patrol agents after crossing because they know they will get processed quickly and, usually within three weeks, will be released into the United States with a court date set for years down the road. This is known as “catch and release.”
Half of those who claim asylum, or “credible fear,” at the border do not file an official asylum application within the requisite year, according to administration officials, and most will not show up to their hearing.
If applicants do file an asylum claim (which is free) and it has been pending for six months, then they are routinely provided with work authorization—regardless of the merit of the application.
“We have a country where if they step one foot—not two feet—if one foot hits our country, we have to take those people gently, register them, and then release them,” Trump said at a roundtable in West Virginia on April 5.
“Now they’re on the land. We release them. They go someplace into our country. They’re supposed to come back within two or three years for a court case, but nobody ever comes back.”
The number of cases that began with a credible fear claim leaped from approximately 3,000 in 2009 to more than 69,000 in 2016, according to the Justice Department.
If the problems aren’t fixed, “then the inducement to come to this country unlawfully, or to file frivolous claims for asylum, will not be abated,” a senior administration official said on a press call on April 2.
“Asylum is not meant for people fleeing for a better life just because conditions are difficult in their home country,” Vaughan said.
On April 2, Trump started publicly pressuring Mexico to stop the caravan from entering the United States, which, he said in a tweet, “has no effective border laws.”
“Mexico has the absolute power not to let these large ‘caravans’ of people enter their country. They must stop them at their northern border,” Trump tweeted on April 2. He ended with a plea to politicians: “Act now, Congress, our country is being stolen!”
Mexico responded by saying it had already sent 400 people back to their home countries and that it was accepting applications for asylum by others. It has since issued more than 200 transit visas to members of the caravan, which gives them 20 days to leave Mexico. Many others have already broken off from the caravan to continue traveling north.
The trip is fraught with danger, and the cartels control the Mexican border.
Marlene Castro, a supervisory Border Patrol agent in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley Sector, said migrants can travel all the way from Central America to the border, which is defined by the Rio Grande in Texas, “but you will not cross from that bank into the United States without paying some money.”
“You have to at some point pay something. Sadly, a lot of women pay with their bodies,” she said last year. “There are cases where the women—with the expectation of getting raped—prepare themselves by getting on birth control … for the purpose of the journey.”
Vaughan said the caravan is also helping Trump by validating the administration’s concern about Mexico’s role in facilitating illegal migration—through their territory—from other parts of the world.
“[Mexico’s] policies matter to us. Even though we can’t control them, we obviously can influence them,” Vaughan said. “The Mexican government is uncomfortable with this perception, but they can’t avoid the perception that the president’s tweeting about the situation prompted them to do something about the caravan.”
Trump has threatened to leverage the continuation of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement to force Mexico to assist more in border control.
Mexico said on April 9 that it will review all forms of cooperation with the United States, including efforts to combat powerful drug cartels.
President Enrique Peña Nieto gave the order to his cabinet in a meeting on April 8, after a week of heightened bilateral tensions, during which he rebuked Trump for chaffing against Mexico.
Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs, Luis Videgaray, said the review would cover all aspects of the relationship, ranging from border security and migration to trade and the fight against drug gangs.
Vaughan said the caravan also helps Trump by illustrating to Congress why border security is so imperative, and “how concerning it is that Congress did not try to address border security to a significant degree in the spending bill that was just passed.”
“This is a genuine need. We do have very real problems at the border that need to be solved,” she said.
The Department of Homeland Security is working to present Congress with new legislation to close loopholes it says are “catastrophic” to border security.
The new bill will seek to stop the exploitation of the asylum system and the practice of catch and release, according to senior administration officials on a press call on April 2.
Both problems can largely be addressed with fixes to the Flores Settlement Agreement and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), officials said.
The TVPRA should be amended so that minors who are not genuine trafficking victims can be quickly returned home or removed to safe third countries, Acting ICE Director Tom Homan said. Currently, a minor from a noncontiguous country cannot be returned to Mexico, even if they’re not a victim of trafficking, and therefore must be accepted into the United States.
The Flores Settlement Agreement is a Clinton-era settlement of a class-action lawsuit that facilitates the practice of catch and release.
Under the agreement, unaccompanied minors must be released by Border Patrol within 72 hours to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Resources. From there, most are released within about 45 days to a parent or family member already living in the United States.
Family units are transferred from Border Patrol to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which must release them after 20 days.
“We cannot possibly get a removal order within three weeks, which means we have to release these family units,” a senior administration official said on April 2.
On April 6, Trump ordered the attorney general and the heads of the State, Defense, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services departments to prepare a comprehensive report detailing all that is being done to end catch-and-release. The report is due within 45 days, and the officials have 30 days after that to recommend additional resources and authorities needed to end the practice.
Also on April 6, in an unprecedented move for the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy and charge first-time border crossers with illegal entry.
Currently, many are deported after pleading guilty and spending a few days in jail.
A conviction for illegal entry carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison for first-time crossers and two years for repeat offenders.
Border apprehensions reached 50,308 in March, up 37 percent from February and more than triple from the same period last year.
Adding the deployment of the National Guard in a week of immigration focus, Vaughan said Trump is doing as much as he can without congressional support.
“Politically, it has also been an opportunity for the president to show that he is trying to do things to address urgent problems, rather than just sitting back and watching things and waiting for Congress—he wants to be more proactive than that,” she said.
Reuters and Epoch Times staff member Ivan Pentchoukov contributed to this report.