President Donald Trump’s remarks in recent days about a caravan of Central American migrants heading toward the United States have stirred up a political frenzy — in the process distorting reality and ignoring basic facts.
Such caravans are nothing new — a smaller one formed last spring, and similar caravans have been organized annually for the past two decades. There’s no evidence that the caravan includes Middle Easterners, much less terrorists, as the president has suggested, and annual border crossings remain low by the standards of recent history.
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Amid this blizzard of assertions, basic facts about the caravan and about illegal migration into the U.S. are being contradicted or obscured. Here are a few answers to some elementary questions:
1. Who organized or caused the caravan?
Bartolo Fuentes, an activist and former Honduran lawmaker, initially organized it. In an Oct. 4 Facebook post, he shared a graphic promoting a “Caminata del Migrante” (“Migrant March”). The graphic told migrants and protesters to gather on Oct. 12 at a bus station in San Pedro Sula, one of the most violent cities in the world. “We don’t leave because we want to, violence and poverty chases us out,” it said.
Trump has tweeted that the caravan is a result of “pathetic Immigration Laws” that Democrats refuse to change. But Trump-backed immigration bills that would toughen asylum standards and fund a border wall made no progress this year in the Senate or the House, despite both being controlled by Republicans. It’s unclear whether the measures backed by the White House would discourage migration from poverty- and violence-ridden countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted an unverified video clip last week that showed a man distributing money to people with backpacks who appeared to be migrants. Gaetz suggested — citing no evidence — that billionaire philanthropist George Soros was behind the cash payout. Trump later tweeted the same video, but mentioned Democrats, not Soros.
2. Is this the biggest migratory caravan on record?
According to an estimate by the Los Angeles Times, the migrant caravan swelled to more than 7,000 people in recent days. Other estimates have placed it in the thousands, and the numbers appear to be in flux.
Caravans from Honduras have occurred since the late 1990s, but this appears to be the biggest, according to Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. The effort — partly a practical strategy for migrants to travel safely and partly a public protest — gained little attention in the U.S. until this spring, when Trump drew attention to a group of more than 1,000 migrants who left Honduras en route to the U.S.
Mass migration in itself — even from Central America — is nothing new. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans fled north to the U.S. and Mexico in the 1980s as those nations experienced brutal civil wars.
3. Are border crossings at record levels?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week that a “record number of migrants” have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border this year. That’s not true. Border Patrol arrested roughly 397,000 migrants in fiscal year 2018, a figure far lower than the arrest levels in the 1990s and early 2000s, when arrests frequently exceeded one million.
Arrests dropped to their lowest level in decades during Trump’s first year in office. During the past fiscal year they’ve increased, approximating levels during the Obama presidency. From fiscal 2009 to 2016, Border Patrol arrested a yearly average of roughly 413,000 people at the southwest border.
One statistic has reached historic levels: The number of family members arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border rose to roughly 16,658 in September, the most recorded in a single month since Border Patrol began compiling records of families in fiscal year 2012.
But a September 2017 report by the Homeland Security Department that examined available data found that the southwest border “is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever.”
Seth Stodder, a former DHS assistant secretary under President Barack Obama, said illegal immigration from Central America isn’t nearly as intense as what occurred with Cubans and Haitians fleeing in boats in the 1980s and 1990s. “It’s more like a dripping faucet than a rushing tide,” he said.
4. What’s the principal reason migrants are traveling to the U.S.?
Experts cite violence, poverty and family connections in the U.S. as the primary forces driving migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador– as well as the possibility they might be able to remain once they arrive.
5. Are there MS-13 members in the caravan? Are there Middle Easterners in the caravan?
President Trump had claimed there are “some very bad people” in the caravan, and late Tuesday afternoon a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security tweeted that the agency “can confirm that there are individuals within the caravan who are gang members or have significant criminal histories.” Previously, DHS had declined to comment specifically on whether criminals were in the caravan. “Go into the middle of the caravans, take your cameras … you’re going to find MS-13,” Trump told reporters Monday night. But DHS did not state that the criminals in question belonged to MS-13.
Similarly, Trump said people from the Middle East had joined the group, but he walked back that claim on Tuesday. “There’s no proof of anything. But there could very well be,” he told reporters in the Oval Office.
A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman said earlier this week that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in fiscal year 2018 arrested more than 17,000 convicted criminals and 3,000 “special interest aliens” — a broad term that includes many countries around the world, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Somalia (DHS does not disclose the full list of countries).
6. Trump wants to cut aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador for allowing the caravan to happen. Why?
Trump has threatened to slash aid to the three countries for their failure to halt migrants heading north. The pressure on Honduras and Guatemala makes some sense — the migrants passed through those countries before heading to Mexico — but including El Salvador, the southernmost of the three, does not.
These countries of the so-called Northern Triangle are some of the poorest in the hemisphere and struggle to provide basic security and social services for citizens. Gross Domestic Product per capita in the United States was roughly $59,532 in 2017. By comparison, per capita GDP that year in Honduras was $2,480.13; in Guatemala, $4,471, and in El Salvador $3,889, according to World Bank data.
To stem the flow of migrants, the Obama administration boosted aid to the Northern Triangle, but that’s been steadily dropping. The aid totaled $700 million in fiscal year 2017, but the White House has already proposed slashing that to $435 million in the coming year.
7. There was an earlier caravan last spring. What happened to the people in that caravan?
A migrant caravan that left Honduras in March attracted more than 1,000 people during a month-long march to the U.S. border. But not all those members approached the border together. The Associated Press reported in May that 100 Central Americans were seeking asylum — a fraction of the original group.
8. What will a caravan member have to demonstrate to be admitted to the U.S. as an asylum seeker?
A person who enters the U.S. without authorization and seeks asylum must prove he or she has “credible fear” of persecution in his or her home country. The test is the first step in an asylum claim and could allow a migrant to remain in the U.S. pending a court date.
9. How will the migrants be greeted at the border by the US government?
Trump has threatened to send the military to the border and shut it down before the migrants can enter. The president already ordered up to 4,000 National Guard troops to the border in the spring (roughly 2,100 are currently deployed), but there’s nothing they can do to discourage asylum seekers. In many cases, families surrender themselves at the border and claim asylum, which means more enforcement power won’t stop them.
When last spring’s caravan reached the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego in late April, U.S. Customs and Border Protection “metered” the flow of people who could seek asylum. CBP officers permitted only small numbers of asylum seekers to enter for processing each day, leaving dozens of families waiting in Mexico for days.
A September report by the Homeland Security Department inspector general’s office found the practice of metering — which CBP contends prevents overcrowding and related hazards — could actually encourage more illegal crossings.
“Limiting the volume of asylum-seekers entering at ports of entry leads some aliens who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally,” the report said.