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The Caravan of Honduran Migrants Reveals the Failures of Deterrent Immigration Policy

The policy doesn't work when migrants are fleeing for their lives.
Honduran migrants taking part in a caravan heading to the United States cross the Suchiate River, a natural border between Guatemala and Mexico, in a makeshift raft, in Ciudad Tecun Uman, Guatemala, on October 20th, 2018.

Honduran migrants taking part in a caravan heading to the United States cross the Suchiate River, a natural border between Guatemala and Mexico, in a makeshift raft, in Ciudad Tecun Uman, Guatemala, on October 20th, 2018.

Last weekend, as a caravan of thousands of migrants from Honduras reached Mexico's heavily fortified southern border with Guatemala, officials in Mexico and the United States were faced with a harsh reality: Their countries' joint effort to deter Central American migration is failing.

Though Mexico dispatched hundreds of police to its border, startling photos from the weekend showed thousands of migrants crowding onto a bridge in an attempt to push their way into the country. As conditions worsened, some of the more desperate and hungry—many of them mothers with children—risked crossing the river on makeshift rafts or swimming. By Monday, thousands had made it across the border, many coming illegally, though Mexican authorities did admit a considerable number through the country's asylum entrance process.

"Sadly, it looks like Mexico's Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States," President Donald Trump tweeted on Monday morning, continuing his flurry of outraged tweets as cable news stations reported on the caravan. (In the same tweet, Trump offered unsubstantiated and bizarre allegations that "unknown Middle Easterners" were mixing in with the caravan, and said he had "alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy [sic].")

The failure of Mexican authorities to stop the movement of migrants highlights the failure of what was once one of the more successful strategies in the U.S.'s deterrent immigration policy: using Mexico as a barrier between migrants and the U.S., like a moat around a castle.

In the past decade, at the same time that migration into the U.S. from Mexico dropped precipitously, migration from Central American countries grew dramatically. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. began to work closely with Mexico to deter Central American migrants before they ever reached the U.S. border. Increased funding from the U.S. and cooperation between the two countries saw Mexico invest heavily in fortifying its borders with Guatemala and Belize and in ramping up its own deportation program to record levels.

After the child migration crisis in 2014 (a humanitarian disaster in which thousands of unaccompanied minors poured through Mexico toward the U.S. border), the Obama administration pushed Mexico to do more to stem the tide, and the country adopted its "Programa Frontera Sur" (Southern Border Plan). The new deterrent immigration policy was plausibly a keystone in the significant decrease in immigration in 2015, but was immediately met with widespread criticism after human rights abuses against migrants proliferated.

However, aside from the dip in 2015, migration from Central America has continued to grow, even as the journey through Mexico becomes more and more policed—and more dangerous, as gangs, sexual predators, and corrupt police prey on migrants. The new, huge caravan of migrants from Honduras throws into stark relief the degree to which the U.S.'s attempt to turn Mexico into an anti-immigrant barrier has been ineffective.

Many experts believe that the failure of deterrent immigration policy in the U.S. and Mexico stems from both countries' inability to understand the motivating factors behind Central American immigration. As Sarah Bermeo, a public policy professor at Duke University and expert on Central America, explains, the U.S. is stuck pursuing an immigration policy that assumes that migrants are leaving their countries for economic reasons. However, in the last decade, the number of migrants fleeing violence and abuse in Central America has dramatically increased. In particular, migrants are fleeing wartime levels of violence in the "Northern Triangle" countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

"Many policymakers talk about arrivals from the Northern Triangle as if they are economic migrants. The news media often fails to distinguish between motivations. Failure to recognize the nature of the crisis leads to inhumane and ineffective policies," Bermeo wrote for the Brookings Institution in June.

Though migrants from Northern Triangle countries are not officially recognized by the international community as refugees, experts like Bermeo say that recognizing that migrants are fleeing wartime levels of violence is critical to creating workable policy. In particular, this means recognizing that deterrent immigration policy—whether through walls, the threat of deportation, rivers, or barbed wire—is ineffective against people fleeing to save their lives and the lives of their children.

Bill Holston, a human rights attorney who represents many Central American migrants and refugees in Texas, spoke to a mother who, after fleeing El Salvador with her daughter, paid a smuggler to help get her daughter into the U.S. When Holston and his fellow attorneys at the Human Rights Initiative of Northern Texas (of which Holston is executive director) told the mother that she could be prosecuted as a trafficker for contracting smugglers to help her daughter get into the country, she told them that she did not regret her decision. "She told us: 'They were going to rape my daughter back in El Salvador. If you're going to prosecute me, prosecute me, but my daughter is safe now,'" Holston says.

As Sairy Bueso, a mother who crossed the Suchiate River into Mexico with two children in a flimsy raft over the weekend, told the Guardian, "There are risks that we must take for the good of our children."