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

Migrant Border Politics

My previous installment questioned tendencies on both right and left to represent the migrant caravan through reductive assumptions that exposed the vulnerability of those most truly in need. Several sensational events that took place in the first weeks of the caravan’s arrival in Tijuana fueled pro- and anti-immigrant sentiments through stereotypes of Central American immigrants as inherently dangerous or as helpless victims, when the truth of the composition of the caravan was more complex.

This second installment focuses more closely on several spectacular public displays staged around the caravan, some of which seemed to express an activist agenda that was new in the context of Central American migrants and of migrants in transit in North American in general. Tijuana, which has a long history of hosting migrants in transit, had never seen the kind of overt militancy that seemed to emanate from this caravan. This mediatized activist agenda inspired significant distrust and even animosity in Tijuana. What was really going on?

Migration as Spectacle

It was quite startling that, as described in my previous installment, the first caravan arrivals had gone to Playas de Tijuana. Playas is not normally a destination for migrants as the vast majority of migrant shelters and migrant service organizations are located near downtown Tijuana, ten kilometers away (Proceso 12/16/18). On the other hand, Playas’ Friendship Park, located in the northwestern-most corner of Mexico, is one of the most iconic sites of the entire US-Mexico border, perhaps the place to stage a media spectacle of wall jumpers or anti-migration protests, both of which indeed drew international media attention in the days following the arrival of the first migrants, before they were moved closer to downtown. It was no surprise that less than a week after those first anti-migrant protests, on November 20, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen staged her own press conference on the US side of the border at the very same site, adding fuel to the fire, alleging that “at least 500 of the migrants heading for the border are known criminals” (Times of San Diego 11/20/18).

The next day I visited the caravan camp at the Benito Juárez sports center. That morning there was a lot of movement there as hundreds of new migrants were arriving. After police blocked passage of several busloads from leaving Mexicali (USA Today 11/18/18), a large contingent elected to walk to Tijuana, a distance of 178 kilometers: another media spectacle that unfortunately drew additional attention with the death of a young migrant who got run over on the highway along the way (Crónica 11/20/18; Excelsior 11/21/18). It seemed illogical that migrants whose goal was to cross the border to the US would walk this leg on foot, or make the journey at all, as Mexicali is already on the border – unless their journey was meant to generate additional media attention.

That day two of the new arrivals from Mexicali offered to tell their stories for Humanizing Deportation under the titles “I’m Here to Work” (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/es/2018/11/26/127-yo-vengo-a-trabajar/) and “We Left Due to the Threats and Crime” (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/es/2018/11/28/129-salimos-por-las-amenazas-la-delincuencia/). Both recounted their hardships and aspirations referring specifically to threats from criminal gangs in Honduras that put their lives in danger; neither articulated anything that resembled an activist posture, instead expressing hope of permanently escaping danger and gratefulness to those who helped them along their journey.

That same day, an acquaintance took me to the border to show me some curious things going on there. We visited El Bordo, a section of the canalization of the Tijuana River, which runs along the border in Tijuana, crossing into the US just west of the Chaparral border checkpoint. El Bordo is heavily securitized with walls, lights, patrol vehicles, and other devices. However, the canal itself, which is often dry, fills as needed when water is released from the Abelardo Rodríguez dam, and cannot therefore be effectively walled off. Walking along its raised banks we saw that US agents had built a small wall topped with barbed wire across the canal, and were now installing lighting directly behind it. Meanwhile, on the Mexican side, workers were pumping in water to form a lagoon leading to the mini-wall. They seemed to be collaborating to deter migrants from crossing into the US via the Tijuana canal bed. At first all of this seemed excessive. Migrants had already been jumping or squeezing through holes in the wall at several locations; it seemed wasteful to invest so much effort in a single potential illegal crossing point. Unless of course authorities feared a large-scale rush on the border.

On November 25, that is just what happened, right at that site. It was as if both US and Mexican authorities knew that it was being planned. That day a group of migrants staged a protest march that ended with some of them charging at the border, where they were forced to retreat when border patrol agents fired tear gas into the crowd. An activist named Irineo Mujica from Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the group known for organizing several prior – and much smaller – Central American migrant caravans, was on hand to explain to the press that the point of the march was “to make the migrants’ plight more visible to the governments of Mexico and the United States” (AP News 11/25/18).

I remember being perturbed when I read some social media posts by activist friends celebrating the provocations of the caravan activists. I felt that at that moment a decision to do anything provocative was a tactical error for the migrants, who were depending on the sympathy of the Mexican volunteers and donors that mobilize to help migrants in need, and yet were projecting an image of impatience and aggressiveness that seemed to be generating significant antipathy for their plight. Tijuana’s mayor, who had previously announced that he wanted to expel the immigrants from the city, continued complaining publicly about their “wrongdoings” and lawlessness (El País 11/26/18), until he was eventually subject to a judicial gag order after charges that his inflammatory statements against them were putting them in danger by implicitly authorizing sentiments against them, as well as police harassment (Jornada Baja California 12/28/18). Another media spectacle only served to aggravate an already tense situation. In Tijuana, many were beginning to wonder if the caravan represented anything beyond media spectacle, and also to scrutinize the role of Pueblo Sin Fronteras.

While Pueblo Sin Fronteras had not been very visible at that time in Tijuana, it turns out that this group had seen some controversy in recent weeks. Mujica, perhaps the group’s most recognizable face, had actually been arrested at a pro-caravan march in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, in a move that he claims was motivated by pressure from the US to “silence my voice” (AZ Central 11/9/18). Conservative groups had made public accusations regarding the role of Pueblo Sin Fronteras: “you may not have heard of one of the main organizers of the caravan: Pueblo Sin Fronteras […] And Pueblo Sin Fronteras wants to keep it that way” (Capital Research Center 10/24/18).

