The Honduran government called on 2,000 immigrants Tuesday to give up their trek north and return home, just hours after President Trump threatened to withhold $65 million in U.S. money if the country’s leaders don’t find a way to head off the caravan.
Honduras’s foreign ministry, in a statement reported by local news, said the caravan was being politically manipulated in order to make the country look bad, just days after leaders were in Washington promising better cooperation with the Trump administration.
But no matter what happens with this caravan, security experts say the U.S. is already being flooded with other caravans with hundreds of people on a near-daily basis, and that shows no signs of stopping.
They said it’s quickly becoming a repeat of the worst days of illegal immigration from two decades ago, when Border Patrol agents regularly nabbed border-jumping groups of hundreds of people.
“We’re seeing the explosion again,” said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council.
The Honduran caravan began in notoriously violent San Pedro Sula late last week with about 1,000 people, and has now reached 2,000 people as word of mouth spread, according to local news reports. The caravan busted through the border into Guatemala this week, defying that country’s border guards, who’d initially tried to stop the flow.
DOCUMENT: Northward bound
Video showed the migrants marching along Guatemalan streets, headed for Chiquimula, where they were expected to remain Tuesday night.
Mr. Trump via Twitter on Tuesday that Honduras had to find a way to bring the people back, or else “no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately!”
Vice President Mike Pence delivered that message personally in a phone call to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, and also warned Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to do what he can to dissuade the caravan.
The $65 million the administration had proposed for Honduras in 2019 amounts to about 1.5 percent of the country’s total government revenue.
Hours later the Honduran ministry issued a nine-point statement pleading for the caravan to “desist,” and warning would-be immigrants they’re being duped by the organizers to make a “political” statement.
Mexico is also vowing a stiff response should the caravan continue on, attempting to traverse its territory en route to the U.S. A Mexican federal police commissioner headed to the border along with hundreds of personnel to be prepared to confront the group.
SEE ALSO: Donald Trump warns Honduras to stop migrant caravan headed for U.S.
The mass movements mark a return to the days of more than a decade ago, when Border Patrol agents would regularly encounter large groups of Mexican men jumping the border.
The demographics have changed — now, it’s mothers, fathers and children from Central America who make up most of the caravans — but the challenge to agents remains as difficult, drawing them away from line watch duties to process the families, leaving other areas of the border vulnerable to intrusion.
Caravans sprang to public attention earlier this year when one set out from Central America for the U.S. in the spring, arriving in northern Mexico just before Easter. Under intense pressure from the U.S., Mexican authorities worked to cut the size of the caravan, pushing some migrants back across their own southern border and offering asylum in Mexico to others.
Still, hundreds of the migrants did reach the U.S. border, exposing the holes in American border security.
Soon after, the Trump administration rolled out its zero tolerance policy, which involved prosecuting and jailing illegal immigrants for at least a day or two. But with no space to hold families in the criminal justice system, it meant the children were removed from parents’ custody in more than 2,000 cases — resulting in the family separation crisis that dealt a black eye to Homeland Security and Justice Department officials.
The administration is reportedly pondering another attempt at a crackdown.
For now, though, officials say the best solution to stopping caravans is for Congress to change the laws and reduce incentives for adults to bring children on the dangerous journey.
“Smugglers and traffickers know our loopholes well,” said Katie Waldman, spokeswoman for Homeland Security.
The loopholes she spoke of are perverse incentives under the law — including a 2015 court ruling — that push the government to give more lax treatment to adults who show up with children. Under that court decision, in a case known as the Flores Settlement, the government is supposed to release children caught with their parents at the border within 20 days.
Since it’s impossible to judge children’s cases in that short time, and since judges say children should be kept with their parents, that means the entire family is usually released from custody, and quickly disappears into the shadows.
Of the more than 75,000 people who came as families in 2017, only slightly more than 1 percent have been deported, Homeland Security says.
The trend toward showing up as caravans is another sign that the migrants don’t feel any consequences, officials say — at least not from U.S. law.
Smugglers and the elements are another story.
Agents in Arizona got an emergency call from Mexican authorities in June, who reported they’d received an emergency call about a large group struggling in the desert. Agents would find 57 Central Americans, including a one-year-old girl, in the 108-degree heat.
In August, agents in Arizona found a caravan of 128 people, with children as young as four, who’d been abandoned by their smuggler.
A month later, agents came across 275 people traveling in groups in southern Arizona. Twenty of them had to be taken to the hospital suffering everything from ankle injuries from being dropped over the border wall to lice infestation or impetigo, a highly contagious skin infection that mainly strikes infants and children.
The same day in Texas, agents found a group of 170 people, all parents and children, who demanded to be arrested. It turned out smugglers were using that group as a distraction while they tried to send other illegal immigrants across the border elsewhere.
Mr. Judd, a border patrol agent himself, said that happens regularly, and it can take 10 to 15 agents to process a group of 100 people — taking them off the line.
“What they do is they artificially create holes that they can then smuggle their higher profit behind us,” he said. That higher-value cargo is usually drugs or adult illegal immigrants paying higher fees.
Not that the families don’t pay either, though. They still pay the “mafia fee” of perhaps $1,000 to $2,000 to cross the border itself, then turn themselves in knowing the government will quickly release them into the country.
“It’s a brilliant strategy on the cartels’ part,” Mr. Judd said.