Migrant Caravan: It's Not about Persecution, but about Destination

By Nayla Rush on April 5, 2018

"Family reunification disguised as refugee resettlement" is how I described the constant flows of unaccompanied minors from Central America illegally crossing the border from Mexico to the United States to claim asylum. In other words, these minors used the refugee umbrella to join their families already in the United States.

Unaccompanied minors did not even meet the refugee status requirements by UNHCR's own appraisal. The Migration Policy Institute had also concluded that "being forced to join a gang or experiencing violence do not generally qualify as a basis for refugee status or fall readily into one of the refugee definition categories."

The caravan of people from Central America heading to the U.S. that has been in the news recently is not made up of unaccompanied minors (most are women with their children – perhaps on their way to meet their husbands in the U.S.) but my point still applies here. Those leaving their countries for a "better life" in the U.S. are generally not refugees.

Reuters covered the caravan migrants' determination on their way to the U.S.: "Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are among the most violent and impoverished countries in the Americas, prompting many people to leave in search of a better life."

The system is well known: Turn yourself in to U.S. officials and ask for asylum, then disappear as you await your day in court. The asylum backlog is already untenable (300,000 cases to date), as USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna explained last October. New claims can only put more pressure on a program with limited resources and harm asylum seekers already in the U.S. who are waiting (some of them for years) for their case adjudications.

Let us assume some members in the caravan have sufficient grounds for refugee status. If they don't want to apply for asylum in Mexico, where they are now, why not apply for asylum at Costa Rica's refugee processing center, a center set up (and funded, for the most part) by the U.S. under the Obama administration in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM)? The aim of the center was to process asylum seekers in their own region and offer individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras a safe and legal alternative to a dangerous journey to the U.S.

President Obama helped set up a specific refugee processing program in Costa Rica for Central American individuals who generally do not qualify as refugees. The people in the caravan can at least head there for protection. Assuming this center is no longer open (or just running on limited capacity), Costa Rica, a country now considered a leader in the treatment of refugees, can still be a safe haven for those who claim asylum. But they spurn these other, closer options and choose America instead.

It's almost as if persecution was never the issue, the destination was.