As a caravan consisting of thousands of asylum-seekers from Central America drew ever closer to Mexico’s border with the United States to prepare to turn themselves in to border authorities en masse and request asylum, the usual fearmongering suspects did what they do best: whipping up racial hatred with disinformation and propaganda.
“Democrat approved migrant caravan,” read a typical headline from an opinion piece, “MS-13 and human trafficking.”
The anatomy of this particular propaganda is similar to many that have been polluting American (and global) mainstream political discourse. It is inaccurate, deliberately misleading, uses emotional language to bypass rational discussion of the points it raises, and the few citations and quotes lifted from other sites that do not support its headline.
This particular story is no exception to the pattern, pulling together xenophobia, cheap political shots, and misdirection in one fell swoop. It opens with the following:
WASHINGTON: Democrats seeking reelection can’t be happy that an estimated 4,000 migrant caravan of mostly Hondurans are marching toward the US southern border.
If the caravan is “Democrat-approved,” then why would they be unhappy that it is taking place?
Marching just in time to remind voting Americans what’s at stake if Democrats win control of the House and Senate this November. An influx of illegal aliens, including MS-13 gang members and human traffickers, among those honestly seeking life in America.
The article goes on to pin the rise of MS-13 to socialism, although it’s not entirely clear the writer made the leap from one to the other, and ignores the long history of the caravan itself.
The caravana migrante, or migrant’s caravan, is a yearly international pilgrimage that is intended to bring awareness to the plight of people living under intense and untenable violence in Central America, even as its participants seek refuge elsewhere. The volunteer group helping to organize the caravans along the way, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, has been doing so since 2010 — although now the group is recommending that the caravans stop because they have become too fraught and dangerous, even more so than the violence that people are trying to escape.
The caravans are referred to in Spanish as Via Crucis Migrantes, or Migrants’ Way of the Cross. They are fashioned after the Stations of the Cross processions celebrated by Latin American and Latino Catholics to mark and “re-enact” the final days of Jesus from prosecution to his burial in a tomb.
In such processions, someone plays Christ carrying a wooden cross and people from the congregation or community follow him. Similarly, the volunteers from Pueblos Sin Fronteras and other groups accompany migrants in a caravan that travels in buses, on trains and on foot.
The journey ends at the United States border, where individuals and families turn themselves in at ports of entry and are taken into custody so that they can apply for asylum, which can only be sought from within the United States, as opposed to refugee status. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services explains the difference as follows:
Refugee status is a form of protection that may be granted to people who meet the definition of refugee and who are of special humanitarian concern to the United States. Refugees are generally people outside of their country who are unable or unwilling to return home because they fear serious harm. For a legal definition of refugee, see section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
You may seek a referral for refugee status only from outside of the United States.
Asylum status is a form of protection available to people who:
- Meet the definition of refugee
- Are already in the United States
- Are seeking admission at a port of entry
You may apply for asylum in the United States regardless of your country of origin or your current immigration status.
The International Rescue Committee, a non-governmental organization that aids survivors of conflicts around the world to find safe refuge, makes its stance on caravan participants exceptionally clear in its own explainer on the difference between the two categories:
An asylum seeker is someone who is also seeking international protection from dangers in his or her home country, but whose claim for refugee status hasn’t been determined legally. Asylum seekers must apply for protection in the country of destination—meaning they must arrive at or cross a border in order to apply.
Then, they must be able to prove to authorities there that they meet the criteria to be covered by refugee protections. Not every asylum seeker will be recognized as a refugee.
Tens of thousands of children and families from Central America have fled extreme danger—murder, kidnapping, violence against women and forced recruitment by gangs. Those arriving at the U.S. border are being depicted as “illegal immigrants,” but in reality, crossing an international border for asylum is not illegal and an asylum seeker’s case must be heard, according to U.S. and international law.
And where does MS-13 fit into all of this? The vicious international gang, short for Mara Salvatrucha, has been used as a stand-in for many xenophobic and racial fears, particularly directed at Latin American people. Opportunistic pundits and politicians have wasted no time stoking fears of a violent “invasion” or “uprising” by MS-13 cartel members, neglecting in every case to mention one important detail: this particular gang started in the early 1980s on the streets of Los Angeles, California:
As the civil war in El Salvador deepened in the 1980s, more Salvadorans arrived in LA and found their way to Mara Salvatrucha.
This influx of new recruits, ones hardened by the horrors of the civil war back home, helped make the Maras better able to strike back at their rivals.
The gang went international when it was exported with young immigrants in wave after wave of deportations in the 1990s.
A 2008 FBI threat assessment put the size of MS-13 between 6,000 and 10,000 members in the US, making it one of the largest criminal enterprises in the country.
It is now larger outside the country, according to the agency. An anti-gang crackdown in the late 1990s saw hundreds of early members shipped back to Central American countries, where they established offshoots. Estimates put the number of members in Central American countries at at least 60,000.
The gang’s annual revenue is about $31.2m (£23.4m) according to information from a large-scale Salvadorean police operation obtained by the El Faro newspaper – mainly from from drugs and extortion.
That has proved to be disastrous for Central American countries in particular, with entire regions now run by MS-13 members in some countries by brute force and terror:
MS 13 in the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—has not yet coalesced around a coherent political ideology; however, since 2014 the gang has been exercising real political power, utilizing a three-pronged strategy that leverages the gang’s unity as a voting bloc. Rather than presenting a specific political platform beyond seeking direct benefits for the gang, MS 13 uses the sheer numbers of its members (more than 35,000 in El Salvador—a country geographically the size of Massachusetts—and an equal or greater number in Honduras, according to police intelligence estimates) and its vast territorial control as both carrots and sticks to subvert the electoral process in new and dangerous ways:
MS 13 charges individual candidates from all parties several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars to be able set up a party organization and campaign in a neighborhood the gang controls.
The gang also bans certain politicians or political parties they view as enemies from campaigning in those areas. Most notably in 2017, MS 13 banned supporters of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández from campaigning for his party’s nomination in some sectors of San Pedro Sula—the country’s main transport hub. Although Hernández won the primary, the gang in areas they control on the outskirts of the city also forced campaign workers to quit, refused to allow propaganda to be displayed, and threatened to kill anyone found voting for the President. MS 13 has threatened to employ similar tactics against the governing FMLN in El Salvador in upcoming elections.
MS 13 has yet to participate financially in national campaigns but has directly financed mayors and local legislatures. This has allowed the gang to move some of their own (or those willing to do their bidding) into municipal strongholds, and in some documented cases the mayors have hired gang members as municipal employees.
This means, of course, that statistically speaking, the men, women, and children in this caravan and every other that have passed through over the years are running from ultraviolence that is either directly or indirectly related to MS-13, including murders, rapes, and human trafficking.
At the same time, members of international cartels have the financial means to come to the United States in comfort, which is to say not visibly, on foot, and through some of the most dangerous and hostile countries in the world.
All of these facts have been part of the conversation for years, and they are facts that American politicians and pundits surely know; they have, it seems, simply chosen to ignore them in favor of made-up claims from sites that contain no actual journalism and decided to ignore the most simple and obvious explanation, which is that people are leaving their homes for an uncertain future for the only reason that most people would — because they have no other choice.