Central America/U.S.

March of migrants

Print edition : November 23, 2018

An aerial view of Honduran migrants heading to the U.S. on October 21, on the road linking Ciudad Hidalgo and Tapachula, Chiapas state, Mexico. Photo: AFP

Thousands of migrants from Central America march towards the U.S. seeking a new life in the "land of opportunity", even as the U.S. government continues to pursue its policy of rigid borders.

LUCIO PEREZ has been living for a year in the First Congregational Church in Amherst, Massachusetts, United States. Lucio’s wife, Dora Perez, and his four children live in the city of Springfield, 45 kilometres from the church. Lucio came to the U.S. in 1999 from Guatemala. He came without papers that would have allowed him to become a resident of the U.S. Since Lucio did not try to leave the U.S., the absence of documents did not burden him. This was until President Donald Trump pushed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to go after all those it could find inside the U.S. without documentation and who had a police record. 

In 2009, Lucio, who works as a gardener, and his wife, had left their children in their car while they went inside a shop. The police intervened on behalf of the children’s welfare. It is what got Lucio Perez on the radar of law enforcement. Last year, the DHS sent Lucio a letter informing him that he was to be deported to Guatemala. Lucio sought refuge in the church in Amherst, whose pastor, Reverend Vicki Kemper, opened its doors.

Migrant caravan

A caravan of migrants left Honduras in Central America several weeks ago. It began in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, when some families said that they had had enough of the violence and insecurity in their country. Facebook posts and a report on HCH, Honduras’ most popular television station, expanded the caravan. It did not help that HCH announced that a former Congressman and radio host, Bartolo Fuentes, would pay the way of the caravan. Fuentes had said that he would help a few families. Now others thought that he would help all of them. “No one expected this human avalanche,” Fuentes said.

The caravan snaked through Guatemala, Lucio Perez’s homeland, and into Mexico. It picked up people not only from Honduras but also from neighbouring El Salvador and Guatemala. The stretch that the caravan travelled along is known as the “corridor of death”, largely because of the drug cartels that have overwhelmed society and the state in each of these countries. It is important to remember that the U.S.’ intervention in the Dirty Wars of the 1980s destroyed not only Honduras—which operated as the U.S. base for these wars—but also El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, where the oligarchy and the military were given a free hand to massacre hundreds of thousands of people. A long history of domination by U.S. food corporations—Dole and Chiquita in Honduras, for example—did not help the mostly small farmer economies of Central America. Climate change and adverse trade policies hurt the economies of these small countries (Guatemala is the most populous country, with 16 million people, while Belize is home to about 4,00,000 people). The lure of the drug trade brought violence and instability, the motivations for the “human avalanche” that Fuentes described. It is also what sent Lucio Perez northwards.

'Land of opportunity'

The U.S. has a problem. It describes itself as a paradise, the end of history. Advertisements and rumours travel around the world of its wealth and its opportunities. The key phrase is “land of opportunity”—every politician uses it to describe the U.S. At the same time, the U.S. government has been wary of allowing migrants and refugees into the country. This is not a policy that begins with Donald Trump. It has a very long history that goes back at least a century. When the U.S. negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, it made sure to maximise the freedom of capital and goods, but minimised the freedom of movement of people. Money can travel at will, but people are held at borders. The renegotiated NAFTA—the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)—did not take up the issue of migration. Politically, no party in the U.S. is willing to be rational on the migration issue. Fear governs the debate. There is worry that millions of people will flood the country—either to take away jobs or to bring criminal activity to the front doors of middle-class neighbourhoods. The “land of opportunity” is mainly propaganda, not reality. But it misleads people who live in places such as San Pedro Sula and whose lives have been disrupted by U.S. policies on trade and war that impact their existence.

Most U.S. politicians have gently managed this contradiction between the “land of opportunity” and the rigid borders. Everyone knows that a certain number of people without documentation enter the country and that their labour is essential to key sectors of the economy (such as agriculture and domestic labour). There is no sense in making too much of this migration because it is useful for the economy and society and it has not overwhelmed the U.S. Over the past few decades, the American Right, however, has seen the immigration issue as a major political weapon. Rather than have a serious discussion about joblessness and precarious work in the country, the American Right has blamed migrants for job loss and for the rise in crime. Facts are irrelevant in this debate. Emotion is everything.

That is why, five days after he took office, Trump went to the DHS to inform the 2,50,000 officers of its seven agencies to crack down on undocumented migrants. More money was provided for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and more aggressive means were sanctioned to end undocumented migration and to curtail legal migration. The “Muslim ban” came in this context. Trump told the department to be tireless in finding, arresting and deporting people who were in the U.S. without papers. Privacy and rule of law had to be bent. It was far more important to remove the “criminal aliens”, Trump said. Trump’s then press secretary, Sean Spicer, said the government wanted to “take the shackles off” the nation’s immigration enforcers. This was strong language. It was the kind of language that struck Lucio Perez between the eyes. It was why he had to spend a year inside a church.

Trump threatened the Mexican government to block the northward march of the caravan. The current government in Mexico will last until the end of the year. It has no legitimacy since the political current of President Enrique Peña Nieto was defeated in the recent election. The socialist Andrés Manuel López Obrador will take over power in January. López Obrador is not in favour of using the military to block Mexico’s southern border. He wants to give Central Americans visas so that they can find a way to enrich their lives. For López Obrador, this is not a security issue. “If there is economic growth in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, in Chiapas, in Tabasco, in Oaxaca,” he said, referring to three Central American countries and three Mexican provinces, “there will be no migration phenomenon.” He added: “We cannot face this problem only with the use of force. We must guarantee human rights. The main right is the right to life: to go out, to seek to mitigate hunger.”

López Obrador will find allies north of the border, in the U.S. In May, Lucio Perez had to leave the church in Amherst to undergo emergency surgery for appendicitis at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts. The Pioneer Valley Workers Centre and Jobs with Justice, as well as the church, organised a sanctuary caravan for the 15-kilometre drive from the church to the hospital. Twenty cars went along in the caravan, one of them carrying the Mayor of Northampton, David Narkewicz. Later, Mayor Narkewicz said: “I’m proud to stand with Lucio and other immigrant workers in keeping with our values as a sanctuary city.”

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