One year later: The unpredicted legacy of the migrant caravan

One year later: The unpredicted legacy of the migrant caravan

Originally published by The Sndiego Union Tribune

The images and stories captivated the world’s attention.

An exhausted 4-year-old collapsed to the ground, crying, her tiny legs unable to carry her another step.

Thousands of Central Americans, each with their own unique personal story, many from Honduras and fleeing gang violence, gathered at the base of a tall, yellow fence at the border with Mexico in Tecún Umán, Guatemala, ready to break it down. The crowd stretched as far down the road as anyone could see.

APphoto_Central America Migrant Caravan

A year later, some of those iconic images and stories cannot be forgotten, even as the people in the caravan that arrived in Tijuana on Nov. 19, 2018 have scattered in different directions of the world: some making tentative and fragile lives in the United States; some back in Honduras; some working and living in Tijuana; still hoping for their chance at the American Dream.

“I still have faith I will get a chance to make a life,” said David Enamorado, a 22-year-old from Honduras who arrived in Tijuana last November. Working this past year for 12-hours a night in a nearby maquiladora or factory, Enamorado said he is waiting for his turn to make an initial U.S. asylum claim.

He said he did not put his name on Tijuana’s giant wait list to approach U.S. border officials when he first arrived.

“I was hoping to find a sponsor first in the United States because none of my family (there) will help me,” said Enamorado, who said a man pulled a knife on him in Honduras, putting it to his throat and threatening to kill him for being gay.

Enamorado said he is still hoping to find a sponsor in the U.S. — someone who will assure the U.S. government he will continue appearing at his asylum hearings and support him financially as his case proceeds through court.

The notoriety of the 2018 and 2019 caravans that arrived in this region was fueled partly by the attention of President Donald Trump, who tweeted regularly about it, as it made its way north through Mexico ahead of the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6, 2018.

Trump labeled the people in the caravan “invaders,” and deployed American soldiers to the border, foreshadowing a confrontation that brewed for weeks before U.S. border agents deployed tear gas on asylum-seekers in Tijuana the day after Thanksgiving.

The Trump administration made sweeping changes to the U.S. asylum system in response to the migrant caravans. Many of the initiatives are still being challenged in court. Mexico has also changed its approach to immigration as a result. It recently used its National Guard to stop a caravan of about 2,000 people, mostly from Africa, from traveling northward.

“Already, there are so many Op-Eds being written in Mexico and commentaries on television that Mexico has essentially become the wall for the United States. Rather than following through on Donald Trump’s promise to make Mexico pay for the wall, Mexico is the wall for the United States and it will essentially stop migrants from coming up through the country,” Duncan Wood, the Director of the Mexico Institute at The Wilson Center, told Bloomberg News in June 2019.

The caravan’s far-reaching impacts could hardly have been predicted when the Central Americans started their journey.

On October 13, 2018, the original group of about 1,000 set out from San Pedro Sula, Honduras “with nothing more than a suitcase full of dreams,” reported the Spanish-language newspaper El Heraldo. Thousands joined them as the caravan swelled in numbers moving northward.

Many would later say leaving their home was a matter of life or death.

“I’m not going to leave this world for lack of struggling. I’m going to fight for my life,” a migrant from Guatemala recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Others wanted to bring the world’s attention to the violence and oppression they faced in the North American Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Some wanted to highlight the oppression migrants face from other countries when they flee for their lives, a goal experts say they largely achieved.

“There are sick children here, and we are cold and hungry,” Carlos Lopez said last year. Lopez, a Honduran, led a group to the El Chaparral border crossing on Thanksgiving Day in 2018. At the time, he said it was inappropriate to shelter the women and children outside in the muddy, makeshift Benito Juárez shelter in Tijuana.

“The whole world is watching what is happening here,” he said.

Through all the desperation and harsh conditions, some of the most unforgettable moments were the ones of tenderness, community, and unparalleled resilience amid seemingly hopeless circumstances.

There was the barber who set up shop in El Barretal, a vacant event space in the outskirts of Tijuana turned into a shelter.

And a white flag signaling peace that waved in front of the caravan’s marches to the line at the El Chapparal point of entry on the other side of San Ysidro.

Couples fell in love and people from the LGBTQ community said they found acceptance for the first time in their lives.

