Migrant caravan heading for US driven by hope but uncertain of success

Desperate people struggle on despite Donald Trump’s threats to militarise border

Migrants from Central America sleep in the main square in Huixtlan, Mexico. In defiance of the Mexican and American governments, more than 7,000 Central American undocumented migrants have been en route to the United States for more than a week. Photograph: Luis Antonio Rojas/the New York Times

Migrants from Central America sleep in the main square in Huixtlan, Mexico. In defiance of the Mexican and American governments, more than 7,000 Central American undocumented migrants have been en route to the United States for more than a week. Photograph: Luis Antonio Rojas/the New York Times

 

Soon after dawn on Tuesday, the mayor stood on the central plaza of his town here in southern Mexico and took stock. Thousands of migrants – men, women, entire families – had wandered into town the day before, many on foot, and turned the humble commercial district into a vast makeshift encampment. They had filled every square foot of the plaza and jammed the pavements and storefronts, sprawling on cardboard, blankets, plastic sheeting and spare clothes.

“This is straight-up biblical,” said Julio Raúl García Márquez, 43, a Guatemalan travelling with his wife, their one-year-old son and a cousin. They spent part of the night on sheets of cardboard in the central square. Nearby, two pairs of jeans had been hung to dry on the bust of Venustiano Carranza, a hero of the Mexican Revolution. Municipal rubbish bins were buried under mounds of garbage. But the town’s mayor, José Luis Laparra Calderón, was upbeat, even cheerful.

“These people are fleeing from the poverty of their countries,” he said. “These are working people. They aren’t bringing bombs. They want to improve their lives.” He added: “We want to make their passage through here as agreeable for them as possible.”

Free food

Tuesday was day 12 of the migrant caravan, which began in Honduras and has grown in size and force like an avalanche, pushing north toward the United States. In cities and villages, along rural byways and in town squares, the migration has been propelled by an outpouring of support – from the local authorities, community groups and individuals who have handed out free food and water, second-hand clothes, nappies, blankets and loose change to help the procession move northward.

The migrants, some wearing whatever they had on when they decided to leave behind Central America, many walking in flimsy shoes and flip-flops, are determined to make it to the border of the United States

The migrants, some wearing whatever they had on when they decided to leave behind Central America, many walking in flimsy shoes and flip-flops, are determined to make it to the border of the United States. Travelling in such a large group, they say, is much safer than braving the many dangers of the road alone.

By some estimates, the caravan numbers more than 7,000; officials here in Huixtla estimated 5,000 had spent Monday night in their town. Some plan to apply for asylum in the United States, while others know that their only chance of entry is the illegal way. Still others haven’t thought that far ahead, at least not in any detail.

Blind faith

By now, most if not all have heard about US president Donald Trump’s attacks on the caravan, his threats to militarise the border, and the difficulties of gaining legal access to the United States.

But in interviews, scores of migrants seemed driven by a kind of blind faith, born of desperation, that this is their best chance to escape the poverty, violence and hardship they knew at home and to build a better life. The first thing they need to do, they say, is to get to the border.

Josué Rosales (28) from Honduras, said he was unsure whether the caravan would make it all the way to the border and be able to cross into the United States. Still, he felt he had no choice but to try: In Honduras, he had no steady job and he’d been robbed in the streets.

“If God’s willing, the president will give us permits to work in the United States,” he said. Many of the caravan’s participants seemed unaware that their migration had become a focal point in the American midterm elections. Many said they did not even know that the United States was voting in a matter of weeks, and that their trek north had become such a contentious part of the election.

“The bottom line is, most people in Honduras frankly could not care less about elections in the US,” said Oscar Chacón, the executive director of Alianza Americas, a Chicago-based network of American immigrant groups, who was meeting with advocates in Central America this week.

“When you are desperate, you believe in miracles,” he said. “They truly hope that by making this show of collectiveness, by joining this caravan, somebody’s heart will be touched and a miracle will happen.”

