MEXICO CITY — As many as 7,000 migrants are attempting to push their way through Guatemala, fueled by two devastating hurricanes that left tens of thousands homeless in Central America as well as a vague hope that President-elect Joe Biden will have a more humane policy toward their plight.
Their effort to reach the US / Mexico border — on the eve of Biden’s inauguration — underscores the complicated challenge the new U.S. president will face on day 1 in office: embracing a more humane approach to migrants and asylum seekers while not triggering a rush on the border that could imperil his policy before it gets off the ground.
On Sunday, Guatemalan security forces in the southeastern part of the country fired tear gas and wielded billy sticks to try and stop thousands of migrants coming through on their way north to Mexico and it’s shared border with the U.S. Videos and photos from the blockade showed a chaotic and violent scene: armed military officers in riot gear and shields beating back a huge crowd of migrants, some of whom hurled rocks.
By Monday, Guatemalan security forces looked ready for battle as they lined up in formation and stomped their feet at the same time as preparing to face off against the caravan, the leaders of whom waved Honduran and U.S. flags. The security forces started violently pushing back the group of migrants toward the Honduran border. Mexican security forces were also deployed to the area to provide back-up and ensure that the asylum seekers don’t make it to Mexico.
It was the new normal: a militarized response to impoverished Central American asylum seekers who are traveling by the thousands in an effort to overwhelm security forces and avoid criminal gangs preying on them in the journey. Caravans tend to attract the most impoverished migrants who simply can’t afford the $7,000 it costs to hire coyotes to smuggle them into the U.S.
Between the pandemic and the November hurricanes, many of those in the caravan said they lost all their possessions and have nothing to lose by trying to reach the U.S. More than a third of the country’s population was affected by Category Four Hurricane Eta and Category Five Hurricane Iota at the end of last year, with the storms causing rivers to overflow their banks and triggering flooding in densely populated neighborhoods.
“We didn’t think about migrating before the hurricanes,” said Eduardo Lopez, 36, who worked in the sugar cane fields outside San Pedro Sula until the storms hit. He said he lost his house, and he and his family spent the last two months sleeping on top of the levees. The conditions in Honduras motivated him to leave, he said, but he also believed they would be treated better with Biden in office. “We think he will give us the opportunity to cross with our families.”
It was a sentiment echoed by many in the caravan: that Biden is a good man and has promised to help migrants.
Indeed, Biden has said he will reverse some of Trump’s most hardline immigration policies, including the controversial “Migrant Protection Protocols,” or MPP, which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed in the U.S. More than 50,000 refugees have been returned to Mexico under that policy. Far from providing protection, the policy sends asylum seekers to Mexico’s most dangerous cities to wait out their cases, often in squalid improvised camps.
But Biden’s transition team has also taken pains to say U.S. immigration policy won’t change overnight. The optics of 7,000 Central American migrants headed to the U.S. border just as he takes power could undermine his political capital.
A senior Biden transition team official told NBC News that people in the caravan “will not find when they get to the U.S. border that from Tuesday to Wednesday, things have changed overnights and ports are all open and they can come into the United States.”
Immigration-rights groups criticized that response.
“The United States, and starting Wednesday the Biden administration, has a legal and moral obligation to provide those fleeing persecution with meaningful access to protection in the United States. To lead with the same old deterrence rhetoric is highly concerning,” said Shaw Drake, staff attorney and policy counsel for the ACLU of Texas.
Still, it seems unlikely that the caravan will survive the assault from Guatemalan and Mexican security forces. Under pressure from the Trump administration, Mexican and Central American countries have made unprecedented efforts to stop migrants fleeing to the U.S.
In October, the Guatemalan military confronted a caravan of Honduran migrants with armored jeeps and automatic rifles, forcing them to disband and to board buses back to the Honduran border.
Before that, in January 2020, Mexico took a hardline response to a group of around 4,000 Central American migrants trying to traverse the country en route to the U.S. It deployed the National Guard and army to prevent migrants from entering Mexico, and blasted a recording on loudspeaker that the U.S. would not be offering asylum.
On Monday, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reiterated his desire for Biden to contribute to a regional development plan in Central America so “people aren’t obligated to emigrate.” But he added that those in transit should comply with the “migratory laws of each country.”
“We are going to be waiting,” López Obrador said.