Even this past week, groups of Central American migrant children, some as young as 3-years-old, organized themselves into temporary classrooms in a Tijuana shelter. They sat in a circle Thursday, teaching each other what they remember of mathematics in the absence of any formal system for schooling for this past year.

Yenni López,a 32-year-old migrant from Honduras, came north with the caravan that arrived in Playas de Tijuana in October 2018, just before the larger group arrived. It was a trip she had already made several times before.

López, a member of the LGBTQ community, is now the director of the Tu Casa shelter in Tijuana. Before last year’s caravan, she said she made the more than 4,000-mile trek to Tijuana from San Pedro Sula three times, starting when she was 14-years-old.

Each time she got deported from the United States for entering illegally, she said she would leave Honduras the next day making her way right back to the U.S.-Mexico border. She said, as a lesbian woman and now an outspoken advocate for migrants, she fears she will be killed at home.

Knowing the journey well, López said she helped members of the 2018 caravan make it to the U.S. border.

“I would give them encouragement and say ‘Come on!’ You only have a little more to go,” she said.

During a prior trip, she became best friends with a transgender woman named Roxsana.

“We were like sisters. We would share the same plate of food. We were so close,” recalled López. This week, López flipped through pictures on her phone of her and Roxsana and others who bonded together as they made their journey to Tijuana.

Her friend Roxsana died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in May 2018 from complications associated with HIV. An independent autopsy released days after the larger caravan arrived in Tijuana in November 2018 found Roxsana had suffered “deep hemorrhaging of the soft tissues and muscles over her ribs.”

López said the fate of her friend drives her to keep fighting for people to understand the plight of migrants around the world.

Alfonso Guerrero Ulloa is the Honduran migrant who caused an uproar last year by marching to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana and delivering a letter that suggested the U.S. should pay $50,000 to each person to return home. He said he is still in south Mexico, awaiting a response from the U.S. to his demand.

“The only answer I got out of that letter was them arresting me and holding me prisoner. That was the only answer I had from that letter,” said Guerrero this week. He did not want to disclose his exact location but said he was still in Mexico.

Guerrero said though he raised important issues in his letter that have yet been unanswered, like the United States’ role in the humanitarian crisis in Honduras, he doesn’t regret it. He said the U.S. pledged billions of dollars in investment to develop Central America, along with Mexico.

And, the caravan successfully drew the attention of the U.S. media to the corruption in the Honduran government, he said.

Pointing to the national coverage of the drug trafficking trial of Tony Hernandez, the brother of Honduras’ president, arrested in November 2018, Guerrero said he accomplished some of his goal.

But that national coverage did not completely change the hearts and minds of everyone.

Paloma Zuniga, a dual U.S. and Mexican citizen, became the face of the opposition to the migrant caravan in Tijuana, selling red “Make Tijuana Great Again,” hats.

A year later, she said her views about the migrant caravan have softened, somewhat.

“It was very impactful,” she said, agreeing that it caused lasting changes.

“We actually got to know a lot of the migrants. A lot of them are good people. I got to know a lot of them personally at the shelters,” said Zuniga, who said she remains in contact with about four people she met last year in Tijuana.

She said she is raising a black lab puppy that a man brought from Honduras and could no longer care for in the shelters. The puppy, named TJ Chapulin, now weighs more than 100 pounds, she said.

Even though Zuniga conceded her opinion about some of the migrants who arrived in Tijuana last year did change somewhat, she still disagrees with what they were trying to do, which she described as “using Tijuana as a trampoline to get to the United States.”

“We showed the rest of Mexico we weren’t going to allow this to happen,” she said.

For people still waiting in Mexico or the United States, life remains in limbo much like it was when they first arrived in Tijuana a year ago.

Michel, a migrant who made it across to San Diego, said every day he worries about whether he will get to keep his job in his restaurant and where he can live long-term, after his asylum case is resolved. He declined to give his last name for fear that talking to the media would hurt his asylum chances.

“I just wake up every day and thank God I have this opportunity. God has blessed me. I am thankful for those who have supported us along the way,” said Michel.

In Tijuana, Isreal Greñaldo Silva from El Salvador is also praying. His prayers are for the life of his unborn son who is due any moment.

Silva and his partner, who did not want to be identified, went to a hospital in Tijuana on Thursday seeking prenatal care, but they said they were turned away. They hope when labor begins someone will help them deliver the baby in a hospital or medical setting.

“My biggest hope? I just want him to have the opportunity to be born and grow old,” said Silva.

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