Incredible scenes more than 3,000 kilometres away from the White House pose a major challenge for the incoming US president Joe Biden.
Thousands of migrants from Honduras have entered Guatemala en route to the United States with the expectation of more accomodating border controls after Biden pledged to ease Donald Trump’s restrictions on asylum and reunite children separated at the border with their families.
On Sunday (local time) between 7,000 and 9,000 people entered Guatemala, many bypassing coronavirus checks, seeking to escape Honduras which has been ravaged by gang violence, the coronavirus pandemic and two category 4 hurricanes in November.
Guatemalan security forces used sticks and tear gas to beat back parts of the migrant caravan on Sunday.
“We want the Guatemalans to let us past,” Joaquin Ortiz, a Honduran in the caravan, told Reuters.
“Because we’re not leaving here. We’re going to carry on. I want to get through because it’s horrible in our country. There’s nothing in Honduras.”
The large contingent of Guatemalan security officers managed to stop the migrants from advancing beyond Vado Hondo, with perhaps as many as half of the people in the caravan dispersing into the nearby hills or heading back the way they came, according to a Reuters’ witness.
Biden foreshadows new legal status for migrants in US
The incoming Biden administration – just days away from assuming power – urged travellers to abandon the journey as the issue promises to pose an early test of the immigration policies of the incoming president.
Biden has said he will immediately ask Congress to offer legal status to an estimated 11 million people already in the country, deemed to be illegal immigrants.
The president-elect campaigned on a path to citizenship for those who migrated to the US outside the legal channels but it is unclear how quickly he will actually move on the issue. Former president Barack Obama pledged an immigration bill his first year in office in 2009, but did not end up tackling the issue until his second term.
The travelling migrants are expected to face many more obstacles in their stated journey to head north.
The Mexican authorities have posted additional troops and immigration officers along the country’s southern border in anticipation, arguing that it must stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“In our national territory, we have to guarantee orderly, safe and regular migration, with respect for human rights and humanitarian policies,” Francisco Garduño Yáñez, head of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute said in a statement.
The first migrant caravan of the year comes less than a week before Biden takes office on Thursday (AEDT) promising to adopt a more humane approach to migration than his predecessor, who made anti-immigration policies a centrepiece of his administration.
The Trump administration was widely criticised by political opponents and human rights organisations over its strict border approach which saw more than 2,800 children taken from their parents, including more than 500 whose parents could later not be found.
Ironically, the social unrest and political violence seen in the US Capitol has seen thousands of troops and law enforcement agencies stationed in Washington DC, including those who monitor the southern US border.
Biden official: ‘Border will not be open’
As right-wing media in the US amplify the threat of the migration influx, the Biden team says the situation at the southern US border is not going to change overnight.
Speaking to Reuters, a Biden transition official, urged the caravan not to continue with the journey.
“Overcoming the challenges created by the chaotic and cruel policies of the last four years, and those presented by Covid-19, will take time,” said the official.
“In the meantime, the journey to the United States remains extraordinarily dangerous, and those in the region should not believe anyone peddling the lie that our border will be open to everyone next month.”
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