Members of the migrant caravan heading north through Mexico toward the United States.

Who Actually Are The People In The Migrant Caravans And What Brings Them North

by Richard Cameron


Depending on which side

of the immigration debate you hear from, there will be widely varying assessments of who the people are that comprise the migrant caravans and what their actual motives are in desiring to be admitted to the United States.

On one end of the argument, we’re told that the caravan is full of people that are not seeking asylum, but are either criminals or potential terrorists, plus others who are simply looking to take jobs from Americans.

In opposition to that characterization, are those who see these refugees as escaping violence from their home countries in Central America – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Trump’s ‘Criminal Migrant’ Fear Mongering

But what is the actual case with these migrants? President Donald Trump has given his anti-immigration following, talking points such as his sales pitch in one campaign event during the run up to the mid-terms, telling the audience, “if you don’t want America to be overrun by masses of illegal aliens and giant caravans, you’d better vote Republican”.

At another event, Trump said:

“At this very moment, large well-organized caravans of migrants are marching towards our southern border. Some people call it an invasion. …These are tough people in many cases; a lot of young men, strong men and a lot of men that maybe we don’t want in our country. …This isn’t an innocent group of people. It’s a large number of people that are tough. They have injured, they have attacked.”


And there was this tweet:

a tweet from President Donald Trump in which he asserts that the migrant caravan is composed of large numbers of criminals as well as individuals from the Middle East.

More recently, Trump claimed there were “500 criminals” among the assemblage of migrants that are now awaiting a disposition to their requests to apply for asylum.

President Donald Trump's tweet about "very bad people" heading to the U.S. border

Are Trump’s assertions reality based, or are they simply part of his calculation to keep his political base energized and distracted from the many revelations of his corruption and that of his administration?

Let’s take a look at Trump’s claims about the people in the caravan. Are there “500 criminals” among them? Trump has not come forward with any substantiation of that statement, nor has the Department of Homeland Security. In the absence of any documentation that we could confirm, the contention of Trump and DHS must be considered more of a politically motivated claim than a matter of hard data.

But is it reasonable to assume that within a group of people seeking asylum, there are some people with criminal records and with no legitimate asylum claims?  It is.  And in fact, some of these people have been arrested in Mexico – the government of Mexico stating that approximately 100 arrests for unspecified charges of criminal activity have been made of individuals among the caravan now stalled in the border towns Tijuana and Mexicali.

Additionally, even caravan members have told reporters that some criminals have infiltrated their numbers. Despite that, the charges that Trump and his administration are making are patently inflammatory when viewed against the backdrop of government data. Customs and Border Patrol statistics show that of the 396,579 persons apprehended at the border attempting to cross illegally, 4.4 percent had criminal histories of one sort or another, 0.26 percent were classified as gang members and 0.8 percent were classified as “special interest aliens”.

An interesting point of comparison to note is that among Americans – one in three by the age of 25, have at least one arrest on their record and 8 percent of the American population have a felony conviction.

It’s logical to take those statistics and extrapolate them to the migrant caravan. When you do so, it is within reason to conclude that along with every contingent of 3,000 asylum seekers, there would be less than 150 people that may represent a security threat of one degree or another.

“Middle Easterners”

Another innuendo was issued by Vice President Mike Pence, who professed in a speech prior to the mid-term elections, telling an audience that, “it’s inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people.” The obvious implication is that anyone of “Middle Eastern descent”, likely is a terror threat. This serves the ongoing tactic of Trump and his party in stoking a climate of anxiety over the issue of immigration.

Do officials within the Department of Homeland Security support the notion that “special interest aliens” constitute an actual security threat?

In 2014, Duncan Hunter, Jr. (R-CA) – now indicted on 60 counts of campaign fraud, told Fox News that he had been told by the Border Patrol that they had apprehended “at least 10 ISIS fighters” at the Mexican border. In response, DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in a statement that:

“The suggestion that individuals who have ties to ISIL have been apprehended at the southwest border is categorically false, and not supported by any credible intelligence or the facts on the ground.DHS continues to have no credible intelligence to suggest terrorist organizations are actively plotting to cross the southwest border.”

