What’s Next for the Migrant ‘Caravan’?

(Bloomberg) -- A "caravan" of Central American migrants seeking a fresh start in the U.S. is nearing the end of one perilous journey and starting the next. An overwhelmed refugee shelter in Tijuana, just yards from the U.S. border, has become home to thousands of the migrants, adults and children, who may need to wait months for their applications to be considered at the main port of entry to San Diego. On Nov. 25, U.S. agents shot several rounds of tear gas at migrants trying to breach the border, at least some of whom were reported to be throwing rocks. U.S. President Donald Trump, confronting an issue near to his heart, has tried to make it harder to apply for asylum and even threatened to close the border with Mexico.

1. Who are the migrants?

Most in the caravan that became a U.S. campaign issue are said to be Hondurans fleeing poverty, joblessness and extortion in one of the world’s most violent and gang-ridden nations. Migrants often travel in large groups for safety from criminals and corrupt officials, and this latest caravan set out from San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second city, in October 2018, gained adherents as it progressed through Central America. Among the individuals profiled by news organizations covering the caravan are 31-year-old Oscar Zapata, who said he and his family were fleeing gangsters who were demanding a slice of the money he made selling pirated DVDs in his hometown of La Ceiba, Honduras; and Roberto Mauricio Vasquez, 33, an electrician from Choluteca, Honduras, who said gangs there demand protection payments from him. At least some of the migrants are said to be from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

2. What are they seeking?

Generally speaking, the migrants hope to gain entry into the U.S. by claiming a need for asylum, or protection from persecution and danger they face in their home countries. With U.S. immigration authorities insisting they can’t process more than 60 to 100 asylum seekers per day, the migrants face wait times of weeks or even months. The number of people seeking asylum globally has risen to record levels, due to violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan and parts of Africa and Central America. A crackdown on refugees in the U.S. and Europe is raising questions about whether support for the concept of asylum can survive.

3. How has the U.S. reacted to the migrant caravan?

Declaring without evidence that "stone cold criminals" and “unknown Middle Easterners" are among the migrants, the Trump administration deployed 5,000 active-duty troops to the border in October and, more recently, temporarily closed the San Ysidro port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego, one of the busiest crossings in the world. Trump threatened to close the border permanently, though it’s not clear how or even whether he could do so. He has also threatened to cut U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for not "stopping people from leaving" those countries. Trump also sought to deny asylum to immigrants who enter the U.S. outside a designated port of entry, a restriction that failed its first legal test.

4. What happens when migrants reach the border?

Under standard U.S. procedures, they are detained for not having the required documents and asked whether they’re afraid of returning to their home. A person who says “no” is removed from the U.S. A person who expresses fear of persecution or torture is interviewed by an asylum officer to establish whether there is credible fear of persecution. Michael J. Bars, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in an email that the “extremely low bar” for establishing credible fear allows economic migrants to abuse the system by posing as asylum seekers, then disappear before their court dates to live illegally in the U.S. Some adults may wait in detention while their asylum case in processed, while families often are released on their own recognizance.

5. What proportion of migration requests are granted?

About 60 percent of asylum requests were denied in 2017, up from 45 percent in 2012, according to data collected by TRAC, a research center affiliated with Syracuse University.

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake explainer on refugees and asylum.
  • About that wall Trump said Mexico would pay for.
  • The New York Times spoke to some of the migrants about why they headed north.
  • Bloomberg has collected photographs of the migrant caravan moving north.
  • A Congressional Research Service overview on U.S. laws regulating admissions and exclusions of aliens at the border.
  • Amnesty International reports on Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.