Commentary: “Hey how is the migrant caravan of Central Americans coming north through Mexico affecting you?” This is a question I am being asked almost daily by people who don’t live here on the U.S.-Mexico border. It relates to the latest wave of migrants who have left countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to trek north, partly by foot, partly by hitching rides, to get to what they see as the promised land – the United States. Estimates of the caravan’s size range from 4,000 up to 10,000 people. Even though incidents have occurred necessitating the use of force against some more aggressive members of the caravan, the overwhelming majority do not intend to climb the border fence or swarm over agencies such as the Border Patrol. Most want to legally apply for asylum hoping that their stories of death and insecurity at the hands of corrupt officials or gangs will help them gain admittance to the U.S.
Mexico is bearing the brunt of dealing with the migrants as they are ending up in northern cities such as Tijuana and Juarez. The Mayor of Tijuana has declared the situation a humanitarian crisis and has reached out to the United Nations for help. Makeshift space has been made for the migrants to sleep in places such as stadiums, and officials are doing their best to feed and provide medical care for the group. How the incoming Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will deal with this situation is still unclear.
The current caravan has been cast as “an invasion” and infiltrated with “bad guys,” (presumably gang members) by President Trump. However, similar caravans have come to the U.S. border in recent years and have been efficiently and professionally handled by U.S. federal officials from agencies such as the Border Patrol. This particular caravan was conveniently used by politicians as the poster child to seek money for the border wall or to rant about the need to seal the border with Mexico. National Guard troops were sent to the border in response, not to physically apprehend immigrants illegally crossing the border, but to assist Border Patrol officers with surveillance. Members from fringe groups calling themselves everything from Minutemen to Freedom Fighters have driven their campers to the border to assist in the effort to seal the border. Most find that they are unwanted in border communities which have strong familial and personal relationships with sister communities in Mexico.
These migrants reflect the failed economic and security policies of their home nations.
It is heartbreaking to see the terrible desperation of these people who would leave everything they know and walk across Mexico, one of the biggest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with the hope upon reaching the U.S. border that their request for asylum would be granted and they could start a new life filled with opportunities. Given the anti-immigrant slant that the Trump administration has taken, it is probable that very few of the migrants will ever be granted asylum. Some will stay in Mexico and many will return home, back to the situations that forced them to leave.
And unfortunately, the caravan couldn’t have arrived at a worse time. It is the Christmas season and hundreds of thousands of people are crossing the border to spend time with their families. Lines at the ports of entry traditionally are long this time of year, and crossing times tend to get longer. Having the migrants occupy space around the port crossings and the focus of federal officers will add to the traffic jams and waiting times.
The caravan is also disruptive to commerce. Customs and Border Patrol agents from Texas and New Mexico have been temporarily reassigned to ports of entry in Arizona and California where members of the caravan have arrived. This means that fewer Customs agents will be available to process northbound commercial traffic at the border during the month before Christmas. This in turn will cause delays in shipments due to longer crossing times. For many companies, this is their busiest time of year.
How the migrant caravan situation will finally be resolved is anybody’s guess. Previous caravans have seen some members return to their countries, while others have been absorbed into Mexican society. At minimum, members of the caravan need to question the logic of their leaders that simply marching to the border would buy their entry into the U.S., especially given the isolationist slant of the Trump administration. Huge manufacturing cities such as Tijuana and Juarez are currently experiencing tight labor markets and they could do well to utilize migrant labor, even if it is not long-term. This could be a win-win situation for all.
Jerry Pacheco is Executive Director of the International Business Accelerator, a non-profit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network, and the President/CEO of the Border Industrial Association. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or firstname.lastname@example.org