The refugee and migrant caravan: what you need to know

You’ve probably heard something on the news about the growing refugee and migrant caravan of Central Americans – mainly Hondurans and Guatemalans – making their way to the US-Mexico border. And if you haven’t, you soon will as it’s Republicans’ newest poster child for the looming midterm elections. Here’s what you need to know.

In the upcoming weeks, we’re going to update you on the caravan, breakdown the onslaught of conspiracy theories, and unpack the subtle – and not-so-subtle – racism that has been dominating our social media feeds and news cycles. Sign up for our newsletter to stay in the know.

What is a refugee and migrant caravan?

Over the past decade, there has been a significant increase in the number of unaccompanied children and families crossing the US-Mexico border. These people are from the Northern part of Central America, mainly Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. They’re fleeing drug-related violence, persecution and death threats, and extreme economic distress.

All of these families are seeking asylum.

Traditionally, asylum-seekers travel as a family unit. But the crisis in Central America has forced thousands of people into tough situations. For the safety of their children, many families became organized and made the decision to travel together in the hopes of protecting one another.What started off as less than 200 asylum-seekers has grown to more than 7,000 in just a few weeks. Check out a map of their journey so far. 

The journey to the US-Mexico border is no cake walk. It’s weeks of walking through dense jungles and barren deserts with limited food and water. But the elements are only one obstacle on their journey. People seeking asylum often encounter coyotes and traffickers who are quick to take the family’s possessions and money. If there are young girls or women, there a high chance they could be taken and sold into sex trafficking.

Families risk everything when they make the journey to the United States. This is not a decision people make lightly. And it’s exactly why thousands of people have chosen to migrate together – to survive.

Refugee vs. Migrant

The news coverage of the caravan has used a variety of terms when referring to the people within it. We’re not sure these journalists understand the difference between the labels of refugee or migrant. It’s important to note that there are distinguishable differences as they relate to the law and asylum.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, a refugee is a person fleeing armed conflict while a migrant is a person who has chosen to move not because of a direct threat but due to indirect threats such as food insecurity, economic distress, or the pursuit of more opportunity.

This 7,000+ caravan is made up of both refugees and migrants. Each person has their own story and motivations for fleeing their home countries. But they all share a common goal – they want to live.

How do you seek asylum?

Seeking asylum is very difficult. The US system for asylum has intentional barriers in place that make the process nearly impossible to complete – and under the Trump administration, it’s become even worse.

First, a person must present themselves as an asylum-seeker. They must be either at the US-Mexico border, the US-Canadian border or within the United States in order to proceed. Then, the person must establish what is known as credible fear of persecution. The person must provide evidence that they have been persecuted or will be persecuted due to the following five criteria:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Membership in a particular social group
  • Political opinion

In recent years, asylum seekers have been met with the political animosity towards immigrants. Border patrol agents are required by law to refer any asylum-seeker to an asylum agent who will conduct the credible fear interview. A Human Rights First report (May 2017) stated that hundreds of border agents were turning people away at the border and refusing to allow them the opportunity to plead their case.

If the person is lucky enough to get the approval of the asylum officer, they must then present their case to an immigration judge and prepare to argue in court against an experienced prosecutor. With a backlog of nearly 700,000 cases and only 350 immigration judges available to hear these cases, an asylum seeker will likely wait years for their day in court. Once they appear in court and plead their case, the likelihood of a judge approving their case is slim.

Now – set all of that aside – and remember that asylum-seekers must go through this entire process in English. While there may be some bilingual assistance along the way, most people have to fight for themselves without any help or knowledge of the language and immigration law. Only 14% of these cases actually obtain legal representation. 

If the grant for asylum is denied, the person is deported to their home country. Many asylum-seekers will make the journey to the border several times in their lifetime.

These asylum-seekers are organized.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing to come out of the refugee and migrant caravan situation is the blatant racism and disregard for people of color. We’ve seen some subtle and then some not-so-subtle public displays of racism and xenophobia in the past two weeks. Unfortunately, we’ll probably continue to see more of that as we inch closer to the midterm elections.

But we want to dismantle these attacks and misinformation because enough is enough.

The most common myth we are seeing in the news is that this caravan is not organized. This assumption sheds some harsh light on how many people in the United States view poor people, especially poor brown or black people. White people cannot fathom a group of poor Central Americans having the intellectual capacity to organize the caravan, protect the members within the caravan, and make their way to the United States.

And so some news outlets have chosen to belittle what is arguably one of the most important visual displays of civil unrest and economic distress caused by US and international imperialism in their home countries. Check out this tweet from the Associated Press that has since been deleted due to its tone-deaf assessment of the caravan:

This callous analysis of the purpose of the caravan and the power of persecuted people has been a common theme among news outlets. Referring to a mass movement of people due to decades of corrupt politics and severe economic turmoil as a “ragtag army of the poor” perpetuates all the problems that prevent us from making progress on immigration reform and international relations.

This assumption could not be further from the truth.

This caravan is an example of collective action. It has a structure. It has leaders. It has rules. It’s a group of motivated and impacted people who are tired of being abused by the powers that be.

What’s more interesting to watch is the decision-making within the caravan. Along the way, the caravan has encountered several obstacles – mainly as they cross borders from one country to the next. At each obstacle the caravan has provided members with their options and allowed people to decide for themselves what they would like to do.

For example, Guatemalan and Mexican officials attempted to prevent the caravan from moving across the SW Mexico-Guatemala border on Saturday, October 21st. By show of hands, the caravan took a vote on whether or not they should continue onward to the United States. The majority voted to move on while 1,500 members chose to stay behind and presented themselves to Mexican authorities for asylum.

What will happen once the caravan reaches the US-Mexico border?

The reality is we’re not sure.

But we can speculate based on what we already know about the current situation at the border and from what Trump has alluded during his rallies this past week.

The current situation at the US-Mexico border has not improved since May when Trump issued a zero-tolerance policy and separated thousands of children from their parents. While US officials and border organizations are still working to reunite those separated families, many remain in limbo – living in tent camps with limited resources. The process for admitting asylum-seekers has been excruciatingly slow, with border officials only inspecting and interviewing a few families each day.

The lines to meet with an asylum officer are backed up in the thousands. When the caravan arrives, this problem will rapidly increase.

That is the best case scenario at this point.

Trump has alluded to using military force against the caravan while speaking with a news outlet this past Monday. He claimed that the caravan was “an assault on our country” and that he would send as many troops as possible to the border to stop the caravan. Given what we’ve seen from law enforcement when policing non-violent rallies and understanding that the military has a lot more weaponry in their arsenal, it’s concerning to us that the President would create that kind of environment where many, many innocent people could be hurt.

What’s next?

We’re going to continue monitoring the on-going events and update you all with our analysis. As the caravan approaches the US-Mexico border, we expect organizations on the ground will need support. We’ll let you know what are the best action steps you can take to help during this difficult situation.

In the meantime, sign up for our newsletter so you can stay in-the-know and get the latest updates from us!