The overt politics of the ‘migrant caravan’ in Mexico

The overt politics of the ‘migrant caravan’ in Mexico
The 2018 migrant caravan sets off from Mexico's southern border. (Image: Pueblo Sin Fronteras)

The fame of the migrant caravan making its way through Mexico has grown exponentially in the last 24 hours, with Trump tweeting about it and U.S. media across the political spectrum picking up on it.

Trump’s point about the caravan – comprising some 1,500 people at the top count so far – is that Mexico is basically helping it move along in its slow progress toward the U.S. border.

Beyond that, the president has made no special points about the caravan.  To the extent that Trump’s tweets are the reason people know about things, that’s both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing because there’s little in the way of unfortunately-worded implications from POTUS to unpack.  It’s a curse because there’s more to know, and it’s important.

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The biggest thing to know is that the caravan is a political stunt, which has been organized annually since 2008 by an activist group, Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People without Borders), run by Irineo Mujica Arzate.  Pueblo Sin Fronteras opposes national borders and the conventional perquisites of national sovereignty.  Mr. Mujica Arzate is a Mexican citizen with permanent U.S. residency in Minnesota.

The annual caravan is dubbed the Via Crucis del Migrante, or Migrant’s Way of the Cross.  (The Way of the Cross – Via Crucis – is the Latin name for what is often referred to as the “Stations of the Cross,” a devotional ritual performed before Easter recalling Jesus’ progress toward the crucifixion.)  Mujica has been organizing it since 2008.  It wends its way northward from Mexico’s southern border to the U.S. border.  In the early years, it didn’t always get past Veracruz.  When it reaches the U.S. border, it’s typically at Tijuana, across from San Diego.

The 2018 Via Crucis del Migrante began on 25 March when it crossed the southern border into Mexico at Tapachula.  As in recent years, it is headed eventually for Tijuana.  More on that in a moment.

Mexico has reportedly already deported as many as 400 of the Central Americans who originally entered last week (see next link), and it isn’t clear precisely how many are still headed north.

As of 1 April, about 400 of the 1,100-1,500 in the caravan had just boarded a freight train in the southern state of Oaxaca, intending to ride it (i.e., illegally) toward the U.S. border.  Another 700 were to continue by whatever means they could manage, at least as far as Puebla, near Mexico City.  Reportedly, towns along the route are providing buses to help the migrant caravan move along to the next town – i.e., to get them out of the local public spaces and ensure they are someone else’s problem.

Riding “the beast.” Migrants make the perilous trek through Mexico,

A caravan of 1,500 is by far the largest ever achieved for the Via Crucis del Migrante.  That may be significant, although that’s yet to be seen.  The average size in the last few years has been between 400 and 500.  Only several dozen of those end up trying to enter the U.S. when they get to Tijuana – or at least trying to enter legally.  In 2017, the number requesting asylum was reportedly 78, out of the 450-odd who participated in the caravan.

Slow-roll. (Google map; author annotation)

The “Way of the Cross” aspect of the caravan plays itself out in a very extended, wandering progress through Mexico.  The organizers have a number of consciousness-raising activities planned for the Mexican cities through which the caravan will pass.  Mexican authorities are as much a political target as the United States, for the activists of Pueblo Sin Fronteras.

Indeed, the stop near Mexico City will apparently include a “symposium.”  The organizers of the caravan aren’t sure how many people plan to continue from there to Tijuana.  We won’t know that until the caravan leaves the Mexico City area, sometime in the next couple of weeks.  The arrival in Tijuana will probably be in the first week of May (unless the caravan is interrupted before then), based on comments from organizers about the length of the projected timeline.

The activist focus in 2017

The 2017 caravan meandered through Mexico between 9 April and 8 May.  When it arrived in Tijuana, 78 people reportedly requested asylum from the U.S.  According to a Border Patrol official, four of those individuals were awarded asylum based on their interviews and affirmations.

The same official said about 200 total individuals from the caravan interacted with the U.S. immigration system (which would mean that most of them didn’t request asylum.  Other reports suggest many of them sought to enter the country to join extended family members).