Then, just two days before the tear gas spectacle, a statement had come out in the Mexican media that had not generated much attention but now seemed to resonate. Padre Alejandro Solalinde, Mexico’s best known migrants rights activist, had accused Pueblo Sin Fronteras “of using the Central American migrants and Mexicans, including himself, to move human smugglers, armed people and to lead, in an ‘impactful’ but irresponsible manner, undocumented migrants to the Tijuana border, where there is no solution.” He also claimed that Pueblo Sin Fronteras prevented Solalinde’s colleagues at their Oaxaca shelter from informing caravan migrants of the difficulties they would face in trying to cross into the US., concluding: “I do wish to lodge this complaint that Pueblo Sin Fronteras lacks scruples, that they’ve disgracefully taken advantage of us” (Sin Embargo 11/23/18).

Pueblo Sin Fronteras issued a statement on November 26, quite obviously in response to this public criticism. It reiterates the position put forward in media interviews by Mujica that this group did not organize the fall 2018 caravan, but rather offered “accompaniment,” and helped seek out and coordinate aid from different organizations along the route northward. It also claimed to have facilitated the leaders of the caravan in developing organizing processes. It did not refer to the previous day’s march, nor to other actions by the caravan that might have been understood as activist in nature.

Nonetheless, criticism quickly intensified. The Los Angeles Times soon reiterated Solalinde’s criticism of Pueblo, noting that “some former allies on the left say that it is using migrants to advance its political agenda – imperiling the people it claims to protect,” further alleging that the controversial Nov. 25 march was “led in part by Pueblo Sin Fronteras” (12/6/18).

A rival narrative emerged around this time regarding the caravan’s internal governance structure, which included a “general assembly” and a democratically elected “nine-person Governance and Dialogue Council” (Político 12/12/18). This article cites two people at length regarding caravan governance: Walter Coello, one of the members of this council, and Tristan Call, a Pueblo Sin Fronteras volunteer. The latter waxes idealistic in linking the caravan’s political practice to “a rich history of alternative and autonomous governance structures in Central America.” While this article offers some insight into the day to day organizing within the caravan, it does not explore how much buy-in to, participation in or even knowledge of this governing structure there was among the members of the caravan over the course of the prior two months.

Moreover, this narrative of democratic and independent governance became murkier just a few days later when the San Diego Union Tribune reported that rival leadership factions were in conflict at el Barretal, the remote concert venue that had become the main caravan camp in late November. It states that Pueblo Sin Fronteras called on Mexican authorities to bodily remove Alfonso Guerrero, one of the leaders of a December 11 caravan migrant march on the US consulate. It again quotes Coello, presenting him as a migrant “who supports Pueblo Sin Fronteras,” but also reports on those who were resentful at Guerrero’s removal, and on those who were indifferent to both factions: “To members of the caravan not aligned with either side, Tuesday morning’s events were more of a sideshow than a power struggle” with many “skeptical of anyone who tries to organize” (12/18/18).

Listening to Caravan Migrants

In early January, Humanizing Deportation managed to produce one more digital story narrated by a caravan member. In “The Life of an Undocumented Honduran” (http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/es/2019/01/26/138-la-via-de-un-indocmuentado-hondureno/),Manuel Mallorquín tells his story from a position of marginality in relation to the caravan as we found him living in a lean-to he had constructed out of found materials just outside the Barretal camp, which he was not allowed to enter after losing his identification document. He quickly tells of jumping the border fence, getting immediately deported back to Honduras, then returning quickly to Tijuana, raising questions regarding whether he was one of the paid ruffians – caravan “infiltrators” – called out by our first storyteller (see http://humanizandoladeportacion.ucdavis.edu/es/2018/11/21/124-desde-la-caravana/).

However, what can be seen pretty clearly in all four of our digital stories, as well as in many other sources, is that the vast majority of caravan migrants came north hoping for a better life, and that stories of threats of violence in contemporary Honduras and neighboring countries are widespread. Many seek asylum, while others hope to cross undocumented, or prefer to try to find work in Mexico. And a number, realizing they’ve been misinformed, return to their homeland (Proceso 12/16/18). However, very few seem to have come all this way to assert a political agenda. To repeat the titles of two of the digital stories cited above: “I’m here to work” and “We left due to the threats and crime.” If activists, whether from within the caravan or from without, were using the caravan’s visibility to stage media events, these actions were unethical and unwise. When precarious lives are at stake, our time might be better spent making sure that they are provided adequate food and clothing, safe shelter, and sound legal advice than recruiting migrants for border spectacles and protest marches.

My experience this fall in Tijuana made clear that pro-migration activism is a very delicate endeavor, especially when it involves migrants themselves. Activist agendas focused on long term big picture results may have negative short-term impacts on individuals. And the urgency of immediate needs for vulnerable populations may require us to step back from our politics. Really, the most important thing I’ve learned from my work with Humanizing Deportation is that we need always to listen to the migrants that we want to defend. They are the ones who know best what they need and how we can help them. Imposing agendas is wrong, just as forming opinions from uncontextualized viral videos is wrong, and letting ourselves be influenced by irresponsible tweets is wrong, and closing the doors of wealthy nations to migrants in need is wrong.

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Photo taken on November 21, 2018 by Robert McKee Irwin

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