Tensions rise as migrant caravans arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border

Dec. 2018 Caravan food (Marty)
Food donations are distributed to caravan migrants at a camp in Tijuana. (Photo: Marty Goodman / Socialist Action)


As numbers of Central American migrants began to arrive at the U.S. border, support efforts were taking place in cities across the United States. In Minneapolis, hundreds of people demonstrated in frigid weather on Nov. 30 to express solidarity with the caravans. Other groups are working on sending supplies. Three semi trucks filled with supplies left Chicago at the end of November, en route to the border area.

On Nov. 11, the first group of Central American refugees reached Tijuana, on the U.S.-Mexico border. The group, made up of about 80 LGBTQI people, had broken off from the main caravan group due to harassment they had experienced from other migrants in the main caravan group.

“We were discriminated against, even in the caravan,” said Erick Dubon, 23, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, who has been traveling with his boyfriend, Pedro Nehemias, 22, as reported in the Washington Post. “People wouldn’t let us into trucks, they made us get in the back of the line for showers, they would call us ugly names.”

Although the LGBTQI migrants are particularly vulnerable to harassment, anti-immigrant protests broke out on the Mexican side of the border as more migrants arrived in Tijuana. Sources such as The Guardian and the Mexican newspaper El Universal have reported over the last few weeks on the small, but vitriolic anti-immigrant movement in Tijuana.

Some protesters threw rocks and hurled insults at a group of migrants sleeping on the beach. At another protest, 400 anti-immigrant demonstrators outnumbered the 50 people who marched with open arms to welcome the migrants. The protests seem to be divided along class lines, with those from wealthier districts making up the majority of the xenophobic upsurge, both in the streets and online.

Similarly in the U.S., in places like Chicago, sections of the Mexican community are demonstrating against the migrant caravans, reflecting the negative impact of the anti-immigrant rhetoric spouted by Trump and the mainstream media.

By the end of the month, the number of migrants streaming into Tijuana reached around 6000. But they had added their names to a list of 3000 people in Tijuana who were already waiting to apply for asylum in the United States. Despite the hopes of many Central American migrants who are fleeing extreme violence and poverty in their own countries to build a better life in the U.S., applying for asylum is a very difficult and lengthy process.

Dec. 2018 Caravan children (Marty)
Migrant children at the border in Tijuana are entertained by a singer. (Marty Goodman / Socialist Action)

As reported by The New Yorker, migrants themselves have now taken over the process of managing the lengthy list of people waiting for their turn to apply for asylum. The reason is that the Department of Homeland Security limits the number of people who can apply for asylum in the U.S. on any given day, usually allowing in between 30-90 people. As entry to the United States has been increasingly restricted by the Trump administration over the last year, getting on the ledger is now the only way asylum seekers can legally cross into San Diego.

Although President Trump’s recent attempts to block asylum claims were quickly struck down by a federal judge, things have only gotten worse along the border. According to the Washington Post, “U.S. immigration statistics show roughly 80 percent of Central Americans pass a perfunctory ‘credible fear’ interview after reaching the United States, but fewer than 10 percent are ultimately granted asylum by a judge. The backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts has ballooned past 750,000, giving many asylum seekers who do not qualify a chance to remain in the country for several years while waiting to see a judge. … Last month, the number of people taken into U.S. custody along the Mexican border or who attempted to enter without authorization topped 60,000, the highest of Trump’s presidency.”

To make matters worse, the Washington Post also recently reported on a deal between the Trump administration and Mexico’s new populist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who ascended to office on Dec. 1. Called “Remain in Mexico,” the plan will require asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while waiting for their asylum claims to be processed in the U.S. “The medium and long-term solution is that people don’t migrate,” said Olga Sánchez Cordero, Mexico’s incoming interior minister. “Mexico has open arms and everything, but imagine one caravan after another after another. That would also be a problem for us.”

The new deal will break with the long-standing practice of “catch and release” and has many human rights groups worried that migrants will be forced to cross the border at more dangerous points, or to stay in unsafe areas on the Mexican side of the border, many of which are controlled by drug cartels.

Frustrations boiled over on Nov. 25, as dozens of migrants, including women and children, rushed the border in an attempt to break through. U.S. Border Patrol agents quickly retaliated with tear gas. In video posted online, an activist with the group Pueblos Sin Fronteras personally recounted pulling a five-year-old girl out of a cloud of stinging tear gas.

After the incident, El Universal reported that the Mexican government had announced it would immediately deport any Central American migrants who participated in what it called “a violent attempt” to illegally break through to the United States through the entry point known as El Chaparral. They also announced that they would reinforce the border by sending additional Federal Police agents to the area.