Most of the 200, according to this official, were simply released into the United States on their own recognizance: given court dates, for which they never showed.  They thus remained here undocumented.

Some of the persons seeking entry were detained for further processing at the Adelanto immigration detention facility in San Bernardino County, California.  In time, the ones who were still there after several months – being tracked closely by the activist organizers of the 2017 caravan – became known as the Adelanto 9.

If you want clarity on the point that these caravans are about politics, consider this report focused on one Salvadoran’s experience with joining the caravan and being sent to Adelanto.  Notice the telling description of the original caravan (which reportedly swelled to 450 before arrival in Tijuana; emphasis added in the excerpt):

We met Boris [name changed] at a migrant detention center in Adelanto California during the summer of 2017.  He fled El Salvador after the MS-13, the gang that controlled his neighborhood, accused him of treason for paying extortion fees to its rival Barrio 18 at his workplace in another part of town. With no place to seek protection in El Salvador, he joined the Viacrucis de Refugiados 2017, a refugee caravan of 300 migrants and refugees, activists, international observers, and lawyers who traveled northward across Mexico in April and May 2017. When they reached the U.S.-Mexico border, 78 Central American and Mexican participants, including Boris, requested asylum in the United States.

“Boris” himself may have just wanted to get away from MS-13.  But the organizers, who make up a lot of the number in a typical year, have political goals – and they intend to use the often-desperate migrants to achieve them.  This is what resonated with the anti-borders ideologues:

For 28 days, Viacrucis participants traveled northward from Ciudad Hidalgo in the state of Chiapas to Tijuana. In unison, women, men, unaccompanied minors and entire families marched, sang, and chanted: “¡manchadas de sangre están las fronteras, porque ahí se mata a la clase obrera!” (“The borders are stained with blood, because there they kill the working class!”)

The account continues:

Through collective action, the migrant members of the Viacrucis demanded their right to seek asylum. Some of them only became aware of their rights as refugees through participation in the Viacrucis by sharing how experiences of material deprivation were shaping their fears of persecution. Legal assistants led pedagogic meetings that informed participants of their rights, and the possible costs of seeking asylum in the United States (detention and family separation, among others).

If you’re thinking Boris would probably have been better off to take his chances on his own (and would have gotten through Mexico a lot faster), well, I feel you.  There’s more.

In fact, the Viacrucis represented more than a means to obtain temporary freedom from outright violence: the caravan allowed for a critical process of concientización, or awareness-raising, for its participants along the migrant trail. During the process, asylum-seekers met with local communities in Mexico, including those displaced and dispossessed by mining companies, infrastructure projects, and agro-industrial businesses. This allowed both groups to express solidarity with one another throughout the journey.

I know if I were a mother of toddlers trying to get to El Norte from gang-controlled Guatemala or Honduras, stopping for these consciousness-raising sessions along the “migrant trail” in Mexico would be high on my list.

Detained in Adelanto, Boris perfected his raised-consciousness radicalism by participating in a hunger strike, and joining with other detainees – including people from Haiti – to issue a list of demands.

This radicalization of exploitable people is clearly what the Via Crucis organizers are about.  Here is the author of the profile on Boris again:

The cross-regional solidarity among Central Americans and Haitians —people from the two poorest regions in the Western Hemisphere— from within the entrails of the migrant detention regime has started to catch the attention of a broader migrant, refugee, and Black social movement in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. …

In this process, many refugees-turned-activists have expressed their desire to participate in organizing future mobilizations, and even those who have been deported are organizing to help fellow asylum-seekers in their journey to the United States.

In case you’re not seeing it staring you in the face:

As asylum-seekers continue to face detention at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol, the actions of the asylum-seekers on the Viacrucis caravan serve as a roadmap for building a transnational refugee movement from within the confines of detention centers.

The movement’s success with Boris is highlighted:

Boris, a member of the Adelanto Nine, relayed the following message:

“Before coming in the Viacrucis, I thought of myself as an individual. But through the journey, I learned that any of us could have to migrate one day and that we are living a collective problem. When I get out of here, I will struggle for my detained compañeros, and I urge people to struggle in solidarity with us as well.”

