The so-called “migrant caravan” has grabbed worldwide headlines. Approximately 3,000 people are walking toward the Southern U.S. border from a variety of countries. The caravan appears to have originated in Honduras, and the travelers say they are headed north for many reasons including fear of violence and gangs in their home countries.
Many questions surround who the migrants are, and how the U.S. should deal with them.
Sarah Bermeo has been following the situation closely. She is a political economist with expertise in foreign policy, development and migration. Bermeo is author of the book, Targeted Development – Industrialized Country Strategy in a Globalizing World.
The conversation has been edited for readability and clarity.
On who the migrants are
Previous waves of migrants that we would see coming from these three countries, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, which are often referred to as the Northern Triangle countries in Central America, have often been a single member of a family coming north in search of economic opportunity.
What we’ve seen really ramping up around 2014 (but we were starting to see it before that) was this surge of both unaccompanied minors and entire family units that were coming. And this is where we start to trace the type of migrants as those who are not just looking for someone to make money and send it back home, but people who are fleeing because they say it is unsafe for them to remain in their homes.
People fleeing because they’re told that their son has to join the gang or the family will be killed; people fleeing because they’ve actually had family members killed by drug cartels, or gangs; people fleeing because they’re told that their 15-year-old daughter has to marry one of the criminal leaders in the area, or else the family will be killed.
Is there still economic hardship in these countries? Absolutely. But we’re seeing that the primary reason for the types of migrants that we’re seeing now has much more to do with violence, and violence particular to the individuals, than what we saw in the past.
On the argument that people in the caravan are not refugees
So the traditional definition of the refugee that came about after World War II does not have reference to fleeing things like gang violence as a protected category. And so in the very narrow reading of that rule, people fleeing from gang violence would not count as refugees.
However the United Nations Refugee Agency has deemed that [people in the migrant caravans] are fleeing situations like those that generate refugees, and should qualify for protection under international refugee conventions, even though they might not fit that narrow definition that was set out after World War II.
On the argument that the U.S. can’t accept everyone
So my reaction is we want to think about crises individually. So this particular crisis that we’re talking about right now, which is originating from violence that is prevalent in these countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, is happening in relatively small countries.
Honduras has a population of only nine million people. And the entire population of these three countries is less than one tenth of the population of the United States. The numbers of people who came in 2016 from these three countries was, I think, around 250,000 people.
If we were to maintain that rate of migration for 10 years from these countries, it would still be significantly less as a percentage of the U.S. population than previous waves of migrants that were initially met with suspicion and ending up being huge contributors to the United States. (People from, say, Ireland or Italy; or Jews migrating from Russia.)
We’re talking about much smaller portions of the United States population [now] than were in any one of those [previous] waves. And we were able to absorb those waves, and migrants from those previous waves of migration.
Nobody says now, “Oh, we shouldn’t have let the Irish in”; “We shouldn’t have let the Italians in.” They’ve become contributing members of society, even though there was huge backlash about taking them at the time it happened.
On Donald Trump’s threat to cut foreign aid
So cutting back on the funds that are supposed to tackle those underlying reasons for migration would, almost certainly, be counterproductive. These foreign aid funds are also targeting things like drug traffickers which are operating in these regions.
So we’re providing these countries with money to help combat drug trafficking. Many of these drug traffickers also become human smugglers in the migration chain, and so these things are very interconnected — and cutting off the foreign aid that is supposed to helping in this area would be more likely to increase migration rather than decrease it.
On Donald Trump’s threat to close the border
Our sea borders are about 12,000 miles. So closing that 2,000-mile land border, when you have a well established smuggling network in place, is only going to cause people to take different routes into the country; be willing to pay more for smugglers. More people may die along the way, so we may cut down on migration that way. More people may not be able to pay the smugglers.
But in the end, we would be increasing the power of these smuggling groups that are also trafficking 90 percent of the cocaine that comes into the United States. And so we’d be increasing the security threat both to ourselves from drugs coming in, as well as these armed groups that are operating not far south of our border and are creating some of these violent conditions to begin with.
What policy solution would you recommend in this situation?
The only real solution is to tackle the underlying causes of the violence that is driving people to migrate, and that’s on multiple fronts.
According to people like [White House] Chief of Staff John Kelly, one of the main ways to do that is to decrease demand to the United States for the drugs that are causing these cartels to be able to operate through these countries. These countries started as just pass-through countries. (The drugs are coming from South America, so the supply is from South America.) The demand is in the United States, and these countries were just caught on in the middle. Any long-term strategy has to address drug demand.
It also has to address ways to tackle corruption within these countries, where these criminal networks have been able to really gain footholds with government officials there.
And you have to tackle economic development. You have to help these countries develop which has been a policy of the United States going back for quite some time, and was significantly increased during the George W. Bush administration. We gave a lot more aid, as well negotiating a trade deal with these countries; and then, again, during the Obama administration.
So this [previously] has been a bipartisan recognition, with bipartisan support in Congress, that helping these countries was in our own best interest. …
This [current migrant caravan is] not the huge surge that we’re being made to think that it is. But we will need to come up with a way to confront the fact that people faced with desperate situations at home will find a way to leave. And Mexico is not a safe place for them to stay, so they will continue on to the United States. And they will face very harsh odds to do so and we’re already seeing that.
On the cost/benefit of accepting migrants
We can either find a way to offer them legal entry into the United States and some form of legal protected status while they’re here, so that they can become contributing members to society; so we have a better handle on who’s coming in because people aren’t afraid to come up to the border and say, “We’re here.”
[In that case] we know who’s here. We know how many. We can target resources in the most efficient manner. We can try to help with where people are settling, so they’re not becoming too much of a strain on individual communities.
Or we can say, “We’re going to try to shut the border,” and we could have no idea who’s coming into our country, because they’re going to use smugglers to get here. We won’t know where they’re settling. We won’t be able to screen them. And they won’t be able to be out in the open, contributing to the economy.
Those really are the two choices that we face right now, because people are not going to remain in these countries given the violent situation that there is now.
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- Read a transcript of this conversation
- Read the Sarah Bermeo’s Brookings Institution blog post Violence Drives Immigration from Central America
- Read Sarah Bermeo’s op-ed Trump Can’t Stop the Migrant Caravan by Cutting Foreign Aid and Closing the Border
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