Why you should care
Because Irineo Mujica’s caravan has garnered the attention of the world.
It started more than a month ago: a caravan of 1,200 migrants fleeing violence in Central America. And, by Sunday, around 180 refugees, mostly children, had arrived hundreds of miles away at San Ysidro on the U.S.-Mexico border. The anxious asylum seekers were greeted both by the cheers of supporters at the border crossing and the jeers from anti-immigration protests taking place on the American side of the border. And even though U.S. immigration officials said San Ysidro had reached capacity and would not be processing further refugees, dozens in the caravan created a makeshift camp to await their fate.
They have been led from the start by a Mexican-American human rights activist named Irineo Mujica. The director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras and the organizer behind several such caravans of Central American refugees, Mujica has devoted much of his energy in recent years to helping those who some in Mexico call los migrantes que no importan — the migrants that don’t matter.
Nearly a decade ago, Mujica heard stories about the harrowing experiences that Central American migrants were having in Mexico. The photojournalist decided to go there from his home in Minnesota and document their stories firsthand. What he witnessed on that trip disturbed him. He saw hungry refugees, including children, crowded aboard freight trains. The migrants were hunted in raids by criminals or Mexican authorities, and they suffered beatings, rapes and kidnappings. Still, desperate for a better life, and often fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the migrants persisted.
We’re fighting for the right to migrate. We’re fighting for asylum. We fight to live without fear.
Mujica now helps educate refugees on the dangers they may face on such a journey and provides protection for them by organizing large migrant caravans. (He did not respond to requests for an interview.) Such large caravans not only offer protection against kidnappers and rapists, but also help raise public awareness about the migrants’ situation and the dangers they face. As with the current caravan, most migrants want a new home in Mexico, but some continue the journey all the way to the U.S., where they hope to seek asylum. According to Mujica, the purpose of the caravan is not to storm the American border or seek a showdown with immigration authorities. “We’re fighting for the right to migrate,” he recently told National Public Radio. “We’re fighting for asylum. We fight to live without fear.”
And in that fight, Mujica has been relentless. His colleague, Alex Mensing, a project coordinator for Pueblo Sin Fronteras, says Mujica never stops fighting no matter how tired he is amid these grueling treks. “He really doesn’t care if people don’t like what he’s doing as long as the migrants and refugees he is working with are in agreement, and fighting alongside him.”
Large organized migrant caravans such as the current one have been happening in Mexico for years, but they usually pass without much attention from the United States — at least until this year, when President Donald Trump’s tweets turned the caravans into a focal point of U.S. immigration policy. “Getting more dangerous,” the president tweeted last month. “‘Caravans’ coming.”
The big Caravan of People from Honduras, now coming across Mexico and heading to our “Weak Laws” Border, had better be stopped before it gets there. Cash cow NAFTA is in play, as is foreign aid to Honduras and the countries that allow this to happen. Congress MUST ACT NOW!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2018
After Trump proposed sending troops to the border to handle the situation, Mujica, according to CBS News, gathered a group of migrant women and children around him and asked which ones the president was so afraid of. “All of the women, children, come fleeing violence. These children are not soldiers,” Mujica said. Still, Trump continues to reference the caravan as an example of inadequate U.S. immigration policy. “Are you watching that mess that’s going on right now with the caravan coming up?” Trump asked during a rally in Michigan on Saturday. “Everybody pours through.”
But the statistics belie any such conclusion, says Roy Germano, a professor at NYU Law School and author of Outsourcing Welfare: How the Money Immigrants Send Home Contributes to Stability in Developing Countries. “Only about 5,000 Central Americans per year are actually granted asylum [in the U.S.]. That is hardly an invasion.”
U.S. border officials have begun processing migrants from the group, and by Tuesday evening, 28 of them, mostly mothers and children, had been admitted into the facility at San Ysidro to make their asylum cases. Mexican authorities, however, claim to have already deported more than 400 of the caravan migrants. Still, Mujica and other organizers remain positive. Many migrants have been provided with humanitarian visas by Mexico, allowing them to remain in the country legally. And the spotlight shone on the caravan this month has drawn more attention than ever to the plight of Central American migrants.
Mensing says that Mujica and other organizers will need to get more people and organizations involved in aiding future caravans, but Trump’s actions have helped galvanize the pro-immigrant community. Germano agrees, but also observes that “many Americans view the caravan as evidence that the United States is being overrun by undocumented immigrants.” Whatever becomes of the migrants still waiting in San Ysidro, the broader debate over them will continue, and Irineo Mujica will be playing shepherd.