Making Sensation and Sense of the Migrant Caravan of Fall 2018, Part One

General Introduction

On October 13, 2018, a large caravan of migrants departed from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, heading north toward the Mexico-US border, generating intense media attention and political controversy in the United States and in Mexico. I happened to be in Tijuana this November as the caravan arrived there, during the period of its greatest visibility on the global stage. This two-part article chronicles what I witnessed in Tijuana and what caravan members themselves have stated in a series of digital stories they contributed to the Humanizing Deportation archive that I coordinate (Part Two will appear on March 26, 2019).

While flows of migrants from Central America through Mexico have a long history, the modality of the caravan is fairly new. Faced with the well documented and often extreme physical dangers of travelling by cargo train (“la Bestia”), until recently the principal means of northward mobility for most Central American migrants, the option of migrating in a large group offers previously unavailable protections. At the same time, it implies a new kind of visibility.

Although a handful of previous migrant caravans, all much smaller than that of fall 2018, had generated some media attention, the often-sensationalized spectacle of this caravan drew intense scrutiny, while offering both pro- and anti-immigrant activists opportunities to intervene in public discourse. There is no question that life in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala has become treacherous for many due to rampant organized crime, the economic precarity of large sectors of the population, and the failure of government agencies to provide viable infrastructures of protection to citizens. However, these circumstances of vulnerability do not translate automatically into legal mechanisms for admission to the US; nor do all migrants necessarily conform to even the most loosely imagined definition of a refugee. This two-part chronicle aims to look beyond the noise and understand the kinds of people who traveled north with this caravan, as well as what the consequences of all the hype surrounding it.

The first part questions media representations of the caravan, and cautions against assessing them based on stereotypes, whether negative or positive. The second looks at the political activism that appeared to emerge from the caravan and its immediate consequences for the migrants themselves. While in many ways the context of my observations is, like the trajectory of the migrants themselves, broadly transnational, I draw most directly from my experience in Tijuana beginning in late November of 2018, and especially from the articulations of the migrants themselves.

Part I: Emigration and Infiltration

Since their October departure, the northward journey of this group generated media spectacle. Whether they were breaking through border barriers to enter Chiapas, perching upon the border fence in Playas de Tijuana, complaining about beans in Tijuana’s Zona Norte, getting tear gassed trying to cross into California, or tunneling under the border fence into Yuma, Arizona, the media spotlight shone brightly on them. They were the subject of frequent White House tweets, and so riled up Tijuana’s mayor that a gag order needed to be placed on his public speech about them. In November and December of 2018, on the streets of Tijuana, conspiracy theories circulated to explain how such a massive number of people were motivated to trek all the way to Mexico’s northern border, despite the elevated odds of obtaining asylum in the US. While media attention has helped to communicate important information, it also disseminated plenty of distortions. Migration has become such a divisive political flashpoint that the throngs of the caravan have served as a visually compelling platform for everyone’s agenda, with sometimes unfortunate consequences for the migrants themselves.

I am not an expert on Central American migration. Rather, I have been coordinating a large digital storytelling project that documents the human consequences of deportation. Humanizing Deportation’s public bilingual website (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/) currently houses nearly 150 audiovisual testimonial shorts. Our teams are active in five Mexican cities, but the project’s core remains in its city of origin, Tijuana, the epicenter of the US deportation regime. I had planned a brief trip to Tijuana in mid-November, when wildfires broke out in northern California, effectively shutting down UC Davis for two weeks, allowing me to extend my stay. This period of campus closure happened to coincide with the arrival of the migrant caravan to Tijuana, permitting me to witness some of the events making worldwide news headlines, meet caravan migrants, and even record some of their stories for the Humanizing Deportation archive. I continue to visit Tijuana and learn more about the experiences of these caravan migrants, many of whom remain in Tijuana.

Arrival in Tijuana

Migrants began arriving in Tijuana days after the US midterm elections around which the border wall, Central American migration and the caravan itself had been major themes of debate. Although the US president’s anti-migration platform was not enthusiastically endorsed in this election, the caravan, including the negative discourse about it, was fresh in people’s minds in both the US and Mexico.

