The 'migrant caravan' is a diverse set of people escaping poverty and violence who have been painted as a threatening, faceless monolith. Not all of them will reach the US border. The ones who do are chasing a future they can feel optimistic about.
MEXICO CITY – 11-year-old Ale, from Honduras, is excited about the cute ‘Hello Kitty’ socks she has found at the clothes donation table. She sits down next to her mother, Neptali, and puts them against her feet to see how they will look when she wears them.
Ale and Neptali are spending a few days in Mexico City, staying at the Jesus Martinez "Palillo" Stadium in the city’s west. With around 5,000 others from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala they have travelled with a migrant caravan bound for the United States border.
The Mexico City government has allied with several humanitarian organisations including the Red Cross and UNHCR, providing food and clothing along with medical and legal advice.
“Here, we can rest, and eat something - before continuing our journey to the border,” Neptali tells TRT World, while Ale chats to some Honduran friends they have met on the journey.
The two have walked with the rest of the caravan the full 22 days it has taken to reach Mexico City from San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
Hailing from rural Olancho state in the country’s mid-north, the young mother of six, says this is the first time she has been outside of Honduras and that “the journey has gone very well”.
“I don’t want to go back to Honduras,” she says, “I have brought nothing from there with me. I need to be moving forward, for my family.”
Neptali says she believes God is guiding her on a journey to a better life for her family, in the United States.
The migrant caravan is one of the biggest to pass through Central America in some time, and the journey has taken on Biblical proportions in name as well as size.
The collective identifier for the migrant caravan quickly became ‘The Exodus’, with the Mexico City government, for example, commenting on their plans for supporting ‘El Exodo’ [The Exodus] when it arrived in the Mexican capital.
As news of the caravan reached the US shortly before this week’s critical mid-term elections, President Trump used it to campaign for the Republican party, claiming an “invasion” of migrants from Central America was on its way and deploying troops to the US-Mexico border to deter them.
The Mexican federal government has also taken measures to deter the migrants. When the caravan arrived at the Mexican border with Guatemala, they were met by the army and federal police who used rubber bullets, riot shields, tear gas and helicopters to push back the arrivals.
One young Honduran man, 26-year-old Henry Diaz, was killed by rubber bullets.
Still, the thousands-strong caravan pressed on, receiving a much warmer welcome from local governments and Mexican citizens on the ground. They spent nights in small towns in the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, receiving donations of food, blankets, clothing, and medicines along the way.
The 5,000 who arrived in Mexico City this week have been welcomed in the nation’s capital. In a press conference explaining the arrangements for the caravan, Nashieli Ramirez Hernandez, president of the Mexico City Human Rights Commission emphasised that, “the City has humanitarian obligations of solidarity to the migrants, which are to provide the basic aspects: health, food, shelter and security."
The ‘puente humanitario’, a group of service providers and advisors being coordinated the commission and the government of Mexico City include the UNHCR who are helping people to make decisions about their next steps.
As Mexico opens its arms, some will stay south of the border
For some on the caravan, Mexico will become their new home, not the United States.
Fredy, from Guatemala, is one of them. Fredy travelled alone with the caravan, across his home country’s border with Mexico. He has decided to remain here on the promise of securing a work visa and assistance from the city government to find employment.
The federal government has received 3,230 applications for asylum from people in the caravan and, while the applications are being vetted by the national refugee commission, the majority of this group will be granted work rights if they decide to stay.
Fredy showed TRT World the government forms he had filled out, as well as a printout of the map he had been given showing directions to a place where he should go to present himself for available jobs.
He said he expects to be able to work in Mexico as a builder or possibly a carpenter, “and maybe I will meet a Mexican woman,” he smiles.
‘There is no future in Honduras’
Yovani, from Honduras, says he was taking the chance to recover his strength in Mexico City after the long journey from home. He's 35 years old and has two young children.
“I decided to take this journey because I was thinking of the future when I’ll be in my forties and my fifties, and, I don’t own my home or the land that I work so I’ll have to keep working to keep my family alive. But there’s no employment once you get older and the Honduran currency has no value. So there is no future in Honduras.”
Yovani considered going to Spain, where it might be easier to gain the right to work and live.
“But that costs 60 thousand lempiras,” he explains, “and anyway the lempira is totally devalued. I tried to send some money to my family from Mexico, but the banking system wouldn’t do the conversion to lempiras. My currency doesn’t appear in the banking system.”
“My children are aged 7 and 4,” he says.
“They’re my inspiration, my reason for doing anything. I talk to them as often as I can. And I want to give them a future.”
Addressing a press conference in the stadium on Tuesday evening, Honduran activist for migrant rights Bertolo Fuentes said that most people earned a “hunger wage” [salario de hambre] in Honduras if they earned any money at all.
“There are 6 million Hondurans living in poverty and 3 million in extreme poverty,” said Fuentes.
“Caravans of migrants leave every day.”
Indeed, unemployment, along with gang violence and legal impunity, has long pushed people from Honduras to seek security elsewhere.
The US State Department says that the population of Honduras “registers some of the highest favorability ratings in the hemisphere toward the United States.”
To be sure, many of the Honduran migrants in the caravan show a deep belief in the ‘American Dream’ that prosperity and safety on US soil are guaranteed, through hard work, for anybody who arrives.
Many are not aware that President Trump has vilified the caravan as an ‘invasion’ and has sent armed soldiers to the border with the aim of driving them back, nor are they fully apprised of the restrictions of life as a migrant from Central America in 2018.
Either way, those who are going forward to the border are determined to take a shot at a life where optimism about the future is possible.