As the guards took him away at the end of the visit, he raised his fist and said: “La unión hace la fuerza.” (“Unity creates strength.”)

It’s almost like they’re not bringing people to the U.S. so the people can have a better life, but so that the activists can create a radical anti-borders “movement” in U.S. detention centers.

Back to 2018

This helps put in perspective the list of demands issued to the U.S. from the 2018 “caravan,” which Dennis Michael Lynch’s site has collected from social media.  The short list of demands, from Pueblo Sin Fronteras, is cited thus:

  • That they respect our rights as refugees and our right to dignified work to be able to support our families
  • That they open the borders to us because we are as much citizens as the people of the countries where we are and/or travel
  • That deportations, which destroy families, come to an end

The second demand, of course, goes well beyond anything it would occur to most actual asylum-seekers to “demand.”  Hardly anyone really thinks he is as much of a citizen of other countries as those countries’ actual citizens are.  That’s an ideological posture adopted by a comparative handful of radicals.

The DMLnews site has an extended list of “demands” from Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which you can peruse at your leisure.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if the 2018 caravan becomes a test case of any kind.  The potential is there (although my sense right now is that it won’t be realized, and the whole thing will fizzle out, now that there’s a klieg light trained on it).

If any of the erstwhile caravanners head for Texas, Governor Greg Abbott is ready for them.

I don’t think they’ll be getting in that way.  They usually just go to Tijuana, but may try this year to mount a more diffuse effort to get people into detention centers (i.e., in New Mexico and Arizona), there to continue building a transnational refugee movement: holding hunger strikes, issuing demands, eyeing future mobilizations, and otherwise setting the stage for movement-solidarity symposia with lawyers and activists on the migrant trail in 2019.

If they get to Tijuana, the whole thing may be as big a nothingburger as it was in 2017, plus or minus a couple hundred more illegal migrants turned loose in the United States with “court dates.”

There’s an outside chance of a showdown of some sort between CBP, ICE, and California, if the latter decides to do something preemptive about welcoming the aspiring border-crossers.  I’m betting against that.  California’s stance on non-cooperation, even under the new “sanctuary state” law, is a passive-aggressive one.

Moreover, San Diego County intends to debate joining Orange County in defying the non-cooperation posture mandated by the new state law, and will probably hold that debate before the caravanners – at least the politically organized contingent of them – get to the border.  In this case, it’s a very good bet that the county would prefer to simply cooperate with CBP and ICE, and let the problem be taken care of that way, without requiring active responses by local authorities.

This point leads to a final one about tactics and awareness: that the caravan, if it gets to the California border, may decide to opt for a crossing into Imperial County rather than San Diego County.

But that would make for a political statement only if the plan is to do something more kinetic and spectacular than simply present a relatively small number of people overtly requesting entry.

Given the attention now trained on the Via Crucis 2018 enterprise, that seems unlikely.

As with so many things, there are, in fact, legitimate reasons to be skeptical of the motives of the activists, and to oppose what they’re trying to do.  Trump, meanwhile, comes off as bombastic and politically incorrect in his approach to the matter.

To my eye, that hardens the annoyance of people who might otherwise listen to facts from a perspective of thoughtful centrism, instead of lining up reflexively on the opposite side of Trump.

But on the other hand, most of those people, in the absence of the Trump tweet-bombs, would probably just accept a whitewashed, mainstream media version of the purpose and origins of the caravan.

Trump’s bombast provokes exposure of what the activists – like Pueblo Sin Fronteras and their Via Crucis del Migrante – are really trying to do.  And it robs them of the ability to fly under the radar, pretending to be something they’re not.

Ultimately, I suspect the “caravan” will divert itself into nothing, because it’s obvious that it isn’t about helping people who are being persecuted by MS-13 in Central America.  I’d like to see the U.S. go back to helping Central America thump MS-13 and other cartels down hard, something we backed off from under Obama.  As regards the 2018 caravan, however, I expect the weird “Trump effect” will once again prevail.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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