The Central American “Caravan” as a Political Act

By Cecilia Menjívar

News media up to the midterm elections were saturated with images of Central American immigrants traveling north in “caravans,” with images of an impending “invasion” of criminals or terrorists who would threaten the safety and security of most Americans. In the midst of the panic, the Department of Homeland Security even issued a fact sheet about the caravan that listed concerns about criminals traveling north, asserting that there were 270 individuals with criminal histories along the caravan route. The U.S. President would regularly announce to a public already primed to fear crime and criminals filtering through the southern border that the invaders needed to be contained. The administration’s response was Operation Faithful Patriot, comprised of the deployment of up to 15,000 active-duty military troops to Texas, Arizona, and California. And even though the broadcasting of such alarmist declarations decreased dramatically immediately after the midterms, the Commander in Chief did order 5,600 American troops to be deployed to the border, where they will remain waiting for the “caravan” to arrive. Authorities have used tear gas on the migrants who have tried to set foot on U.S. soil to seek asylum.

Such media depictions and politicians’ declarations conflate and muddy two important aspects of this migration—why Central Americans migrate and why they migrate in large groups today. First, Central Americans migrating to the United States do not seek to “invade” or harm Americans and their way of life. They migrate to escape countries where extreme conditions of (multiple forms of) violence permeate everyday life and where governments are unable, but often, unwilling to protect their own citizens. Thus, their migration can be more properly categorized as an exodus, as immigrant rights organizations in Mexico and the international media have labeled it. And second, these Central Americans migrate in large groups to protect themselves from the harrowing dangers of the journey north. They find security and protection in the collective act of migrating. But the disproportionate media attention and the politicization of these migrants’ journey have muddled the reasons and the mechanisms for migration and in the process buried the humanitarian crisis unfolding at the Southern border today. Seen through a clearer lens, the Central Americans immigrants traveling north to safety can be seen as voting with their feet to escape violence, inequality, inefficient and failing justice systems. In leaving those conditions as a collective act, these migrants denounce entrenched forms of violence and deep inequalities in their countries, and their arrival in the United States reminds us of the pivotal role the United States has had in creating those conditions. Their migration, in large groups or individually, therefore calls attention to the conditions they leave and to their own predicament during the journey, and invites a rethinking of immigration policy solutions for the future.

Furthermore, while Central American migrants’ migration has prompted a militaristic response on the part of the U.S. administration, there are many groups across the United States and beyond, throughout the migrants’ route, who offer these migrants assistance and support for their situation. Thus, these migrants’ crossing of several international borders in large groups represents a political act that calls attention to their plight and has prompted many to mobilize a humane response.

Finally, the United States is not, by a long shot, the only receiver of these migrants seeking protection. Many Central Americans seeking refuge stay in the region, such as the 40,000 Nicaraguans who have sought refuge in Costa Rica. As well, many Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans have traveled through Mexico on their way to the United States and have been stopped, detained in and deported from Mexico while others have managed to stay there. 

Contexts of Migration

Many Central American migrants today, as their counterparts did during the civil wars of the 1980s, leave their countries at a moment’s notice because they are being targeted by groups that wield considerable authority and unleash violence to assert their power and advance their interests. Conditions of violence then and now are similar, though they arise from different configurations of power and actors; today, new actors, such as organized criminal networks and gangs, play a central role. But similar patterns of inequality, profoundly unequal distribution of resources, narrow access to services and social goods, and violence from powerful groups as they seek to exert control continue to propel people to migrate. While in the 1980s such conditions led some to revolt and others to migrate, today many migrate to escape the generalized violence that kills thousands, either spontaneously or through a “slow death.” Under these conditions, people face either the prospect of staying home and risking their own or their family members’ lives, or leaving. As a woman I interviewed in Guatemala once told me, “What is the difference between dying here little by little or dying at once during the trip north?”

Mobilizing Support for Central Americans

Far from recognizing the plight of Central American migrants and allowing them the right to apply for protection as refugees, the U.S. government has been prosecuting them as criminals, separating them from their children and other family members, placing them in indefinite detention in prison-like conditions, rushing them through immigration courts, and even using tear gas against them. This strategy ignores the deep U.S. involvement in the internal affairs of Central American countries that has contributed to create the very conditions from which Central Americans flee. However, the U.S. government’s militaristic response has generated an outpouring of support for the migrants, both in the United States and Mexico. Large immigrant rights groups, religious organizations, networks of lawyers, and individuals wishing to support them have organized, mobilized, protested, and denounced the U.S. government’s actions.

The Central Americans who have joined the exodus and are traveling north have exited insufferable conditions and have clearly articulated such reasons. They have voted with their feet and have mobilized a call to action on the part of the international community to protect them and to recognize the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded in their countries. This collective action has brought attention and responses from governments and civil society groups—in the origin countries, in transit regions, and at destination. The migrants have exited and voiced their predicament and, in the process, have sparked political actions that transcend communities and national boundaries.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants Rights Activism

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