The first to arrive, on November 11, were a group of approximately eighty migrants referred to in the press as an “LGBT splinter group” (NPR 11/13/18). This group drew significant attention from international media, presenting a mixed image of the caravan. Not only did these migrants have real possibilities for justifying asylum claims due to persecution and targeted violence back in their home countries; they also claimed to have separated from the caravan due to abuse from within the caravan itself. A November 10 press release from a group calling itself The Dreamers of Central America, 2018 claims: “We traveled together to care for each other, not only from the violence of the state and criminal organizations, but also from the violence from civilians migrating with us.” This initial news, which circulated under such headlines as “LGBT Migrants Fled Persecution Back Home. Then They Fled the Caravan” (Daily Beast 11/15/18), paints caravan migrants as both victims and perpetrators of violence, feeding both pro- and anti-immigrant sentiments.

These migrants made headlines again by staging a glittery “mass wedding” on November 18 in downtown Tijuana (The Hill 11/20/18). Soon after this, they were bussed to Nogales, Sonora, where, out of the limelight of Tijuana, they faded from the news. They were probably among the first to begin legally crossing the border to file asylum claims; a December 2 Facebook post on the Diversity Sin Fronteras page congratulates Teresa, “one of the cofounders of Las Soñadoras de Centro América,” upon her release on parole from the Cibola County Correctional Center in western New Mexico.

Soon after their arrival, roughly 800 migrants followed, camping out right on the border in Friendship Park in Playas de Tijuana. Images of young men perched upon the iconic muralled border wall quickly went viral. Media reported that migrants were “taunting” and “jeering” US authorities “in a display of defiance” (Washington Times 11/14/18), causing Homeland Security to promptly mount barbed wire coils atop the wall, and the images of rowdy migrants were deployed in Tijuana by an emerging anti-immigrant movement that seemed to mimic US alt-right style xenophobic sentiments. On the night of November 14, Mexican protesters gathered alongside Friendship Park, where migrants were settling down in sleeping bags, to protest their presence, provoking a confrontation in which the protesters reportedly assaulted several of the migrants (Milenio 11/15/18). Tijuana mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum responded: “I don’t presume to call them migrants (…) They’re a horde of vagrants and potheads” (El País 11/17/18).

As migrants continued arriving, the majority were sent to an improvised camp at the Benito Juárez sports center in Tijuana’s Zona Norte, located just across the highway from the border wall. By November 18, an estimated 3000 migrants were staying there. During this period, Mexican anti-immigrant sentiments were stoked by a series of viral videos that portrayed the caravan migrants as ungrateful and boorish. The most influential was probably that of a Honduran woman, who would later be nicknamed “Bean Lady,” complaining that the food migrants were being given, beans and tortillas, was fit only for “pigs.” As of this writing, the most widely circulated clip, originally posted on Nov. 16, had tallied nearly 3.8 million views and 26 thousand comments (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L87fyHqv5R0); another popular post spliced together over ten minutes of clips in a video titled “All the Videos of Ungrateful Hondurans – Migrant Caravan” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27ogwlE6qQI). On November 18, the same day as the weddings, the latter were upstaged by a protest march through the streets of Tijuana that ended in an ugly confrontation at the edge of the Benito Juárez camp, with protesters chanting “Yes to migrants, no to invaders” (Desert Sun 11/18/18). The uproar shocked many in Tijuana, a city built on rapid growth from immigrants.

What Was Going On?!

It seemed that everyone in Tijuana was talking about the migrants, the newly fortified wall, the xenophobia, the beans. There were two rival images of the caravan: one of refugees, deserving unquestioning sympathy, an image taken to the extreme in reports that the caravan was composed of “mostly women and children” (Vanity Fair 11/1/18); another of the migrants as ungrateful, unruly, infiltrated by maras, and ultimately dangerous.

Conspiracy theories abounded. The two that most proliferated claimed that the organizers of the caravan were either the US or the Mexican government, if not both in collusion. The approach of the caravan would enable the Trump administration to craft an image of an immense threat to border security, which it had been enforcing with National Guard troops since October. The timing of its departure, just weeks before midterm elections, seemed too convenient. Likewise, many conjectured that the arrival of the caravan at the northern border just prior to the Dec. 1 inauguration of Mexican president elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), was a ploy by the outgoing president’s Institutional Revolutionary Party to thrust AMLO directly into a complicated border crisis. Another theory was that the caravan’s instigator was Honduran political opposition, Bartolo Fuentes; eventually it became known that the caravan had been heavily promoted in Honduras through a hacked Facebook account in his name (Buzzfeed 12/6/18).

