Video: Why the 2020 Caravans Threaten the Fragile Success of Trump's Border Policies

By Todd Bensman on January 24, 2020

Just last Friday, on my last full day of reporting for the Center for Immigration Studies on the Mexico-Guatemala border, I found myself with the leading elements of the just-arrived, first migrant "caravan" of 2020. It was in Tecún Umán, the Guatemalan border town just on the other side of the Puente Rodolfo Robles International Bridge.

About 300-400 of the mostly young, male Hondurans, some of whom had donned masks after I began videotaping the crowd, were excitedly chanting "Hon-dur-as! Hon-dur-as! Hon-dur-as!" Guatemalan police had blocked them from the bridge over to Hidalgo, Mexico, for the time being. Which was fine, they told me, because the plan was to wait for more migrants to arrive and then push over the bridge in the morning and continue on north up Mexico's spine to the American border, just like past caravans. Everyone I interviewed said they were coming for jobs, except for one man who said he wanted American cancer treatment for the child at his side.

But the excitement visible in their faces and body language went dark fast, then dissolved into disbelieving glance exchanges as I explained to the dozen Hondurans surrounding me what I had just found over the previous week of reporting on the Mexican side. This time, I told the young men listening to me with keen interest now, they were going to run headlong into a new defensive bulwark the Mexicans had put up.

It was evident that these men, unbelievably, had not heard that Mexico now had the means, will, and preparation to stop the caravans by force on that bridge with riot troops and reinforced spiked gating I'd just inspected, but also that Mexico had built an inland national guard skein that would catch most everyone else and send them into a deportation machine that would transport their masses home by plane and bus. I said my reporting had just found that those who did manage to get through this particular area would not likely get anywhere near the American border due to an interlocking system of National Guard roadblocks throughout the Mexican border state of Chiapas that was proving pretty effective in feeding caught migrants back into the border deportation machine.

I told them those who didn't want to be deported had only the choice of applying for Mexican asylum, but that this would take many months, with success disqualifying them from making a U.S. asylum claim for years, and entrap them in southern Mexico during the long wait on pain of deportation, hemmed in by the national guard.

The caravanners, of course, heedlessly and violently charged right into this buzz saw anyway in a series of dramatic melees this week after I flew home, as can be seen from my CIS colleague Jason Peña's collection of reporting on the caravan's destruction and the mass deportations of its participating ranks. This particular caravan now stands broken and repulsed, as was one in October that fell upon the same Mexican shoals.

But the caravans keep forming and coming, defying deterrence in what appears to be a purposeful campaign to probe, test, and shake Mexico's will to stand fast.

America needs Mexico to do so, and the stakes in the outcome of these battles couldn't be higher for border security against mass illegal migration. Because while Americans and policymakers who oppose unfettered mass illegal immigration may feel relief or even take delight in the fates of these violent caravans, the relentless probing highlights the dependency on Mexico of President Donald Trump's successful initiatives that effectively ended the million-strong mass migration crisis of 2018-2019 and portends a resumption of that unwanted population transfer at any moment.

These caravans bring into sharp relief the fact that Mexico's cooperation forms the most important membrane standing between an unimpeded resumption of the crisis. And it's a thin one.

It should be pointed out that Mexico is doing all of this not out of friendship or informed self-interest, but under duress. With a Democratic House of Representatives blocking all legislative remedies to deter Central America's population transfers, President Trump had to scare Mexico into acting by threatening progressive trade tariffs of up to 25 percent on all exports if it did not stop the moving populations at its southern border.

Should even one of these testing, probing caravans be allowed to find and exploit a breach in the Mexican defense, or should President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) falter for a moment, many more will no doubt follow through the breach. That happening would quickly overwhelm the American deterrence policies such as the "Remain-in-Mexico" pushbacksof asylum applicants, the efficient administration of which depends on currently manageable volumes. The whole house of cards can fall on a Mexican political whim, or an unfortunate incident amplified by the media.

That day may well come anyway in November 2020, should Trump lose the election and his credible threat of debilitating tariffs leave the White House with him. With the tariff threat removed, AMLO might well return the national guard to their barracks and reopen his nation as the transit country it has always been.

That's why permanent legislative remedies are necessary to, for instance, reform U.S. asylum law, close certain incentivizing loopholes, and finish a barrier, among other needed permanent measures.

It's still unclear who organized these latest caravans and what their agenda is. That there is a political agenda at play here is almost beyond doubt, though while I was among the caravan migrants, I asked everyone I could who the leaders were and who was leading them to which locations. The answers I got back were typical: No one knew of any leader; they just heard about a new caravan on social media, then the regular media picked up on that, and a kind of herd formed up that kind of directed itself as to where to go.

But it seems likely that whoever is going onto social media and announcing new caravans is doing so well understanding the stakes involved in forming new ones that will continuously press and challenge the Mexicans to hold fast.

Yet another one is already on its way from Honduras, this one described as "massive" and "violent and lawless".

Until Congress legislates more permanent remedies, the Trump administration right now should be whispering in AMLO's ear that those trade tariffs are back on the table and would be far worse for Mexico than the violent and lawless people on their way to his border.