By Jeff Abbott
Fernando Navarro, a twenty-six-year-old from a small town near La Ceiba, Honduras, sat with a small group of others from the Honduran coastal region outside the bus station in San Pedro. He was one of more than 100 people who had arrived there on January 14 to form the first large 2019 caravan of migrants and asylum seekers wanting to travel to Mexico and the United States.
Navarro grew up on the Honduran Caribbean coast, where from an early age he worked in tourism, fishing, and other ocean-based activities. But he did not make enough to support his family.
“I want to build a better future,” Navarro told me. “Here there is no security and there is no opportunity. It is difficult and hard. I’m going in order advance [economically].”
As the caravans left Honduras, López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, promised to provide protection for the caravans and opportunities for the migrants.
Navarro is hoping to make it to Baltimore, Maryland, where he has family.
“I am leaving my wife and five-month-old son,” he said. “This is difficult.”
Navarro arrived earlier that day and was prepared to spend the night waiting for others to arrive. But the group spontaneously began walking towards the border with Guatemala that night.
The caravans that began leaving Central America for destinations to the north in October 2018 have transformed into an exodus.
In the days that followed the caravan that left on January 14, for example, thousands of other people from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala also set out for Mexico and the United States. Most are fleeing violence and poverty, and in search of better opportunities.
On January 15, a caravan of more than 300 Hondurans gathered near La Ceiba before setting out to follow the group that left the night before.
Musician Mauricio Caballero is fleeing threats from Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13. He set out with hundreds of others from San Pedro Sula.
“There are threats from the gangs,” Caballero told me. “They asked me to transport drugs for them in my musical equipment, but I fled in order to protect my family. I had to leave my family for nearly twenty years. I fear for my children and the future they will have.”
Caballero had migrated to the United States in 2006 to escape threats from the gang, but he was deported in 2017. Upon returning to Honduras, he cut his beard and hair, and went into hiding.
When he learned about the second caravan, Caballero quickly made the decision to go along. “The gangs do not forget or pardon,” he said.
The caravans have moved quickly and grown larger as they advance. Along the way, they tend to fracture into smaller groups, with some taking buses, hitchhiking, or just walking in the direction of the border with Mexico.
On January 18, thousands of Central American migrants and asylum seekers began to arrive at the Guatemala border with Mexico. There they found a much different environment than the previous caravans.
Since the new government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador took over on December 1, Mexico has taken a different approach to the crisis of the exodus of Central Americans. During the previous administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, caravans were met by Mexican federal police in riot gear. But the administration of López Obrador has welcomed the Central Americans, speeding up the process to apply for a humanitarian visas and the opportunity to work in Mexico.
As the caravans left Honduras, López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, promised to provide protection for the caravans and opportunities for the migrants. He has made it easier for migrants obtain visas that let them live, work, and travel freely in Mexico for one year, with the option to renew the visa in the future.
More than 15,000 immigrants from Central America, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Ecuador, and Angola applied for humanitarian visas between January 18 and January 29. By February 1, over 8,000 humanitarian visas were issued by the Mexican National Immigration institute, according to the agency.
Mexican economy has seen improvements, and a labor shortage has led officials to encourage the immigrants to stay and work in Mexico.
The migrants waiting in the Guatemalan border town of Ayutla, San Marcos, faced rising tensions as they waited on the asylum process. On January 27, a number of residents of the municipality evicted Honduran and Salvadoran migrants from the town’s central plaza. The asylum seekers sought refuge on the border’s other side.
The Mexican government of AMLO sped up the application process for applying for the humanitarian visa, from a month to five days. The expedited visa process was initially going to be a temporary policy for the current caravans, but the New York Times suggests that it will be maintained in the future.
The Mexican government has closed applications for the humanitarian visa, but continues to process visas for those who have applied. It is unclear if or when the application process will be opened again.
Meanwhile, the United States has taken steps to expel immigrants waiting on its asylum process.
On January 30, the Trump Administration began sending Central American asylum applicants to Tijuana, Mexico to await their court hearings, rather than allowing them into the United States. Meanwhile, the Defense Department announced plans for another increase in the number of soldiers deployed on the U.S. southern border with Mexico.
Many in the caravans continue to hope to reach the United States, but some have decided to stay in Mexico. Douglas Iritano, from Mixco, Guatemala, is considering this option.
“We hope that the new president of Mexico will create more opportunity,” he said. “If we cannot immigrate to the United States, than Mexico is another option. Mexico is very beautiful.”