Trump: Migrant caravan is 'great midterm issue for Republicans'

    A caravan of about 2,000 Hondurans continued moving through Guatemala on Oct. 16, 2018. (CNN Newsource)

    President Donald Trump said Wednesday that a caravan of asylum-seekers traveling through Central America represents a “Great Midterm issue for Republicans,” as he attempted to force the countries the migrants are fleeing to prevent them from continuing their journey.

    “Hard to believe that with thousands of people from South of the Border, walking unimpeded toward our country in the form of large Caravans, that the Democrats won’t approve legislation that will allow laws for the protection of our country,” Trump tweeted.

    Meanwhile, the approximately 2,000 Honduran migrants resumed traveling north from Chiquimula, Guatemala Wednesday morning, more than 1,000 miles from the U.S. border, unfazed by the president’s threats and mostly unhindered by local authorities.

    Trump said Tuesday he would cut off U.S. aid to Honduras if the country did not stop the caravan, which had already moved on to Guatemala. In a subsequent tweet, he threatened to end “all payments” to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador if they allow anyone to travel through their countries “with the intention of entering our country illegally.”

    Vice President Mike Pence echoed that ultimatum, stating he spoke to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and told them “the U.S. will not tolerate this blatant disregard for our border & sovereignty.”

    According to Michele Pistone, director of the Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services at Villanova University, the migrants pose no discernible danger to U.S. sovereignty.

    “The narrative that the White House is using is designed to elicit fear,” she said. “But, in reality, we have no need to be afraid. There is no threat. If these people intended to harm us, their flight would not be by means of a caravan.”

    Despite the president’s tweets, organizers maintain the group is not setting out to enter the U.S. illegally. They plan to apply for asylum legally if they reach the U.S. border.

    “U.S. and international law require our government to adjudicate fairly all claims by asylum-seekers,” Pistone said. “The only means of seeking asylum protection is to arrive at our border. The claim for asylum must be made on U.S. territory.”

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have alleged in the past that some asylum applicants are coached to make false claims of persecution in the hope of being released into the U.S. while their case is pending.

    President Hernandez has no power over migrants who have already left his country, but he issued a sternly-worded statement Tuesday questioning the motives of caravan organizers and warning that children traveling with the group could be targets of gangs, drug dealers, and human traffickers.

    "Hondurans should not lend themselves to that political game that is inhumane and condemnable," Hernandez said, adding that his government will provide “assistance” to those who leave the caravan and return.

    In a separate statement, the Honduran government accused organizers of the caravan of making “false promises” and misleading people to believe they will be welcomed when they get to the U.S.

    Guatemala has made some overtures toward stopping the group, including detaining one of its organizers Tuesday with plans to deport him back to Honduras for violating immigration rules. About 100 Guatemalan police officers attempted to block the caravan’s progress across the border Monday, but the group advanced after a two-hour standoff.

    “The Guatemalan Migration Institute will carry out the necessary actions and dispositions in order to identify and document the people who irregularly entered Guatemalan territory, in order to regularize their migratory status, and assistance in health, safety and protection can be granted,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “In addition, the competent authorities were instructed to take the necessary measures to guarantee order and national security.”

    An agreement between El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua allows nationals to travel freely between the four countries without a passport, but officials say they are still required to be processed individually at border crossings. Police in Guatemala tried unsuccessfully Monday to send some of the migrants back to a processing station.

    There is nothing that the government can do,” Pistone said. “A government does not prohibit people from leaving their country. At least not since USSR did that to Soviet citizens.”

    The words of government officials appear to carry little weight with those already willing to risk their lives to escape what they say is unbearable violence and poverty in their home countries.

    “What Trump says doesn’t interest us,” caravan organizer Bartolo Fuentes told Reuters in an interview before he was detained in Guatemala. “These people are fleeing. These people are not tourists.”

    Migrant rights advocates say President Trump’s threats are counterproductive if the end goal is to diminish the incentive to leave violent Central American nations. Families are already willing to risk separation, detention, or even death to get away, and cutting off humanitarian aid would undermine efforts to make staying home a viable option.

    “The countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are among the most violent countries in the world, and most people have nowhere to turn for help because the police are not up to the task. If a gang is extorting you, if you are a witness to a crime, if you have an abusive partner, you have two options, stay and pay the price, or flee,” said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, in a statement.

    Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., said the migration flow from Central America to the U.S. is part of a global pattern of people in poor, dangerous countries seeking refuge in more prosperous ones, and decreasing financial assistance will not help solve the underlying causes.

    “What’s going to work is that we go right there on the ground and we have legislation that reexamines the root causes of that migration from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, which is where many of the young people with children are coming from,” Espaillat told Hill.TV Wednesday.

    According to The Associated Press, about 65 percent of Hondurans live in poverty and the country has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Its government has long been plagued by corruption, and Hernandez’s re-election last fall prompted protests over alleged fraud.

    “Honduras is facing major criminal issues that it cannot currently control,” Pistone said. “Any cuts to foreign aid will make it even less likely for the Honduran government to be able to fight crime, to control gangs, and to prevent the crises that are causing migrants to flee for their safety, in record numbers.”

    Trump’s outrage could prove premature. The Mexican government has already signaled it may turn the caravan away at its border, preventing them from even approaching U.S. territory.

    “The INM reiterates to the members of the ‘Migrant Walk’ that departed from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on October 13, 2018, that of arriving at the points of internment of the southern border of Mexico, the migration personnel should review compliance with the requirements set by the law, and those who do not comply, will not be allowed entry,” Mexico’s National Institute of Migration said in a statement Monday. “The law does not provide for any permission to enter the country without complying with the requirements and then go to a third country.”

    With the number of families arrested at the southern border reaching a record high in September, the Trump administration was already struggling to stem a surge of Central American parents and children before this caravan formed.

    According to the Washington Post, White House officials believe the heavily-publicized controversy over the “zero tolerance” separation of immigrant families at the border and the subsequent walk-back of that policy has encouraged more people to come. The president has indicated in interviews that he might revive the separation policy in some form, but his advisers fear a political backlash this close to the midterm elections.

    The latest escalation of tensions between the Trump administration and the Northern Triangle countries emerged days after top officials met in Washington for a conference aimed at improving relations. The two-day Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, co-hosted by the U.S. and Mexico, addressed economic, security, and governing challenges in the region, including those related to immigration.

    “Working for orderly and regular migration at the same time with security in the region will require that we continue to work as we’ve done before, working as a team,” Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray Caso said in his opening remarks.

    Vice President Pence commended attendees for their progress in discouraging illegal immigration to the U.S., but he stressed that much more work remains.

    “We also need all the nations in the region to reinforce a very simple message to your people, and it’s a message from the heart,” Pence said. “And that is, the leaders in this room and the governments that you represent should tell your people: Don’t put your families at risk by taking the dangerous journey north to attempt to enter the United States illegally.”

    If Northern Triangle countries do more to prevent migration, Pence committed to doing more to assist them with business development, energy resources, and cultural exchanges.

    “Your people will stay home if they believe there’s a brighter future for them there. As the old saying goes, ‘There’s no place like home,’” he said. “And so we’ll continue to stand with you to fight against corruption in your nations, to strengthen the rule of law, but also to spur job creation and economic growth in your nations.”

    Migrant caravans are not new—many see them as the safest way to make the treacherous journey north—but they first appeared on President Trump’s radar earlier this year when more than 1,000 asylum-seekers trekking through Central America drew U.S. media attention.

    “Honduras, Mexico and many other countries that the U.S. is very generous to, sends many of their people to our country through our WEAK IMMIGRATION POLICIES. Caravans are heading here. Must pass tough laws and build the WALL. Democrats allow open borders, drugs and crime!” Trump tweeted at the time.

    Trump made similar threats against the countries the migrants were passing through, even suggesting he would pull out of NAFTA if the caravan was not stopped. The group shrank to a few hundred people by the time it reached the U.S.

    Many members of that caravan remained in Mexico and sought asylum there. Some waited to be legally processed for asylum claims at U.S. border crossings. Others were arrested trying to enter the U.S. illegally after being turned away.

    Trump’s harsh rhetoric failed to halt that caravan, but it did appear to spur the Mexican and Honduran governments to pay more attention they had in the past. It remains to be seen whether he will have more success this time.

    “Prior to the threat of losing U.S. foreign aid, Honduras had remained silent on the issue of the caravan. Like in the case of Mexico, it took a tweet from President Trump to get the Honduran government to address the caravan of Central American migrants,” Kausha Luna, a research associate at the Center for Immigration Studies, said in April.

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