A huge procession of Central Americans is walking north through Mexico, defying President Trump and facing little resistance from Mexican authorities. We’ll be tracking the caravan’s advance through Mexico and U.S. preparations for its arrival at the border. Here’s what you need to know:
- The Trump administration is considering a plan to deny asylum to migrants at the border
- The Pentagon will send additional troops to the border but it appears to be a humanitarian capacity
The White House wants a travel ban for the Mexico border. How would that work?
On Friday night, The Washington Post and other media outlets reported on a plan under consideration at the White House that would use the president’s executive powers to deny entry to Central Americans, and restrict or suspend their ability to seek asylum in the United States. Details of the proposal remain sketchy, but draft versions would rely on the same legal provisions the administration used during the travel ban in early 2017.
By citing national security concerns, Trump could refuse entry to certain Central American nationals or another subgroup, including members of the caravan. Trump is also weighing a measure that would deny asylum seekers the ability to seek humanitarian relief once they reach U.S. soil, according to administration officials and people familiar with the proposals.
Both moves would land the administration in federal court “in about five minutes,” one former Homeland Security official said, and it’s not hard to imagine lower court judges slapping an injunction on a White House “border ban” in about as much time.
Trump already won legal victories on this front. Wouldn’t a ban on Central Americans and asylum denials stop the caravan?
Not likely. The administration’s biggest challenge at the border isn’t that too many Central American migrants are being allowed in or they’re easily winning asylum. Rather, those who cross illegally — between ports of entry — must be taken into custody. U.S. detention capacity is nearly maxed, and U.S. courts limit the government’s ability to keep children in immigration jails beyond 20 days.
It’s not as if huge numbers of Central Americans are winning asylum, either. The latest statistics show fewer than 10 percent of Central American applicants are granted asylum by an immigration judge, but it’s the act of coming over, applying for it, and waiting for the legal process to play out that has become such an alluring way for impoverished migrants to live and work in the United States, if only for a few years.
That brings us the big flaw with the Trump administration’s proposal for a “ban.”
It’s one thing to do it at a foreign airport thousands of miles away. It’s another to try it on the banks of the Rio Grande. If members of the caravan reach the U.S. border and are denied the ability to approach ports of entry — the official crossings — they will likely go to the river or into the desert where they can walk across.
Then they will be on U.S. soil. The Border Patrol will have to take them into custody. Unless Mexico agrees to take them back, the migrants would have to be held in detention until they can be deported. But if the migrants are accompanied by children, the government has virtually nowhere to put them.
The Trump administration has been making preparations to expand family detention capacity by housing detainees on military bases, but those facilities do not appear to be ready. And once asylum-seeking migrants are on U.S. soil, it becomes significantly harder for the government to deny them access to the legal system, with the rights and protections it affords, in accordance with international laws and norms.
The Pentagon is sending 800 additional troops to the border. Are they going to stop the caravan?
Trump seems to think so. In several recent tweets, including a new one Thursday calling the migrants’ advance a “National Emergency,” the president said he would deploy the U.S. military to the border.
But as The Washington Post’s David Nakamura and Dan Lamothe report, the additional personnel won’t be “trigger pullers” performing an enforcement role. Instead, they’ll be assigned to provide aviation, transport and other logistical support, and the contingent will include doctors and lawyers.
In short, it sounds as if the Pentagon is deploying them in more of a humanitarian-relief capacity, as they would after a natural disaster such as a hurricane. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is not sending tanks or combat troops.
Didn’t Trump already deploy the National Guard to the border?
Yes. Trump sent U.S. troops to the border this spring, when another caravan piqued his anger and fueled similarly bombastic tweets. At the time, Mattis authorized the deployment of up to 4,000 National Guard troops, but restricted their activities — so they don’t make arrests, carry weapons or interact with migrants.
About 1,600 Guard troops remain deployed along the border, mostly in Texas.
U.S. Border Patrol officials insist the Guard troops are a big help, saying they free up agents to concentrate on drug interdiction and enforcement duties “along the front line.”
The Guard forces fly drones, monitor sensors and operate other surveillance equipment. They perform data entry tasks at Border Patrol stations. Others have been assigned more mundane jobs like clearing vegetation and tending to horse stables.
After initially praising the deployment, the president of the union representing Border Patrol agents, Brandon Judd, pronounced the Guard deployment “a colossal waste of resources.” Judd, a staunch Trump supporter, has urged a more muscular enforcement role for the troops.
It’s possible additional forces will be called up if the caravan — which remains deep in southern Mexico — makes it all the way to the U.S. border as a single mass.
Homeland Security officials are especially worried about the possibility of a large, volatile gathering at the border, and not only because of the crowd control challenges that border agents could face. A tense standoff requiring large numbers of agents would divert personnel away from other areas, giving smugglers an opportunity to move narcotics and people in the United States.
