Fleeing gang violence, poverty, and persecution, citizens from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras began a 2,500 mile journey to the United States border. According to BBC News, the migrants said their goal is to gain citizenship in the United States. Beginning in early October, over 7,000 people fled their home countries in what has been coined the “migrant caravan.” The caravan arrived on Tuesday Nov. 13, and was met with strong military resistance at the border. Currently, the caravan is housed in shelters near Tijuana and Mexicali. However, Mexican government officials have denied allowing the caravan to take refuge in shelters.
When the migrants got to the border and tried to rush past the guards and climb a fence on Nov. 25, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Kirstjen Nielsen issued a statement that the migrants were “throwing projectiles at [border patrol personnel].” Nielsen also said that the United States will “seek to prosecute” people trying to illegally cross into the country. In an attempt to secure the safety of the border, Nielsen said that DHS is going to “shut down ports of entry [for] security and public safety reasons.” Chief U.S. Border Patrol Agent Rodney Scott said the U.S. had arrested 42 migrants; in addition, Mexican Immigration Authority Director Gerardo Garcia stated that 98 people from the caravan have been arrested by Mexican authorities.
The caravan arrived at the U.S. border trying to seek asylum. PBS reports that anyone from any country has the right to seek asylum in the U.S. if they are “claiming to have fled their countries out of fear of persecution over their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Asylum seekers gained formal protection in 1980 when the U.S. adopted the Refugee Act. The U.S. also participated in the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951. To apply for asylum, a refugee fills out Form I-589, which explains the persecution the person is fleeing from in their home country. “When people ask about immigrants and they say ‘why could they not come the right way’ — there is no right way, and it goes back to a lot of privilege,” said the Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at Whittier College Jenny Guerra.
DHS has reported a large increase in the number of people seeking asylum. In 2012, 43,312 people applied for asylum. In 2017, 141,695 people applied for asylum. As of January, DHS released a report that listed over 330,000 people have applications for asylum currently in the system. People from the caravan who are seeking a better life but do not meet the criteria of persecution needed to apply for asylum. “Just because their case got declined does not mean they do not deserve status,” said Guerra.
USA Today reported that only 100 applications for asylum can be processed at the border each day. This wait has been suspected to contribute to the tensions that arose on Nov. 25, when people seeking asylum turned a peaceful protest into a massive storm towards the border in an attempt to get through Border Patrol agents. The protestors were met with tear gas and began to throw debris at Border Patrol.
President Trump tweeted his immigration stance on Nov. 26, writing, “Mexico should move the flag-waving migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries. Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it anyway you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!” President Trump’s claim that many of the migrants are “stone cold criminals” echoes a statement made by Vice President Mike Pence in a speech given in October. “It’s inconceivable,” said Pence, “that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people.” USA Today commented that, “the administration has not provided any details on caravan members it considers criminals or how it got that information.”.
Guerra organized a donation collection for the migrants on Nov. 30 with her friends. They asked for hygiene products, socks, undergarments, gently-used jackets and sweaters, monetary donations, water, and canned food. Students were also able to donate money via the Venmo application to Guerra, who went down to the border to deliver the donations from the College.
In total, Guerra collected over $650 for the migrants. While Guerra’s actions were not taken in affiliation with the College, the majority of the donations came from Whittier faculty and staff. Talking about the overall experience, Guerra wants people to be cognizant that, “We have been socialized to think that [it] is dangerous . . . and it was not. I felt safe.”
Guerra donated the items to Enclave Caracol, the only LGBTQIA+ friendly organization in Tijuana. She also translated their mission statement: Enclave Caracol “is an autonomous social space in downtown Tijuana that is used for workshops, art, and community events. In 2012, volunteers started Tijuana Food No Bombs (Tijuana Comida No Bombas) — a free public dinner made of food rescued from waste — in protest of the borders and militarization that have created migration, deportation, and the inaccessibility of food, and in solidarity with those who do not have a meal. The space is also an important resource to those who face other problems in the community: the lack of safe spaces for womxn and LGBTQ[IA+] people, the absence of spaces for music of all ages, and the inaccessibility of education and the arts.”
“There [are] a lot of layers going into community and there is a lot of police presence,” said Guerra. Guerra believes the use of tear gas on anyone is inhumane, and, when talking about the use of tear gas on the refugees, Guerra said, “It is inhumane in terms of the way [the U.S. government is] trying to handle the situation, and it’s heartbreaking to see.”
Guerra believes the situation at the border impacts students at Whittier when looking at the demographic breakdown. There is a possibility a new student next year could have been a part of this movement, or that current students have family that were a part of the caravan. “I think as educators it is very important to think of the trauma they are going through and the needs they have,” said Guerra. “Next year, a student could enroll in Whittier College having just come from this experience.”