Before José Luis Hernández, a thirty-two-year-old Honduran, settled in Los Angeles, he had tried three times to come to the United States. When he was sixteen, after gangsters in Honduras threatened to kill him, he made the trip with two other boys, but they were attacked by extortionists at the Mexican border, robbed, and eventually apprehended by Mexican authorities. (“We were like three little sheep thrown to ten lions,” he said.) Two years later, he undertook the journey again, this time with a slightly larger group. In Mexico, he fell from a moving freight train—part of a network that spans the country known as the Beast—and lost an arm, half of one leg, and part of his left hand. Once more he was deported to Honduras. When he finally left the hospital, after a two-year recovery, Hernández began planning another trip. “If we don’t risk anything, we don’t live,” he told me. “There aren’t any other options.” In 2015, he joined a group of disabled Honduran asylum seekers who called themselves the Caravan of the Mutilated, and together they reached Texas.
I called Hernández earlier this week because Donald Trump had just learned that, after a similar episode in April, a large group of Honduran migrants was once again heading north toward the U.S. The President’s ranting began, on Twitter, as the group crossed the Guatemalan border, still about a thousand miles south of Texas. Trump called them “criminals,” blamed their trip on “open border” Democrats, vowed to “close our southern border,” and threatened to cut off aid to all the Central American governments who had “no control over their population.” Late last week, when the migrants first gathered in San Pedro Sula, in northern Honduras, the group consisted of roughly six hundred people; by Wednesday, their ranks had swelled to around four thousand. “This is how it works,” Hernández told me. “People making the trip see others, they see the bigger group, and they join it. These are people fleeing for their lives. It’s not some coördinated, political thing.”
An agreement among the governments of Central America allows citizens of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua to move freely across the countries’ borders without the need for passports. But they still have to go through government checkpoints along the way, where Trump’s aggressive posturing has had an immediate effect. On Tuesday, Guatemalan police arrested a Honduran journalist named Bartolo Fuentes, the host of a popular radio program on migration, who was accused by the Honduran government of having organized the caravan. (Fuentes was released on Friday; by most accounts, he was covering the caravan in its early stages as a journalist.) According to Fuentes and his wife, U.S. Embassy officials were present for his arrest, which would be highly irregular, not least because the penalty for failing to present oneself to immigration authorities in Guatemala is a thirty-dollar fine but no jail time. (A spokesperson for the State Department told me that no U.S. Embassy personnel were present.)
The Honduran government, headed by a U.S. ally named Juan Orlando Hernández, has vilified Fuentes as a political actor, emphasizing the fact that, between 2013 and 2017, he served in Congress as a member of an opposition party called libre. If Trump has the Democrats to scapegoat, Juan Orlando Hernández has libre, and both leaders stand to gain from portraying the humanitarian crisis as a political one. One piece of widely disseminated government propaganda described Fuentes as “a professional coyote,” or smuggler, and it dismissed the migrants’ caravan as a political ploy by an opposition party to “hurt the image of the [Honduran] government.” The head of the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, Heide Fulton, validated these attacks in an address posted on Twitter, where she urged migrants not to be “deceived by false promises made by leaders with political aims.”
Hernández, in particular, has reason to be defensive: in November, with the Americans’ backing, he won reëlection despite international outcry over massive and demonstrable fraud. (An official working for a company hired by the government to tabulate the ballot data told me, “It was an old-school hijacking—stuffing votes in ballot boxes.”) When one migrant on the caravan heard about Trump’s threat to cut aid to governments in the region, he said, in a video that subsequently circulated online, “[Trump] is not taking anything away from me. The person he would be taking money from is Juan Orlando Hernández, who’s been grabbing it for himself.”
Donald Trump, who’s been stumping for congressional Republicans, is now calling the November midterms the “election of the caravan,” and says that the Democrats support the “illegal immigration onslaught” because they “figure everybody coming in is going to vote Democrat.” For his Administration, the political rhetoric and the policy agenda are effectively indistinguishable. In the last several months, over the objections of regional experts and diplomatic staff, officials at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security have wound down a number of programs meant to provide legal relief to those seeking refuge in the U.S. This summer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions unilaterally redrew decades of jurisprudence on asylum law to make it significantly more difficult for migrants fleeing gang violence and domestic abuse to seek asylum. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of migrants from Central America continue to stream north, fleeing conditions that the Trump Administration has dismissed as irrelevant.
For all the Administration’s avowals of toughness, none of its strategies has helped stem the flow. According to unpublished government data obtained by the Washington Post, Border Patrol has apprehended more than a hundred thousand migrants in the last year, which is about thirty thousand more arrests than the previous peak, in 2016. The rationale for the President’s harshest measures, from the indefinite detention of asylum seekers to the separation of families at the border, was that they would deter other migrants from making the trip. The government’s own data contradicts that, and so Trump’s enforcement policy is stuck in a feedback loop: he’s been defending actions that haven’t changed migration patterns, while simultaneously citing a “border crisis” as the reason to double down.
The fact that more people are coming to the U.S. appears to have caused a heated argument at the White House on Thursday between Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, and his national-security adviser, John Bolton. The disagreement did not, by any account, involve how the Administration could do more to address the underlying causes of regional migration. Rather, it was a political spat over the performance of Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security and a protégé of Kelly. According to one former Administration official with knowledge of the conversation, Kelly became “incensed” when Bolton criticized Nielsen’s handling of the caravan and told Kelly that “if she can’t do something about it, then you better do it.”
For months, the President has blamed Nielsen for the increase in immigration, even though she’s been a reliable enforcer of Trump’s agenda. In April, Nielsen and Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy at the border, which gave rise to the family-separation crisis during the spring and summer. Eventually, after national protests and the intervention of a federal judge, the Trump Administration announced an end to the practice of separating families. But, in July, a group of top Administration officials, reporting to Stephen Miller, began meeting at the headquarters of Customs and Border Protection, in Washington, to devise a new and more expansive set of enforcement policies. Last week, amid reports that the President had considered resuming family separation at the border, Trump told “60 Minutes,” “Well, we’re looking at a lot of things. What I can say is this: there are consequences from coming into a country, namely our country, illegally.”
The problem, as José Luis Hernández, in Los Angeles, pointed out when we spoke Thursday, was that there was nothing illegal about the caravan. The migrants had, at that point, broken no laws and were exercising internationally protected rights to seek refuge. Like others in the past, this caravan will likely disperse as the migrants reach Mexico, which, since 2015, has deported more people back to Central America than the U.S. government. Under pressure from the U.S. to stop the group from advancing, the Mexican government said it would offer some form of relief to most of the migrants in the caravan, but that it would only allow a few hundred of them to petition for asylum each day. (“These people are in great need,” Mexico’s Ambassador to Guatemala told the Wall Street Journal. “The border is not closed.”) On Friday afternoon, when the group arrived at Mexico’s southern border, hundreds of migrants tore down a thin metal fence and entered the country as some five hundred federal policemen looked on.
“The history of these caravans goes back to the late nineteen-nineties,” Hernández explained. “They began as groups of mothers travelling together to search for their kids—their daughters and sons—who had disappeared while travelling north through Guatemala and Mexico.” Hernández, who is far angrier with the President of Honduras, whom he faulted for exacerbating the violence, poverty, and corruption racking the country, than he is with Trump, said that the symbolism of these caravans was inseparable from their practical necessity. “No one ever wants to migrate,” he said. “The whole thing is a fight not to become invisible.”