Why the Central American Migrant Caravan Matters

6 MINS READOct 25, 2018 | 06:00 GMT
Central American migrants near Huixtla in the Mexican state of Chiapas head toward the United States more than 1,000 miles away on Oct. 24.

Thousands of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico to the United States is fodder for political rhetoric as Americans prepare to vote in midterm congressional elections on Nov. 6, but the migrant caravan's significance goes beyond the U.S. debate over illegal immigration.

  • Thousands of Honduran migrants planning to request asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border will put the Honduran government in a difficult political situation with the White House.
  • The Honduran political opposition may continue encouraging migrant groups to emigrate northward as a political tool to pressure the administration of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
  • The White House will keep threatening to cut foreign assistance to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. However, the power to reduce or eliminate assistance rests with Congress, which will be reluctant to do so.
  • Even if Congress agrees to major reductions in foreign aid, such a move could backfire for the Trump administration by spurring Central American governments to cozy up to China diplomatically in search of foreign assistance.

An estimated 7,000 Central American migrants making their way through Mexico toward the United States have become a prominent headline in the daily news cycle. The Central Americans intend to request asylum when they finally reach the U.S. border with Mexico, most likely in Texas' Rio Grande Valley. In response, U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to cut assistance to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the three countries where most of the migrants come from.

The Big Picture

A majority of immigrants caught trying to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Now, a group of thousands of mostly Honduran migrants hope to cross Mexico to request asylum in the United States. This public show of mass migration is fodder for daily political rhetoric in the United States and Central America, but its significance goes beyond the immediate U.S. debate over immigration. Latin American countries could easily be drawn into the broader confrontation between China and Washington over trade, military competition and global influence. 

With U.S. midterm congressional elections less than two weeks away, it's no surprise that Trump, who made securing the U.S.-Mexico border a central part of his administration, has seized on the migrant caravan to rally his political base. But the caravan's significance stretches beyond Trump's desire to shore up electoral support or his administration's attempts to reduce illegal immigration and the number of asylum claims in the United States. The caravan is a product of the unstable internal politics and poverty in Honduras, where the majority of the migrants originated. Former left-wing Honduran legislator Bartolo Fuentes is a key organizer of the caravan, which has led to unverified claims that the Honduran leftist opposition led by former President Manuel Zelaya is behind the effort to encourage such public displays of emigration to the United States.

Migration as a Political Tool

The claim that Honduran opposition figures helped promote migration to the United States may be unverified but it is plausible. Since the country's contested election in November 2017, the opposition in Honduras remains divided between the leftist Liberty and Refoundation Party (Libre) and the more moderate Liberal Party of Honduras. However, Libre politicians may have discovered that emigration can be used to force a crisis with Washington to put pressure on the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez. The movement of migrants through Mexico will also test the Mexican government's relationship with Washington, particularly if the White House feels Mexico's security forces are not doing enough to block or disperse the group.

The economic and social conditions in Honduras make emigration to the United States — almost always illegally — seem a viable path to economic advancement and an escape from security threats. About 65 percent of Hondurans live below their country's poverty line. The minimum wage is around $370 a month, but nearly half the working-age population is not employed by legally established, tax-paying businesses and often does not make minimum wage. High crime spurred by endemic drug trafficking and gang turf wars also makes daily activities, such as travel to work, risky for some Hondurans. In rural areas, drought conditions can drive food scarcity and extreme poverty, both of which are currently on the rise and may be further exacerbated by a forecast El Nino year. Similar conditions prevail in Guatemala and El Salvador, the other two countries where caravan members originated.

Regardless of whether Fuentes and Zelaya coordinated this effort, the caravan presents a thorny political problem for the Honduran government, and other caravans could form and leave from the country. Hernandez cannot easily crack down on migrant caravans without inviting public discontent against his government. Trying to stop migrant caravans on roads heading west toward Guatemala risks violent confrontations with the migrants, which in turn would likely affect the government's approval ratings. The Hernandez government may increase border security, but such moves may not prevent people from taking secondary routes.

A graphic showing the number of people detained or turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Threatening to Cut Foreign Assistance

Regardless of the constraints on the Hernandez administration, the public nature of migrant caravans makes them a prominent political issue for the Trump administration. However, Trump faces his own political constraints. Lack of congressional funding thus far has thwarted the president's plans to erect extensive physical barriers where migrants frequently cross. Nor has the White House been able to get significantly greater funding for immigration enforcement measures, such as the hiring of thousands of new Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Trump's election created uncertainty among would-be migrants and their smugglers in late 2016 and into 2017, leading to a temporary lull in migration. But that uncertainty dissipated as the constraints to Trump's border enforcement plans have increased, and migrant flows are again on the rise. Still, illegal migration into the United States is well below its historic highs of nearly 20 years ago, when authorities detained about 1.6 million Mexicans at the southern border alone.

A chart showing U.S.-Central American economic ties.

Threatening to cut off foreign assistance to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is one tool Trump will keep using to try to force Central American governments to curb illegal migration. But temporarily or permanently reducing foreign assistance to Central American nations also requires congressional approval, without which there is little the White House can do to make Trump's threats stick. Congress and government agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Drug Enforcement Administration would be reluctant to agree to such a policy change out of concern it would harm counternarcotics cooperation with Central American governments.

Cutting U.S. assistance to Central America would risk unintended consequences. It could spur Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to seek more aid from China, where assistance would come with fewer political strings attached. Such a turn toward China most likely would be preceded by Honduras and Guatemala ending their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. The White House confrontation with China over trade, military competition and political influence affects Central America as well, where the U.S. government has tried to pressure Honduras and Guatemala to continue to recognize Taiwan. But El Salvador already has revoked its recognition of Taiwan in favor of China. In September, the Hernandez insinuated that reduced U.S. foreign assistance could prompt Honduras to change its recognition of Taiwan.

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