In January, international human rights groups pummeled the government of Guatemala for its use of batons, tear gas, and troops to break up a migrant caravan that had swelled to some 9,000 people mainly on incoming President Joe Biden's promises that all who wished to cross the U.S. border would find a warm embrace inside the United States.
That January 2021 caravan (which CIS covered extensively) seemed timed to reach the U.S. border right around inauguration day, which would have forced a policy choice to either reward the caravanners with mass-entry that would spawn many more behind it, or use tear gas and batons on women and children on television, like in November 2018 on the California border. Thanks to the Guatemalans choosing to exercise the latter option at their own border (and a Mexican military prepared to do so if the Guatemalans failed), the new Biden administration was spared the politically awkward optics of either alternative.
But now, yet another caravan reportedly is gathering, its participants no doubt determined to test if – this time – Guatemala and Mexico will let them through or be willing to again take the political heat that comes when federal police beat migrants in front of television cameras.
On Friday, February 12, Alejandra Mean, a spokeswoman for the Guatemalan Migration Institute, told reporters of a "possible entry of a massive group of people" from Honduras and El Salvador this coming week.
Central American nations and Mexico have long allowed their territories to be used as migrant transit superhighways to the U.S. border. It has been customary to allow immigrants through, so long as they kept going to the next country north, something like the hot-potato game, to eventually become an American problem and not linger to become a domestic one.
That was the circumstance until President Donald Trump threatened them all with debilitating trade sanctions and loss of foreign aid unless they stopped the caravans by any means necessary. Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico all complied, including Mexico's notable deployment of some 10,000 troops on its border with Guatemala, which remains in place and has forcibly stopped every caravan since. In fact, all of the caravans since early 2019 met unruly ends, resulting in forced deportations aboard buses long before they got anywhere near the U.S. southern border.
But with Trump now out of office and that lever of force now in Biden's hands, the question becomes how the new president intends to incentivize those governments to continue that status quo and prevent a mass rush on the southern border under his watch.
An answer is now in hand, and we can make an informed guess as to what likely will happen with the next caravan, thanks to solid new reporting by Reuters journalists Laura Gottesdiener, Frank Jack Daniel, and Ted Hesson.
Biden Administration Privately Demanded Guatemala and Mexico Block Caravans
According to their February 12 report based on six U.S. and Mexican sources "with knowledge of diplomatic discussions", the Biden administration has been privately "encouraging" Mexico and Guatemala to keep up their border enforcement against northward migration just as they did under Donald Trump.
Reuters cited diplomats in saying it was "politically expedient" for the Biden administration to have those governments hold migrants at bay far from the southern border, especially during the pandemic. Reuters described its sources as saying that "any rush to the U.S. border could hand Biden's political opponents ammunition to sink the rest of his immigration agenda, which includes providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants already in the United States and reducing asylum application backlogs."
Meaning, by my estimation, that Biden is eager to avoid that choice between televised scenes of his own administration beating migrants, on the one hand, and on the other, letting them surge through the southern border in huge numbers without Covid-19 testing, while demanding Americans change their lifestyles to contain the virus.
Mexico and Guatemala appear to be ready to comply with the new administration's wishes that they stop this next caravan, according to other media reports.
Demanding Terrible Favors for a Luxury of "Political Expedience"
But the administration is demanding a terrible favor of these countries, which may explain why all of the officials cited in the Reuters story are anonymous. The White House refused to comment on the news outlet's report that Biden has pressured those governments to stop migration.
After Guatemala broke up the January caravan, international human rights organizations condemned that country's government and have pressured the country relentlessly to let the caravans through. Honduras, which blocked a December caravan by force but found it could not do so against the January caravan, accused Guatemala of human rights abuses for stopping it and called for an international investigation.
Reuters gamely notes that the Biden administration has not explicitly asked Mexico and Guatemala to use force against the caravan migrants, quoting one former government official "familiar with the matter":
They [Biden administration officials] want the relevant countries to have appropriate border controls. It doesn't mean that they hold everyone back and beat back migrants. That's not the objective here.
But no serious observer believes caravans can be stopped by any other means.
Since late 2018, only use of force in front of television cameras has proven effective in halting the caravans. Arguably, the violence is necessary to meet violence by caravanners trying to overpower police and troop barricades.
What this means is that the Biden administration has effectively demanded that these countries use force against the next migrant caravans for its own "political expedience", and that the countries that do so take all the heat from the international human rights community.
But why would they do that?
Big Aid Plan for Central America
If Biden is not threatening his southern neighbors with economic ruin to do all of this for Uncle Sam – that was Trump's repudiated big stick strategy – what leverage is he using then?
It appears as though Joe Biden will use the carrot rather than the stick to persuade other nations to use force to shut down the caravan threat. The biggest clue comes from the administration's earliest diplomatic talks with the involved southern neighbors. Those on all sides of these talks have always remained circumspect about what was said.
But what little has come out in public shows these talks always seemed to mix migration chit chat with banter about American money commitments to those countries.
Readers should draw their own conclusions from the fact that, in the midst of caravan-related hand-wringing just before and after taking office, the Biden people committed to giving $4 billion to the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, supposedly to address the so-called "root causes" of emigration, like hurricanes and systemic poverty.
And, in the days before Biden's inauguration, as the January caravan was on the move, his national security adviser pick, Jake Sullivan, reached out to Mexican officials to talk about migration. In the same breath he held out the promise of a "program for development in Mexico", supposedly to help out with an ailing economy due to the pandemic.
The Reuters story describes a Mexican government official as having informed the new administration that it intends to keep current immigration enforcement measures in place "because it is in Mexico's sovereign interest to secure its own borders."
An historic first, then.
Keep all of this in mind as this next caravan leaves Honduras and goes on to face the Guatemalan and perhaps Mexican militaries.
Should it be broken up by force, that will be on Biden, who will have adopted the exact goals and means of his hated predecessor. Border security hawks will be pleased with the end result, of fending off forever-caravans that would otherwise transfer whole populations from Central America over the southern border. But the main difference between Trump and Biden is that Biden likely will never come out to openly own it as Trump did.