Some immigration hawks see U.S. politics at work in a 1,300-person migrant caravan now making its way north.
The caravan set off from Honduras on Saturday, headed for the United States with entire families — including men, women, children and babies, Reuters reported over the weekend.
The scene drew immediate comparisons to a migrant caravan that traveled from Central America through Mexico in April. Some dropped off before that journey ended, and the Mexican government detained others. But several hundred made it to the U.S. border, where activists helped them file asylum claims.
Andrew “Art” Arthur, a former immigration law judge who now is the resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), questioned the timing of the latest endeavor. He asked if it is tied to the midterm elections in the United States, which now are three weeks away.
“I really don’t know,” he told LifeZette. “The timing seems a little curious … They may just be taking advantage of the law.”
Ric Oberlink, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), agreed.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with the U.S. midterm elections,” he told LifeZette. “It’s a clear case of asylum shopping.”
Oberlink noted that under international law, people fleeing persecution are supposed to seek asylum in the nearest safe country. Yet many bypass Mexico and head straight for the United States, he said.
U.S. policy does not do any favors for Central Americans — particularly women — to encourage such a dangerous trek, said Oberlink. He pointed to a 2010 study by Amnesty International suggesting that as many as 60 percent of women and girls making the trip from Central American countries experience sexual violence. A report by an outlet called Fusion four years later pegged the estimate at 80 percent.
“People should ask, what are we doing luring people to come here?’ Oberlink said.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), told LifeZette that would-be immigrants do not live in a vacuum and respond to incentives from the United States. He said the April caravan prompted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to announce a zero-tolerance policy of charging illegal border crossers with criminal offenses.
But the intense blowback resulting from jailing parents and placing children traveling with them with relatives in the United States or foster parents persuaded President Donald Trump to end the practice two months later.
“They ended the zero-tolerance policy back in the summer,” Mehlman said. “That sent the signal that it’s time to start coming again.”
People who began the journey on Saturday told Reuters that they were fleeing violence and searching for job opportunities.
Over the past decade, the southwest border has seen major increases in the number of children and families coming illegally, as well as the share of immigrants claiming asylum.
If Border Patrol officers apprehend illegal immigrants from Mexico or Canada, they can send them back quickly. But the process is longer and more involved if those illegal immigrants are from any other county.
“It essentially makes the United States responsible for everyone who has an unfortunate circumstance.”
What’s more, due to a backlog in immigration court, it can take months or years to process a claim. As a result, many disappear into the fabric of American life, even if they never win their asylum claims.
Mehlman called on Congress to close asylum loopholes. He said former President Barack Obama went in the opposite direction, expanding asylum grounds to include criteria such as domestic violence.
“It essentially makes the United States responsible for everyone who has an unfortunate circumstance,” he said.
Immigration hawks called for a tough response by the United States. Oberlink said the United States needs to make swift determinations on asylum claims and force people to wait in Mexico while they are pending.
“We need expedited asylum hearings … Beyond that, to the extent that they are appearing at border-crossing stations, they shouldn’t be admitted,” he said.
Arthur of CIS said the United States should strongly encourage Mexico to prevent the Central American migrants from entering that country.
If the caravan does aim to make a political statement, he said, the strategy could backfire.
“It might … Voters get concerned about large numbers of people coming across the border,” Arthur said.