Veronica Garcia has a straightforward plan: she is going to walk, with her small daughters, 2,900 kilometres dead north to the border between the United States and Mexico. And then she is going to explain, to President Donald Trump or whomever else she finds there waiting for her, how hard their lives were in Honduras − how she has raised five kids on her own, after their father abandoned them; how she works long, long hours at a churro stand but can’t pay the rent; how her older girls dream of college but she could never afford to send them; how her country gets more dangerous, more expensive, more hopeless, all the time.
“I’m sure, when he hears, he will take pity on us,” said Ms. Garcia, a sturdy 38-year-old with long dark hair and sun-darkened patches on her cheeks. “It will touch his heart. And he will let us in, and I can work, and my daughters can study.”
Among most of the 5,500 or so migrants from Central America who arrived here in the Mexican capital this past week, this is what counts as a plan. The migrant caravan that assembled in Honduras nearly a month ago has fuelled fierce debate about migration and asylum in North America, and attracted a mountain of media attention, but the travellers themselves are largely oblivious – and also almost uniformly ignorant of the law, and of their chances of crossing the border. Most are so poor, and so tired, and so desperate for something better, that it precludes dwelling too much on the details.
Mr. Trump issued an executive order on Friday barring anyone who enters into the U.S. anywhere but at a border crossing point from claiming asylum – an order that was immediately challenged in court by refugee-rights organizations.
The caravan paused this week in Mexico City to allow the travellers time to rest and recuperate. The current plan is for the migrants to set out for the border crossing at Tijuana; they have asked the Mexican government to supply buses to spare them several weeks’ walk, a request that has been repeatedly denied.
But it isn’t just buses they lack. None of the governments through whose territory the migrants have passed before this week made a concerted effort to provide the migrants with accurate information about asylum or immigration to the United States. The caravan assembled organically in Honduras, where people such as Ms. Garcia heard about it on the television news. The Honduran government didn’t do a blitz on migration realities. Guatemala allowed them to transit the country unhindered – and it is this border-crossing experience, a first for most of them, that has shaped much of the migrants’ perception of what it will be like to go to the U.S. − but also without information.
Mexican authorities did not systematically provide information when the caravan surged over the border into Chiapas. And it is only here that volunteer organizations have mobilized to try to make more of the realities clear.
Maddie Boyd, a legal intern from California working with Mexico’s Institute for Women in Migration as part of a team of bilingual volunteers who set up camp at the stadium this week to try to explain asylum law, said most of what they share seems brand new for migrants.
Her team has three critical pieces of information for would-be asylum seekers: that they should assume they will be held in detention for the duration of the time it takes to process their claim (between six months and two years, with the backlog growing continuously); that parents could face being separated from children (a policy that is currently suspended but which many migrant advocates expect could be reinstated imminently); and the grounds and evidence required to claim asylum. A person must be unable or unwilling to return to their home country because they have been persecuted there in the past, or have a well-founded fear that they will be persecuted if they go back. And that persecution must be based on one of five things: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The burden of proof required for such a claim is extremely high: Currently, fewer than 10 per cent of Central Americans are successful in making asylum claims in the U.S.
“The part about the time in detention, that they won’t be able to be working to support their families − that’s definitely a shock for people,” she said.
Ms. Boyd’s team also gives migrants information about staying in Mexico and their asylum options here. Inevitably, this new information leads some of the migrants to consider staying – and also to ask about Canada. “There’s a rumour that maybe Canada will send a plane or something, and just take people there,” Ms. Boyd said ruefully.
Mexico’s National Institute for Migration reports that 3,200 migrants from this caravan applied for asylum in Chiapas, when they entered the country; more may yet decide to stay as they receive additional information about the requirements for crossing into the U.S.
Rosa Reyes, 28, heard about the caravan leaving the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula just a week after her family got an ultimatum from the gang called Barrio 18. The gang demanded a payment of $325 − because they had decided that Ms. Reyes and her husband, Alex, 27, were “prospering” from their curbside vegetable stand. That’s as much as they made in a month, she said. If they paid it, there would be no new clothes for their five children, no school books − they couldn’t pay the rent. But if they didn’t pay, they were clear on the consequences. The caravan was a chance to travel north safely − a chance at a chance.
The trip has been hard − they push the two smallest kids in a double stroller, carry baby Haniel, and cajole the older two, 8 and 10, into walking. Ms. Reyes said she didn’t know what would happen at the border, or how the process works, but reasoned that she and her husband could demonstrate their willingness to work hard. “We will do any kind of job at all that they need, we can work and work,” she said. And that, she believes, might just be enough.
With a report from Karen Cota