(Josh Denmark/CBP)

With Migrant Caravan Trekking into Southern Mexico, U.S. Weighs Ways to Avert Asylum Surge

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is heading to the border Friday to view a new two-mile bollard barrier that’s replaced an aged section of border fencing in Calexico, Calif., capping off a week in which the border security and immigration debate was rekindled by the latest group of Central American migrants moving slowly north.

The International Organization for Migration estimated the number of participants in the caravan at about 7,000 as of Monday, according to the United Nations, though the number has fluctuated as more migrants have joined the caravan, the group has split up, and some have turned back to return home. Beginning Oct. 12 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the migrants have crossed Guatemala and some have reached Huixtla, about 35 miles north of the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Immigration-rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras organized a similar caravan in April, with migrants applying for asylum at the U.S. border. An organizer for the group told USA Today that there is no group or person in charge of this current group of traveling migrants.

Vice President Mike Pence told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández told him the caravan “was organized by leftist organizations and financed by Venezuela.” President Trump told reporters at the White House that there “could very well be” Middle Easterners or terrorists in the group but “there’s no proof of anything.”

“The people that are driving this north to challenge our sovereignty, to challenge our borders, are doing so without any regard for human life,” Pence said. “And doing it to advance some political statement or, in the case of human traffickers, strictly for financial profit.”

Trump added that the administration will “have to call up our military if we need to — but we can’t let this happen. We cannot allow our country to be violated like this.”

DHS spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton tweeted Tuesday that “there are individuals within the caravan who are gang members or have significant criminal histories” and added that “stopping the caravan is not just about national security or preventing crime, it is also about national sovereignty and the rule of law.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the caravan “is violating Mexico’s sovereignty laws and immigration procedures,” and he issued a message to the migrants: “You will not be successful at getting into the United States illegally. No matter what.” He encouraged the travelers to stay outside of the U.S. and apply for refugee status if they qualify.

With uncertainty on when or whether the caravan will reach the U.S. border, the administration has been negotiating with Mexico about how to handle the potential influx, including “metering” the number of migrants who can apply for asylum each day at a port of entry or deporting Central American migrants to Mexico instead of their home countries.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ deputy spokesman, Farhan Haq, told reporters Tuesday that United Nations agencies in Mexico “have staff in place, with more to be deployed in the coming days, to cooperate closely with local and federal authorities, among others, to attend to migrant needs in Tapachula, Chiapas, and nearby towns.”

“Teams are prepared to help with the registration of those who have been admitted, as well as to help the migrants reach shelters and facilities equipped and waiting for them to give them humanitarian aid,” Haq said. “Rapid assessments are being done by the UN agencies to gather information on the needs of children and their families, as well as people with special needs, including those in nearby towns along the migratory route.”

Haq added that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is “concerned about the known kidnapping and security risks in areas where the caravan may travel.”

“Stabilizing the situation has become urgent. It is essential that there are proper reception and other conditions for those seeking asylum, as well as for others on the move,” he said. “UNHCR emphasizes that in any situation like this it is essential that people have the chance to request asylum and have their international protection needs properly assessed, before any decision on return or deportation is made.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent a letter to Nielsen and Pompeo on Tuesday urging that a “safe third country” agreement — which requires migrants to make their asylum claim in the first country they enter — be forged with Mexico.

They cited security concerns about whether “high risk individuals may have joined the caravan” and about confirming the identities of any Special Interest Aliens.

“We strongly urge you – on the eve of a new Mexican presidential administration – to set the tone for American sovereignty in the twenty-first century,” Grassley and Lee wrote. “Entering into a safe third country agreement with Mexico would send a message to our partners across Central America that they too must share the burden of unsanctioned mass migration.”

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who will be sworn in as Mexico’s new president on Dec. 1, said Sunday in Chiapas that he’s proposing to Trump in reaction to the caravan an agreement in which “Canada, the United States, and Mexico invest in the development of the Southeast and the Central American countries.”

“We are willing to devote resources to that plan, and Americans and Canadians should do the same,” López Obrador said.

“If there is economic growth in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, in Chiapas, in Tabasco, in Oaxaca, there will be no migration phenomenon. We can not face this problem only with the use of force, we must guarantee human rights,” he added. “The main right is the right to life, to go out and seek to mitigate hunger.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a weekly columnist for the New York Observer and a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and Washington Bureau Chief for PJ Media. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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