Most of the people arriving at the U.S. border as part of a bold exodus are historically excluded Central Americans who are revolutionizing the way people migrate south to north.
These caravans of thousands mark a dramatic shift for poor and marginalized people, who for decades have made this journey alone, or in family groups – begging and borrowing the small fortunes they pay smugglers to guide them.
Traveling en masse ensures they will not be ignored.
Clearly, it’s not without peril. Members of the caravan are being met with growing resistance in Tijuana, where that city’s mayor has declared a humanitarian crisis. Conditions escalated on Sunday when U.S. authorities closed the busiest port of entry there and fired tear gas on refugees and migrants who had rushed the fencing between the two countries.
Each year, untold numbers of these refugees and asylum seekers die in the desert before reaching the U.S., where they join the ranks of millions of undocumented immigrants helping to fuel the U.S. economy, toiling in agricultural fields in California or back of the house in New York City restaurants.
I know this firsthand because my own family was among them.
More than 40 years ago, my mother, brother, and I traveled from El Salvador and across three countries to reach the U.S. – much like the thousands of migrants and refugees who have been arriving in Tijuana.
Our family came to the U.S. to escape certain death at the hands of the Salvadoran military that was being funded by the U.S. to wage a war against the poor in El Salvador. The war left 75,000 people dead in a country the size of Massachusetts. Our family had left everything we owned and had borrowed money from family and friends to make the journey. Along the way, we were robbed and harassed, and ultimately jailed in the Sonora desert until my mother paid the Mexican military a large mordida, a bribe.
We paid a smuggler, a coyote, thousands of dollars to bring us across the U.S.-Mexico border. We risked our lives. In addition to the countless mass graves the Mexican government discovers along routes going north, hundreds of Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Honduran women and children can be found in brothels throughout Mexico – many of them human trafficking victims who had begun the journey in much the same way my own family had.
Many people ask: Why do we do this? Why do we risk this unfathomable journey, potential attacks by drug and human trafficking rings, harassment by the Mexican government, possible rejection at the U.S. border, and separation from our children?
And now in this new fashion?
The grim statistics about the economic hardships Hondurans or Salvadorans continue to face in their country no longer move people to action, nor does pointing out the history of U.S. involvement in the region. People have been hardened to the stories of atrocities by drug gangs against the innocent or the political instabilities that have uprooted countless lives.
By coming to the U.S. in such large numbers, migrants are loudly demanding to be seen and to have their legal rights to seek political asylum respected, not as individuals but as a class of disposed people.
Black Indigenous people suffer from discrimination and exclusion because many countries in the region do not even legally recognize their existence. Yet they, along with other Indigenous people and peasants of the region, are the ones most affected by poverty. These are the people who migrate out of desperation because they lack the means to provide for their families.
What is most meaningful about this new movement is that the marginalized have determined they will no longer collude in their own oppression by hiding their journeys.
Every step is a collective action to expose the failures of governments throughout the region. Their courageous, albeit dangerous, journey exposes the impact of U.S imperialism in countries where our government is directly implicated in multiple coups. They elucidate for us the trade policies that are grounded in economies of extraction, at the expense of local economies – all for the benefit of U.S. corporations.
Images of parents carrying toddlers on their shoulders as they cross rivers and of mothers lying on sidewalks comforting their children are in sharp contrast with the narratives the 45th president of the United States conjures up as he continues to sow hate, division, and lies.
Make no mistake: What is at stake here is our country’s values and our very own humanity as citizens and residents of the United States. Will we turn our backs on dispossessed families, or will we fight to uphold the aspirational principles on which this country was founded?
The time has come to see Latin American nations not as “shithole countries,” but as real partners in the geopolitical arena. This means creating trade and foreign-relations policies that support alternative and sustainable economic development, local industries, and the creation of jobs with a living wage. Policies focused on people, the planet, and the well-being of all people. We all deserve that.
This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.