As a group of migrants from Central America marched peacefully toward the southern United States border, a panel of Emory student activists and immigration experts discussed the migrant caravan and how it is depicted in the media.
The Nov. 15 panel, entitled “La Caravana,” was hosted by The Himalayas Chapter of Lambda Sigma Upsilon at Emory. About 25 people attended the event.
The migrant caravan, which at one point included more than 7,000 people, began on Oct. 12 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and traveled north toward the U.S.-Mexico border where many migrants are seeking asylum. The mayor of Tijuana, Mexico, declared a humanitarian crisis on Nov. 23 and asked the United Nations for aid to manage the approximately 5,000-migrant caravan entering the border city, according to the Associated Press. A peaceful protest on Nov. 25 of migrants demanding asylum at the Mexican border at San Ysidro port of entry descended into chaos when people began forcefully crossing the border. U.S. Border Patrol agents responded by shutting down the border and firing tear gas at the migrants, according to the Los Angeles Times.
President Donald J. Trump thrust the group into political spotlight after he began using threatening depictions of the caravan in campaign ads to garner support for Republican candidates, who have expressed tough stances on illegal immigration, in the midterm elections.
Amir Naim (10C), asylum attorney for the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network, criticized the Trump administration’s Oct. 27 order to send more than 5,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent the undocumented migrants from entering the U.S., calling the move a “political stunt.”
“At the very least [the U.S. government] should be setting up an adequate infrastructure to receive the anticipated large number of people — most of them would likely be asking for asylum,” Naim said. “The system we have right now to process those kinds of cases is just broken. People wait for many years to get a decision on their cases.”
Activist Jonathan Peraza (18C) said coordinated caravans that begin in Central America and travel to the U.S.-Mexico border are common.
“Caravans are not anything new,” Peraza said. “They have been coming out of Central America since the 2010s. This caravan … has gotten a lot of media attention because … it’s coming at a time when Honduras is getting a lot of attention because of the current dictatorship.”
Juan Pablo Sabillon (20B), co-president of Emory’s Students Helping Honduras chapter, spoke about the importance of accurately depicting the experiences of migrants fleeing violence and oppression.
“We need to acknowledge that this is a humanitarian crisis,” Sabillon said. “For those of you who don’t know, it is an extremely dangerous journey. Immigrants are facing gangs, rape, hunger, extreme malnutrition … it is a dehumanizing journey.”
Sabillon noted that migrants feel safe traveling in caravans with hundreds or thousands of people. Otherwise, they travel in small groups and pay large sums of money to an often corrupt “coyote,” or human trafficker.
Amilcar Valencia, executive director of El Refugio, a hospitality house serving the families of detained immigrants, said much of the instability in Central American countries can be attributed to U.S. support of dictatorships during the 1970s.
“There is instability in Honduras and Central America because of a lack of a new institutional political approach to our governments,” Sabillon added. “We need to talk more about the lack of involvement by the United States today. They have a responsibility to aid Central America to make it a more stable region.”
Despite the dangers and increasing hostility at the U.S. border, migrants are still willing to leave their homes. Migrants flee Central America due to a variety of factors, including political violence or the pursuit of a better life in the U.S., according to Peraza.
“One of the most immediate [factors] is the political violence happening under the authoritarian regimes of Honduras and Nicaragua,” Pereza said. “Gang violence has been a growing issue in the region … it’s a daily reality where people step out of their houses and they don’t know if they’re going to survive the day.”
Michelle Bardales (22C), who attended the event, said the panel helped her understand why migrants might travel in a caravan.
“The panel gave me a lot of information that I didn’t have before,” Bardales said. “I didn’t know the historical information about the effects the United States has had on Central American countries.”