Agents in South Texas and southern Arizona are already stretched thin. Record numbers of migrant family members have been crossing illegally in the past several weeks. With detention capacity for parents and children extremely limited, immigration officials have been releasing them to church shelters and charities.
When will the caravan reach the United States?
The caravan is still more than 1,000 miles away from U.S. territory, and the map below shows there’s a lot of Mexico left to traverse. If the group manages to advance 15 miles per day, it would take more than two months for the caravan to arrive at the Rio Grande. And that’s a lot of distance for families with children to cover.
That timeline changes significantly if caravan members manage to board buses, trucks or freight trains, in which case they could reach the U.S. border in less than a week. But that’s a major if, absent a significant fundraising effort to provide mass motorized transport.
Isn’t that what happened with the last caravan — the one that angered President Trump earlier this year?
The big difference? That caravan was organized. It had leaders, legal advisers and a support network in the United States and Mexico. Most important, it had chartered buses.
Rather than attempting to cross in the Rio Grande Valley — the closest place, geographically, to Central America — that caravan traveled all the way to Tijuana. That made sense, because it had a large contingent of supporters on the California side. The caravan’s legal advisers steered members to the U.S. ports of entry, where it’s legal to enter the United States to request asylum.
Will this caravan follow the same course? At this point, and with no one leading or directing the movement, there’s no way to tell. It’s possible the group will break up along the way and fan out to different areas along the border, where some will approach ports of entry to seek asylum and others may attempt to sneak across and evade capture.
Trump seems determined to avoid a replay of the chaotic scenes last week at the Guatemala-Mexico border bridge, where crowds forced their way through barriers and thousands surged into Mexico with no screening or checks. If thousands of migrants were to mass like that opposite McAllen, Tex., or another U.S. border city, it’s not hard to imagine a volatile confrontation.
How did this caravan get so big?
The United Nations estimated that more than 7,000 people have joined the caravan, though the size of the group appears to be fluid. Most of those traveling north are from Honduras, where the caravan originated. There has been no evidence of any “Middle Easterners” in the group’s ranks, as Trump has alleged.
Predictions about how many of its members will eventually reach the U.S. border are difficult to make. It’s likely that the caravan’s size will remain elastic as some drop out or turn back, and others join in.
It’s important to remember that more than 50,000 people were taken into custody last month along the U.S.-Mexico border, so even if 5,000 caravan members go all the way, they would represent a fraction of current flows. As one Homeland Security official put it: “We get a caravan every day.”
Many of the migrants have told reporters that their decision to leave was made in a flash. They had been waiting for an opportunity to come along but could not afford to attempt the journey any other way. The cost of hiring a “coyote” smuggling guide to go from Central America to the United States can exceed $10,000. But grabbing a backpack and hitting the road with a mass movement? That’s free.
And on a route beset by kidnapping gangs, extortionists and other predatory criminals, jumping onto a caravan offers a degree of protection. There’s safety in numbers, and the processions attract large numbers of police.
Why doesn’t the Mexican government stop the caravan?
The Trump administration is leaning hard on Mexico to make a stand and block the group’s advance. There are several reasons that hasn’t happened — and remains unlikely to happen any time soon.
A big one: The six-year term of President Enrique Peña Nieto ends Dec. 1. He’s one of the most unpopular presidents in recent Mexican history. He has little incentive to use escalating force on impoverished Central Americans to appease Trump. That would be humiliating for him.
Mexico already is taking steps it has not in the past, soliciting help from the United Nations to screen and process asylum seekers, and the government says more than 1,000 caravan members have done so. Mexican federal police officers also held off the caravan at the border with Guatemala last week, though many of those migrants simply waded through the river to continue their journey.
It’s also important to note that there’s little stigma in Mexico to joining a caravan like this in hopes of reaching the United States. Poor Central American migrants are treated more like pilgrims than criminals. When they arrive in Mexican towns, people offer food, clothing and other donations as a way to support them and to encourage them to move on.
In a heavily Catholic country, and at a time when Pope Francis has urged sympathy and support for migrants all over the world, many Mexicans believe they have a moral duty to help the caravan. An attempt by their government to repress the caravan by force would clash with that sentiment and court political disaster.
What happens next?
Within a couple days the caravan will arrive in Arriaga, Chiapas, a railway hub where for years poor migrants have boarded freight trains bound for Mexico City and points beyond. Mexican authorities in recent years have cracked down on train riding, forcing migrants back onto the highways. But if a sizable portion of the caravan manages to climb aboard Mexican freight trains, that would significantly reduce the amount of time it takes them to reach the U.S. border.
Absent that, caravan members are likely to continue along the highway, hitchhiking or trudging along in the grueling heat.