History of U.S. border violence

Many have expressed shock and outrage that the U.S. government would dare to use such military tactics against a group that included women and children, but in reality this incident was just the latest in a gradual build up of militarization along the U.S.-Mexico border. The border was first created in 1848 following the U.S.-Mexico war, when the land Trump wants to protect as the “border zone” was stolen from Mexico by the United States. However, border enforcement in its current form didn’t begin until the 1990s.

Just as NAFTA was beginning to make headlines in 1993, the U.S. Border Patrol was developing plans to effectively seal the urban ports of El Paso-Cuidad Juarez and San Diego-Tijuana (through Operations Hold the Line and Gatekeeper, respectively). The resulting sections of border walls and increases in the number of Border Patrol agents in these and other urban areas had the devastating effect of pushing migration into the most dangerous sections of the U.S.-Mexico border. The consequences have been tragic: since 1994, around 10,000 undocumented immigrants have lost their lives attempting to cross into the United States (as estimated by the group Border Angels).

The Trump administration has only escalated the militarization process along in the border since taking office early in 2016. Trump ran his presidential campaign on xenophobic rhetoric that labeled Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “murderers,” and a promise to build a wall along the entire border at a cost of billions of dollars (which he claimed he would force Mexico to pay for).

In late October, Trump deployed almost 6000 active-duty U.S. Army troops to the border area to join about 2000 National Guard troops already stationed there. Trump was following in the footsteps of Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama, who also sent the National Guard to the border. The troops have spent most of the past month stringing concertina wire along the border in a bid to prevent migrants from physically crossing into the U.S.

On Nov. 30, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security formally asked the Pentagon to extend the military deployment through the end of January. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has also fueled the efforts of right-wing vigilantes such as the Minute Men to patrol the border.

U.S. intervention in Central America

The U.S. military created many of the political and economic crises in the Central American countries that the most recent wave of migrants is fleeing from. The U.S. invaded Honduras (and other Central American countries) numerous times, dividing the region into a jumble of Banana Republics, dominated by the United Fruit Company. The widely despised Nicaraguan Contras were launched from Honduras in the 1980s under the Reagan administration.

A string of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal economic policies (such as Honduras’s entry into CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement), has undermined democracy in the region and created vacuums of power that have allowed the rise of drug cartels and paramilitary alliances.

Honduras is now considered one of the deadliest countries in the world. All of this culminated in the U.S.-orchestrated overthrow of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, striking him down for attempting even the mildest of reforms. The coup was carried out by the Honduran military under the direction of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. Congress. Meanwhile, with a destroyed political system and a criminal oligarchy running the country, peasants and the working class have been faced with the decision of “fight or flight.” Other Central American countries, such as Guatemala and El Salvador, which many of the migrants in the current caravans call home, share similar histories of U.S. imperialist invasion.

Detention system run for profit

Once the refugees fleeing poverty and violence in actually arrive in the U.S., they are forced into the U.S. detention system, a growing network that profits from the imprisonment of immigrants, even children. According to the group Detention Watch, as the U.S. prison system expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of refugees arriving from Cuba and Haiti were swept into U.S. detention centers. Detention Watch states on its website, “In 1996, the U.S. enacted legislation that dramatically expanded the use of detention. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) expanded mandatory detention. The 1996 laws also rendered any non-U.S. citizen, including legal permanent residents, vulnerable to detention and deportation.”

Under Obama and now Trump, the implementation of a detention bed quota and the expansion of deportation programs such as 287(g) and Secure Communities has caused the average daily population of detained immigrants to skyrocket from approximately 5000 per day in 1994 to over 39,000 in 2017. The U.S. government now captures and detains up to 400,000 immigrants a year at a cost of $2.6 billion.

Over 73% of immigrants are held in private detention facilities run by for-profit corporations like The GEO Group, Inc. and CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America), which receive $134 per day from the government for adult detention and $319 per day for family detention (statistics from detentionwatch.org).

According to a recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the U.S. government is putting the health and safety of about 2300 migrant children being held in a remote desert detention camp in Tornillo, Texas, at risk by waiving the requirement for FBI fingerprint background checks for caregivers working with the children. The children, ages 13-17, are mostly from Central America and have recently arrived in the U.S. seeking to reunite with family members. Many of the children are being held for months in the detention center while waiting for their host families to pass an extremely rigorous screening process. This only adds to the trauma that many of the children have already experienced in their home countries and on their journey to the U.S.