Late that same afternoon as the protests and the weddings (both of which I witnessed), I ended up in Playas de Tijuana where someone asked me for some water. He was a Honduran man who was staying in a small shelter there. I started chatting with him about the sensationalized media and political noise that I felt was making it difficult for people to understand the true dynamics of the caravan, and he had a lot to say about this. We conversed for a while, and it suddenly occurred to me that he might appreciate a platform to tell his caravan story, which seemed more nuanced than either of the two images outlined above. I invited him to participate in Humanizing Deportation; while he had never been deported, it was clear at this point that the caravan migrants were doubly deportable – vulnerable to expulsion from both the US and Mexico. He eagerly accepted. We published his testimonial video, titled “From Inside the Caravan,” on November 21. (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/es/2018/11/21/124-desde-la-caravana/).

He claimed to have documentation showing that not only was his personal safety at risk after testifying as an eyewitness at a kidnapping trial, but that the Honduran government was responsible for putting him in danger by revealing his identity to the individual who was convicted in that case. He believed it was important to let people know that most caravan migrants had legitimate motives for their exodus.

However, he also expressed deep distrust of the caravan, which he’d learned about through a television news report. His skepticism began while he waited on a bridge in Guatemala, hoping to cross legally into Mexico. He was upset that Mexican authorities never allowed the migrants to be legally processed, and that they had therefore neglected to check their backgrounds. He claimed that “a lot of people had infiltrated the caravan: criminals, gang members, all kinds of people.” This meant that those, like him, who had left the country with legitimate fears, would have to travel all across Mexico with these people.

His distrust was further stoked in Oaxaca when, disturbed by some late-night tumult, he discovered that “the people who were directing the caravan were drunk”; he found it suspicious that they “had money” and wondered if they were being paid. He actually left the caravan at that point and traveled to Mexico City on la Bestia, only rejoining the caravan when he realized that la Bestia presented much greater dangers.

He was on one of the first buses leaving Mexico City, and among the first to arrive in Tijuana. He believed that in that group, too, there were “infiltrators, bad guys, people who came only to make a disturbance and do harm.” He was upset that these infiltrators “were jumping the wall and provoking the authorities,” and had angered the neighbors in Playas de Tijuana to the point that “they wanted to lynch us.”

His critical perspective confirms aspects of both polarized positions. He emphasizes that most of the migrants have undergone significant suffering and faced real danger. He also confirms that not everyone fit that profile. His choice of the term “infiltrator” is interesting as it implies that some migrants are legitimate and others aren’t, that some may not have been fleeing anything, but were instead perhaps being paid to cause trouble or worse, a position that is backed up by staff members of Al Otro Lado, a group offering legal counselling to caravan migrants in Tijuana, who note that some migrants “have been disappeared by organized crime” while in Mexico, and that Central American “[g]angs and death squads” have been following some of the migrants (The Guardian 2/12/19).

Which migrants are legitimate? Which are infiltrators? His concerns might lead us to think about what kinds of migrations are morally justified. Where do we draw the line? Asylum laws are meant to protect people from persecution and physical violence, but they do not offer relief to people seeking to escape poverty. Recent debates set divisions between refugees and economic migrants, effectively casting the vast majority of undocumented immigrants living in the US in the latter, implicitly less legitimate category. Are migrants with criminal records all illegitimate? Do we include those with certain tattoos even though they may be migrating to escape from the maras?

Some Brief Conclusions

I suggest here that what is missing from discussion of migration nowadays, which was most especially evident in discourse concerning the fall 2018 caravan, is nuance. We need to think carefully before we judge migrants, whether negatively or positively, as reductive positions may help sustain political positions on the left or the right, but may ultimately be detrimental to migrants themselves. Rejecting migrants based on negative stereotypes may invite everything from discrimination and harassment, to the failure to protect them from the kinds of criminal acts that have long targeted Central Americans traversing Mexico, including assaults, sexual violations, kidnapping, extortion and even murder. On the other hand, assuming that all are victims may also produce harm for the migrants themselves as they may be, as the caravan migrant quoted above indicates, more vulnerable than anyone else to any dangers presented by criminal elements among them: “those of us who really fleeing the extreme situation of our country […] are the people most affected by the mistake [Mexican] authorities made in not checking who was coming.” Only by not prejudging can border patrol officers, immigration judges, migrant service providers, activists groups and ordinary citizens understand the diverse profiles and individual needs of migrants, and find the best ways to ensure that the most vulnerable are cared for adequately.

Next week: Part Two 

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Photo taken on November 18, 2018 by Robert McKee Irwin

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