THE HONDURANS are travelling light. Most carry just a backpack with a few articles of clothing. Some have brought pushchairs for children, who bear their ordeal with remarkably few tears. The group passed through Tapachula, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Most plan to head to the United States.
They know Donald Trump will not make them welcome. He calls the “caravan”, which is irresistible to television news programmes, an “onslaught of illegal aliens” and vows to send the army to shut the United States’ southern border. He gleefully expects the fuss to win votes for the Republican Party in mid-term elections to be held on November 6th. Carolina Gerazo, a mother of two who sold tortillas in Honduras, expresses a hope that seems universal among her fellow travellers, that God will touch Mr Trump’s heart.
Migrant caravans have been heading to the United States for more than a decade. Earlier ones were formed in Tapachula by an NGO, Pueblo sin Fronteras (People without Borders), to help migrants already en route reduce the risk of robbery and rape. They were less successful in bringing people to their destination. Just one, which started in April this year, reached Mexico’s northern border. In Tijuana 250 people applied for asylum in the United States.
The caravan now headed north is the biggest yet, with 7,200 people, according to the UN. Unlike those born in Tapachula, it formed spontaneously, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s business capital. The travellers say they made an impromptu decision to join the group after seeing news of it on Facebook or television; some even joined as the column passed their houses. They are leaving Honduras, many say, because the little money they make is extorted from them by gangs, which threaten non-payers with death. Many complain about petrol prices, which have risen 11% this year. Another caravan of Hondurans is on its way.
Central Americans have replaced Mexicans as the largest group of migrants seeking entry to the United States. For three of the past four years American border agents have caught more Central Americans than Mexicans crossing illegally. The United States wants Mexico to police its porous southern border and Mexico has tried to comply. It deports around 100,000 people a year back to the Northern Triangle, as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are collectively known. But unarmed Mexican guards put up just token resistance to the Honduras caravan. Officials encouraged migrants to seek asylum in Mexico, but the police have not tried to stop them moving as they have earlier caravans.
This may signal the start of a change in the way Mexico and the United States co-operate on migration. Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who will leave office on December 1st, has little desire to risk violence by blocking migrants. His left-wing successor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has his own ideas about how to handle them. He wants a regional plan including the United States, which would spend three times as much on development and state-building in Central America as Mexico does on border security.
Mr Trump prefers to deter immigration by force, and has said he will cut aid to countries that allow their citizens to head north (which might spur more migration). In a telephone conversation in July, Mr Trump and Mr López Obrador agreed on the need to reduce immigration from Central America. “I’m not sure they understood [the issue] the same way,” says Roberta Jacobson, until recently the United States’ ambassador to Mexico.
Faced with American hostility, some Central Americans are staying in Mexico. Nearly 2,000 applied for asylum in Tapachula this week, compared with 15,000 in all of last year. “If I go to the United States and don’t speak English, I am not going to find work,” says Javier Celaya, a teenager from Honduras. “I want to live here in Mexico, work, and make a life for myself.”
Those who make it to the United States can apply for asylum but can expect a long wait. Officials in Tijuana accepted just a dozen applications a day when the caravan that set off in April showed up, says Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think-tank.
The caravan could disperse as it continues its month-long, 4,000km (2,500-mile) journey. By the time the Hondurans reach the United States’ border, the mid-term elections will be over. If they show up in small groups, television will lose interest and Mr Trump will perhaps find other threats to hyperventilate about.