A 2015 DPS report addresses that question specifically. “We judge that foreign terrorists almost certainly are aware of the U.S.-Mexico border’s vulnerability to illegal entry, though we currently are not aware of any specific and credible information indicating a terrorist plot associated with the border.”

The following year, the State Department issued a report titled the 2016 Country Reports on Terrorism. In the summary statement, the State Department concluded that:

“There are no known international terrorist organizations operating in Mexico, no evidence that any terrorist group has targeted U.S. citizens in Mexican territory, and no credible information that any member of a terrorist group has traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States.”

But what about since 2016? Has anything changed?  In an update to that report, Politifact contacted Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman, who responded by email in April of this year that the assessment that no terrorist had traveled through Mexico to gain access to the United States, was still the position of the department.

According to the Cato Institute’s review of government data, the last and only known origin of a terror plot involving the Southern border in the past 40 years had the element of children crossing the Mexico / U.S. border with their parents, ethnic Albanians. The children were alleged by the Justice Department to have been radicalized in the United States. Shain Duka, Britan Duka, and Eljvir Duka arrested by the FBI in the “Fort Dix” terror plot were apprehended before a plan to attack the army installation in New Jersey could materialize. However, the fact pattern in this case, strongly suggests that the Duka brothers were victims of a government entrapment operation.

Are the migrants likely to be – as Trump has described them, “some very tough fighters and people”?

“They are trying to come to the U.S. border to apply for asylum, if that is their tactic, I’m not sure why they would be aggressive toward the U.S. government officials,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, who served at DHS in the Bush and Obama administrations.


Refugees of the violence that rages in the 'Northern Triangle' of Central America, where the crime rate is 800 times that of the United States.
Refugees of the violence that rages in the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Central America, where the crime rate is 800 times that of the United States.

Escaping The Killing Fields

What then, about the majority of the population of the caravan? They are individuals and families escaping extreme violence in Honduras.

The Central American caravans coming to the United States “do not represent a national security threat or crisis,” and are rather fleeing poverty, violence, and insecurity in their countries, wrote Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

And putting the reality of the conditions in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador into perspective, Doctors Without Borders issued a detailed report in which they concluded that these Northern Triangle countries are experiencing “unprecedented levels of violence outside a war zone” and that “citizens are murdered with impunity, kidnappings and extortion are daily occurrences. Non-state actors perpetuate insecurity and forcibly recruit individuals into their ranks, and use sexual violence as a tool of intimidation and control.”

Sofia Martinez, writing in The Atlantic, describes the existential risk to children:

“In El Salvador, where there are around 65,000 thousand active gang members with a social support base of half a million people, boys from 12 years up are prime targets for recruitment. Girls can also be targeted at an early age, either to be sexually abused or to become gang members. The eventual fate of a girl—whether she is left alone, harassed into joining the gang, or forced into becoming a sex slave—depends entirely on the local leaders, or palabreros, who run the local cells or clicas (cliques) of the two largest gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18.” 

That the conditions for so many of these asylum seekers are hellish is not in any serious dispute. What is in dispute is to what extent the migration northward is based on legitimate asylum claims and what proportion of the caravan is motivated by economic incentives.

There is no hard data on that question, but that a proportion of the migrants are exclusively job seekers is a fact that cannot be dismissed. It’s quite imaginable given that close to one in five Hondurans, Salvadorians and Guatemalans live on less than $1.90 a day. According to the World Bank, nearly 80 per cent of the population under the age of 15 in Honduras and El Salvador live in poverty. Poverty, in large measure is the consequence of what sociologists term ‘internal displacement’.

Doctors Without Borders, in encounters with migrants from the Northern Triangle, conducted interviews in 2015 and 2016, questioning those attending their clinics about the reasons for heading to America. 40 percent cited attacks against them, their family members, threats of death or physical assault and extortion enforced by violence.