“The few times they let me call my mom I would tell her that one day I would be free, but really I felt like I would be there for the rest of my life,” a 17-year-old from Honduras who was held at Tornillo earlier this year told AP. “I feel so bad for the kids who are still there. What if they have to spend Christmas there? They need a hug, and nobody is allowed to hug there.” And yet, despite the high mental health needs of the children in the camp, BCFS, the non-profit agency running the camp, only staffs one mental health therapist for every 50 children (the federal policy mandates one mental health provider for every 12 children).

As reported in the Star Tribune, “For each night that a child spends at Tornillo, taxpayers spend up to $1,200 to pay to direct care workers, cooks, cleaners, teachers and emergency services workers, according to information staff at two congressional offices said they were provided on a recent visit. That’s well above the $775 officials have disclosed, close to five times more than a typical youth migrant shelter costs.” The high costs at the Tornillo detention camp reflect the fact that everything—water, food, staff, and detainees—must be trucked in and out of the remote site.

Meanwhile, the 6000 caravan refugees currently residing in camps at that U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana must also endure squalid conditions as they wait their turn in the ever-growing line of migrants hoping to apply for refugee status in the U.S. A group of about 15 hunger strikers at the border are demanding faster, more efficient, and more respectful handling of asylum claims.

Many have been staying in tents at the Benito Juarez Stadium. Socialist Action members participating in aid efforts at the border report that cops went tent to tent in the stadium, telling families they must move to a larger camp, Barretal—a 40-minute drive from the border, in an isolated area with no access to shops and supplies. In an effort to clear out Benito Juarez, police blocked food donations from coming in, while denying people the ability to leave the camp to get food. They also removed electric lights and bathrooms from the old camp site.

Solidarity actions

But all is not lost. While the forces of U.S. imperialism amass along the border with Mexico, an explosion of organizing efforts has taken off not just along the border but across the United States. Groups like Cosecha, which issued a call for 15,000 people to come to the U.S.-Mexico border in support of the immigrants, are currently organizing volunteers to offer support in whatever way they can, including donations of food and clothing and legal counsel. Faith-based organizations and other groups have also been sending aid.

Local actions and organizing efforts have taken place in solidarity with the caravan refugees. Groups such as Minnesota Caravan Solidarity have projected a message of welcome to the migrants approaching the U.S. “Immigrants are welcome here!” shouted protesters at a recent rally in downtown Minneapolis. The crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border has provided activists with an important opening to organize new united-front-type coalitions to come together in an immigrant rights movement that has been largely fractured and lacking in a national leadership for many years.

Many of the groups organizing around these issues have been divided over the ideas of organizing direct aid for the migrants versus organizing local and national mass actions. Socialist Action does not deny the need for direct support to the migrants now living in desperate and squalid conditions on the Mexican side of the border. But we also recognize that it is critical to organize mass actions to highlight the role of U.S. imperialism in the current crises in Central America and to defend immigrants and refugees against the attacks of the U.S. government aimed at controlling the immigrant-fueled U.S. economy and keeping immigrants too afraid to fight back.

We should look back to mass movements such as the Chicano Movement of the 1960s for inspiration. Despite widespread police brutality against it, the movement fought for a broad range of demands, from restoration of land grants, to farm workers’ rights, to enhanced education, to voting and political rights and reclamation of Mexican-American cultural history.

In recent years, we have seen massive protests erupting around critical issues. Examples include the huge rallies and marches in 2006, when millions of people spilled into the streets to protest the reactionary Sensenbrenner bill, or this year’s protests of hundreds of thousands around the U.S. against the Trump administration’s heinous separation of migrants from their children at the border.

Although many of these protests have lacked a national cohesiveness and sustainability, they demonstrate the power of the immigrant rights movement to challenge the U.S. government when its most vulnerable members are under threat. Many migrants from Mexico and Central America have backgrounds of labor organizing in their own countries. They have lived with the consequences of U.S. imperialist military and economic intervention.

We know from history that the ruling class will not give up its power without a fight, and the Democrats and Republicans have equally supported and enhanced the racist immigration system that operates in the United States. Neither party offers a solution to the crisis currently occurring at the border.

The migrant caravans offer a new opportunity to organize mass movements among the U.S. working class, unifying broad layers of working people, immigrants, refugees, and labor, faith-based and community organizations in solidarity with our sisters and brothers from Central America. This is the only way we will be able to end the economic and political crisis pushing people to migrate to the U.S. and the system that exploits them when they arrive here.

Solidarity with the Migrant Caravans! Open the Borders! ¡Ningun Ser Humano es Ilegal! 

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