On Tuesday, Trump continued to lash out at the caravan, saying, “We cannot allow our country to be violated like this.” But he also acknowledged that he had no proof for his earlier claim on Twitter that there were “unknown Middle Easterners” in the caravan, though he then added that “there could very well could be.” No government agency has confirmed Trump’s claim.

Vice-president Mike Pence said the migrants had been organised “by leftist groups” and funded by Venezuela, and “it is inconceivable that there would not be individuals from the Middle East as part of this growing caravan.”

Despite their characterisation, scores of interviews with the migrants showed them to be largely adults from Central America looking for work, including many travelling with family members. Many were apparently scraping by on what little money they brought from home or on hand-outs from strangers along the way, undercutting any suggestion of foreign funding for a mass migration.

The caravan seems to have been spurred, if anything, by internal Honduran disputes. Only since then has it been swept into American politics, largely by Trump’s tweets. The migrant caravan began as others had – as a small group, taking off early in the morning from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on October 12th. Facebook messages and flyers disseminated by advocates and migrants got the word out weeks before the caravan was set to take off, priming others to join forces.

But what began as a modest group quickly swelled. One Honduran pro-government television station began covering the migration, citing claims that a leftist opposition activist, Bartolo Fuentes, was paying for the food and transportation of migrants. The publicity, migrants said, encouraged many to join.

Conditions in Honduras

Fuentes denies it. But he and at least one other leftist politician did indeed post messages decrying conditions in Honduras and blaming their government. “We are not going because we want to,” read one flyer he shared on Facebook. “The violence and poverty expels us.”

Many participants joined the caravan on impulse. Ronald Borjas, a Honduran migrant, was staying with his mother when he heard about the caravan on television. “I packed my backpack and hugged my mother and left,” he recalled.

Most, it appears, are heading to the United States for the first time, though a sizable contingent are deportees trying to get back. Many said the decision to leave their homeland, even if arrived at quickly, was aching. “It hurts me,” said Kilber Martinez (26) a Honduran migrant, riding in the back of a pick-up truck, overpacked with more than two dozen young men. “The land where you were born is like the mother.”

At the wheel of Martinez’s truck was Andrés Orozco, a primary schoolteacher in Huixtla. After the school day had ended on Monday, he grabbed his brother-in-law’s truck, and headed out along the highway to ferry migrants into the town. He planned to shuttle back and forth “until the gas ran out”.

Despite attempts by the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to impede its progress, the caravan has continued, moving organically like this, without any apparent master plan or declared organisers, and slowed only by human frailty.

When the exhausted migrants streamed into Huixtla on Monday afternoon, the town’s officials directed them to a sprawling sports complex already stockpiled with bottled water, thousands of sandwiches, medical crews and security. A nurse said she treated people for blisters, sunburn and dehydration. One man, a diabetic, wanted to check his blood sugar level. But the most serious dangers of the trek became very real with the news that a migrant had died after falling off the back of a crowded truck.

In the central plaza, migrants strung up plastic sheeting for shelter between trees and lamp posts, just in time for a light rain. Others prepared for the evening by seeking shelter in a covered outdoor basketball court, in a Catholic church and in the shuttered doorways of shops throughout the central commercial district.

Huge pots of spaghetti, beans and rice

A group from a Christian radio station brought huge pots of spaghetti, beans and rice. A preacher showed up, and some migrants knelt around him. Rafael Gómez Borraz, the owner of Pao’s Restaurant, distributed plates of rice and beans. In the 1990s he had worked in the United States, washing dishes and laying tile alongside Central Americans, he said. That made him more sympathetic to the plight of the caravan’s members.

“People are afraid that gangs might have infiltrated the group,” he said. “But these are good people.”

Later, a local cumbia band started playing and several migrants, somehow marshalling their energy after many days of gruelling travel, danced. Some migrants bathed in a nearby river, including Kinzinyer Gabriela Hernandez (17) a Honduran migrant who was travelling with her two-year-old daughter and 16-year-old sister.

“My husband knows that we’re on our way, but not exactly where we are,” said Hernandez, who said she was named after Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state. “God gives me the faith to keep going.” – New York Times

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