If the migration is perceived as an “invasion” by Trump’s voting base, the question then becomes, that in the 22 months that Trump has held office, why has he not taken constructive steps to prepare to efficiently process asylum seekers? Civil Libertarians have pointed to the fact that in the 2018 fiscal year CBP processed 1.25 million fewer people than they did in 2000 – despite having twice the staffing and budget.

A well organized system of asylum claims hearings can effectively adjudicate who is and who is not presenting themselves legitimately as asylum seekers as opposed to migrants with economic motives.

America’s Role In The Failed States In Central America

The United States has a long history, both before and subsequent to World War II, of subverting democracy in Latin America. We’ve not only assisted authoritarian regimes in gaining control of these countries, but have conducted CIA operations that have enabled these regimes to terrorize their citizens. 

Mark Tseng – Putterman writing in the Medium, summarizes this history of exploitation:

“The liberal rhetoric of inclusion and common humanity is insufficient: we must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States. For decades, U.S. policies of military intervention and economic neoliberalism have undermined democracy and stability in the region, creating vacuums of power in which drug cartels and paramilitary alliances have risen.”

The “War on Drugs” perpetuated by American policy, has yielded unintended consequences, making drug trafficking more lucrative and more violent.  Also unfortunate is that the top government officials in these countries are networked with trans-national and domestic narco traffickers, skimming drug profits while taking a hands off approach to the violence perpetrated by them. InSight Crime outlines that:

Guatemala’s former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, was indicted in the United States on charges of involvement in drug trafficking and having ties with Mexico’s Zetas cartel. Similarly, there is the case of Salvadoran Vice President Óscar Ortiz, who has been indicated by the Attorney General’s Office in his country for allegedly having ties with José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo,” accused of being one of the main money launderers in El Salvador.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in it’s report on the region, describes the countries as being run by “intertwined, or ‘integrated,’ … kleptocratic networks.”  Karen Spring, an aid worker with the Honduran Solidarity Network says that although new police and military units in Honduras, like the Tigres, are vetted and trained by the U.S. government, they “are known to be linked to, or infiltrated by, the drug cartels.”

Billions of dollars such as from the Central American Regional Security Initiative, given to Central American governments have not been allocated to alleviate the sources of crime, instead they have been confiscated by those governments. Civil rights advocates have pointed out that instead of actively opposing the drug gangs; military and police are actually enforcing the rule of these gangs.

Instead of sustaining funds for economic development in Central America, which can undermine the incentives for people to participate in the drug trade – such as those administered by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – the Trump administration is doubling down on more militarization of those countries, which has the effect of enabling the ruling elites to forcefully put down reform campaigns and civil society initiatives.

Alternatives For Low Skilled Laborers

As to the cohort among the migrants that are seeking work opportunities, there are willing employers such as members of growers’ associations in Arizona, Texas and California, urging Congress to produce a new, workable guest work program.

Progress on such a bill has been slow, lacking a sense of urgency. A bi-partisan bill called the The Agricultural Guest Worker Act, or Ag Act has stalled in the House. A likely factor in that is that Donald Trump has signaled that he favors drastic cuts in the H-2 Visa program, which would make the existing dilemma of employers needing low skilled workers even more dire. “We really need immigration reform to deal with our labor availability issues because we need to codify some of these modernization efforts into the H-2A program,” said Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel of Western Growers – a farming industry trade group.

There are solutions to the migrant traffic heading north from Central America, but Trump would prefer to politicize the issue instead of focusing on those solutions. While a large segment of Americans remain ignorant of the reality of the refugees from Central America, in favor of resentment and hysteria – the conditions driving the migrant caravans will only grow worse.

Meanwhile, to put some perspective to what Donald Trump and his media surrogates term an “invasion”, the caravan migrants represent 0.00018918918 percent of the current documented immigrant population in the country.

It’s a politically weaponized non crisis.

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