Who’s funding the migrant caravans?
In my reporting on Central American migrants, finding the answer has proven complicated
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Ever since I started reporting on the migrant crisis at the U.S. southern border, there’s a question I’ve been asking: Is somebody funding this mass migration? Is someone paying for these migrants’ travel, food, and shelter—and if so, who? What’s the agenda?
Over the months, I’ve heard many theories—some plausible, some not so much. I’ve heard Border Patrol agents wonder aloud if drug cartels are supporting the caravan movement in order to bombard the U.S. border with chaos, thus making it easier for them to sneak through (if so, it’s working). The U.S. Border Patrol is overwhelmed with the number of families and unaccompanied children seeking asylum between ports of entry, as I report in WORLD’s current issue. One agent who used to process credible-fear claims from apprehended migrants said many of them told him similar stories from the same town: “It just seems coached.”
That seems to be a common view among border security officers, who understandably feel unjustly vilified for simply doing their jobs. It’s interesting being a reporter handing her passport over at the port of entry and having an officer so eager to share his unsolicited opinions on the subject.
One customs officer asked me: “Why do you think these people are coming?”
I replied, “I don’t know. They tell me they’re fleeing violence and poverty, and someone told them there was a way to get asylum here in the U.S.”
“Ah!” the officer exclaimed. “I’m glad you said someone told them—because this is all happening all of a sudden, and someone is behind this.” Another officer in the next stall who overheard our conversation muttered that it was probably a far-left activist group. It reminded me of conspiracy theories I’ve heard about Marxist groups trying to derail our national structures.
I’ve spoken to a leader of one activist group that has faced the brunt of such accusations. Pueblo Sin Fronteras is a leftist group that helped organize at least three U.S.-bound migrant caravans in 2017 and early 2018. I met one leader, Alex Mensing, at the shelter he operates in a rural, hilly part of Tijuana.
Mensing is a lanky 30-year-old from San Francisco with a scraggly beard and flannel shirt, a white guy who could fit into any fancy-coffee hipster town. He speaks Spanish fluently and drives a dusty old brown Prius with the right side mirror held on by orange duct tape. He seems genuinely passionate about the plights of vulnerable populations—enough so that, since 2016, he’s been devoting his time to migrants as a volunteer while picking up odd jobs on the side.
Mensing told me that Pueblo Sin Fronteras has never once promised money or asylum to anyone, but only accompanied people who were already fleeing their countries. Several migrants who traveled with Pueblo also told me the activists had never promised them anything other than accompaniment and advice. These activists did more than travel alongside migrants, though: They taught them about their right to seek asylum, blamed the United States for the dysfunction in their home countries, coached them on team-building exercises to build unity, assigned people chores and responsibilities, and helped lead protests.
But as these caravans grew larger and larger—ballooning from a few hundred migrants in early 2017 to thousands in 2018—Mensing and his buddies seemed to realize they were dealing with something bigger than they could control. Facing vicious criticism even from fellow humanitarian rights activists, Pueblo Sin Fronteras leaders decided to quit mobilizing caravans and stick to helping those already in Tijuana. I haven’t heard anything about them from newer migrants since, so it seems they have stuck to their word.
That leaves me with the same question: Who’s mobilizing the new wave of caravans? Just a week ago, media reported that about 1,000 Hondurans had gathered in San Pedro Sula to kick-start yet another caravan. These activities continue in the midst of President Donald Trump trying to cut off aid payments to Central America, reportedly forcing the resignation of former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and declaring on Twitter, “Our country is FULL!” If this abject news is filtering into the news outlets or social media feeds of Central Americans, they’re preferring instead to listen to anonymous messages encouraging them to leave their country as soon as they can before the borders close for good.
On the other side of conspiracy theories, I’ve heard Mexicans and migrants themselves wonder if Trump is secretly financing the caravans. They suspect he’s doing so to create a national emergency and to garner funds for his big beautiful wall. I remember one 26-year-old Salvadoran migrant scrolling through his smartphone, insisting that the theories make sense. By then he had heard many terrible stories about Trump, and that sort of malicious, cunning plan seemed to fit his image of the U.S. president. His cousins, though, laughed at his ideas. They didn’t really care who funded the migrant caravans—they just wanted to find safety and decent-paying jobs, preferably in the United States.
Every migrant I’ve asked tells me he doesn’t know who’s organizing the very caravan he joined. I ask, “Were there orientations? Legal training? Donations of any kind?” Most of them look blank-faced when I ask these questions, even the ones who are surprisingly honest with me (including one young Honduran who told me he was planning to jump the wall very soon). “No sé,” they all tell me, and they don’t seem very interested in knowing the answers, either.
It seemed that, to these folks, investigating the caravan organizers wasn’t pertinent or beneficial to their real-life struggles, so why bother? They needed a safe way to travel through the dangerous routes between Central America and the U.S-Mexico border, and they couldn’t afford the exorbitant fees coyotes (smugglers) charge. Besides, the coyotes weren’t trustworthy either—most everyone has heard reports of coyotes working with drug cartels to kidnap and extort and murder migrants, or abandoning them in remote desert places. Joining the caravans gave the migrants autonomy, security, and publicity.
All the migrants described to me a journey that doesn’t sound well-organized or well-funded: They walked for days, sometimes with very little food. They climbed on dangerous freight trains. They brought tents with them and slept sometimes on the streets and sometimes in the shelters and churches in Mexico that cater to migrants.
Border Patrol agents report that when they apprehend these people at the border, the kids look malnourished and the adults look haggard, as though they’ve survived famine and war. Many need immediate medical attention.
Certainly, these caravans don’t sound like the mastermind plan of an organized activist group, but rather a grassroots movement born out of desperation, street smarts, and incomplete information about U.S. border laws.
One 45-year-old Honduran said he and his family merely showed up at the designated caravan location and followed the crowd. A Salvadoran family said it didn’t have much say on where and how it traveled: When the group stopped, the family stopped. When the group traveled on, the family moved on too. When caravan members reached Tijuana, they dispersed into their own family and social groups, suggesting there isn’t much of a collective ideology or agenda that binds these people. They share only a common destination and a sense of insecurity and fear about remaining in their countries.
Another Honduran man, age 40, told me some activists did help him procure money for his bus fare to Tijuana—not out of their own pockets, but by helping him phone family members in the United States who wired him money. He said he didn’t know who these people were, except that to him, they were his angels, his saviors: “God bless them.”
The more I hear the migrants’ stories—one Honduran showed me bullet wounds in his torso and machete scars on his scalp—and the more I hear descriptions of their journeys, the more I wonder if I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe the truth is messier and more nuanced than a simple theory that some group or individual is financing these caravans for an unknown agenda.
After all, mankind has been migrating in groups for ages, whether in search of greener pastures or running from disasters, poverty, and bullies. Politicians of all stripes have portrayed these migrations from Central America as some sort of extraordinary phenomenon. But maybe what’s happening is less historic and critical than how we and our leaders will choose to respond to it.
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