Migrant Caravans Head to U.S. Border in Early Test for Biden

President-elect Joe Biden says his priorities when he takes office next month will be the pandemic and economic recovery, but he’s facing another crisis that won’t wait: a wave of desperate migrants on his southern border.

Two ruinous hurricanes that wrecked and flooded swathes of Central America last month have increased the number of families planning a risky journey northward. And after a year of travel bans and soaring unemployment, demand to reach the U.S. was already high.

“There are going to be caravans, and in the coming weeks it will increase,” said Jose Luis Gonzalez, coordinator of the Guatemala Red Jesuita con Migrantes, a non-governmental organization. “People are no longer scared of the coronavirus. They’re going hungry, they’ve lost everything and some towns are still flooded.”

Migrant Caravans Head to U.S. Border in Early Test for Biden

Biden has pledged to abolish many of the migration policies of Donald Trump, including prolonged detention and separation of families, which were designed to deter illegal migration. This encourages more impoverished Central Americans to make the trip and test the Biden administration, said Gonzalez.

“When there is a change in government in the U.S. or Mexico, caravans start to move because they are testing the waters to see how authorities respond,” he said. “What they see is that the one who said he was going to build a wall and hated Latinos is on his way out.”

On social media, announcements are circulating for caravans, groups of migrants traveling together, leaving San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-largest city, which was hit by both storms. The first caravan is scheduled to leave in the coming days and the second in mid-January.

Biden’s advisers are hoping to shift away from Trump’s policies without signaling that the border has been flung open, according to people familiar with the planning. They know that swift, sweeping changes will spur more people to attempt the journey to the U.S.

Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, dealt with migrant surges during Barack Obama’s administration, when he was deputy secretary. The response included adding detention facilities for adults with children and increasing enforcement and deportations, drawing criticism from civil and immigration rights groups.

Migrant Caravans Head to U.S. Border in Early Test for Biden

“President-elect Joe Biden will restore order, dignity and fairness to our immigration system,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for Biden’s transition. “At its core, his immigration policy will be driven by the need to keep families together and end the disastrous policy of family separation.”

A senior Mexican foreign ministry official said migration is likely to remain one of the main challenges in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, adding that Mexico will continue to promote cooperation for development to address its root causes and plan to handle it together with partners in the region.

The number of people apprehended or deemed inadmissable along the almost 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the U.S. has already climbed in six straight months, to more than 69,000 in October from 17,000 in April, according to Customs and Border Protection.

The pressure to migrate has grown in the past month. Hurricanes Eta and Iota were part of a record-setting Atlantic season with 30 named storms. Eta alone caused $5 billion worth of damage across the region and affected 3 million people, flooding homes and damaging roads, bridges and crops throughout Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Governments are still tallying damages from Iota and water has yet to subside in some towns. The countries were already reeling from the economic slump caused by months of Covid-19 lockdowns.

Victor Espinal, 31, whose home in La Lima, Honduras was flooded by both storms, says he is planning to join one of the caravans. He was laid off at the Chiquita banana packing plant where he worked for eight years, after it flooded, and is afraid he won’t find work again soon.

The house where he lived with his wife, two children and his mother-in-law is now empty, and their mud-soaked mattresses and damaged belongings lay in the street outside.

“There’s nothing for me here now,” he said. “The walls are all that’s left and there isn’t a single piece of furniture, not even a plate to eat off of. I’m not one to cry, but when I returned home I felt like crying. I see memes that say material goods aren’t important, but they are important because people work their whole lives for them and in 15 days, it’s all gone.”

Last month, Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, said that without help from rich countries, his citizens and those of surrounding countries would flee.

“If we don’t want hoards of Central Americans looking to move to other countries with better living conditions, we have to make a wall of prosperity in Central America,” he said at an event in Honduras with the Central American Bank for Economic Integration.

Migration Spikes

Migration from Central America toward Mexico and the U.S. spiked after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Stan in 2005. Other weather events have also forced Central Americans to abandon their countries in recent years. A study by Inter-American Development Bank showed migration from El Salvador doubled after a severe drought in 2014-15 that hurt corn production.

“The problem in El Salvador and with all these Central American countries is that they’re highly vulnerable to climate events -- hurricanes but also extreme droughts,” said IDB Economics Principal Adviser Ana Maria Ibanez. “There is a relationship between migration and extreme weather events.”

As a candidate, Biden called for a $4 billion aid package for Central America and said his administration would address the climate crisis facing the region.

As vice-president to Obama in 2014, Biden led the strategy on confronting the wave of undocumented migrants from Central America. He has a long history of working in Latin America as chairman and ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee, including the creation of Plan Colombia to combat drug cartels and leftist guerrillas two decades ago.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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