Ground Truth Briefing | Refuge or Refusal: What to Do about the Migrant Caravans? | Wilson Center

Ground Truth Briefing | Refuge or Refusal: What to Do about the Migrant Caravans?

In recent weeks, large numbers or “caravans” of Central American migrants trying to reach the U.S. border have dominated the news cycle, raising difficult questions about how the United States and Mexico should respond. The issue has become deeply polarizing in the United States and has become a potential flashpoint between the Trump administration and the new Mexican government headed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who will be inaugurated as president this Saturday. 

What strategies can be employed in the short, medium, and long term to address the migrant flows from Central America and underlying drivers? Our experts analyzed realities on the ground in Central America, Mexico, and along the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the policy responses from both Mexico and the United States.



Selected Quotes


Jane Harman

“How we could help the governments of Central America deliver more services to their people, fight corruption, and how we could stimulate business investment in Central America… More attention to that set of issues would be a much better strategy than threatening to cut off aid for those governments in response to what’s happening.”

Carlos Heredia

“I don’t see a migration crisis, I see a humanitarian crisis. The size of the labor markets in the United States and in Mexico are enormous compared to the number of people who have been participating in the caravans.”
“I see an urgent need for long-range approaches, rather than just betting on a quick fix which does not exist. I don’t think there is a silver bullet for this, so long as governments only postpone addressing structural factors like the lack of access to higher education [and] the lack of good governance.”
“For the first time, Mexico is openly saying, ‘I have a responsibility in what goes on in the neighborhood, and I want to assume that responsibility.’ I don’t hear the incoming Obrador government saying, ‘I’m going to invest a ton of money from the Mexican federal budget into Central America,’ but I do hear them saying, though, ‘I’m going to make a lot of investment in infrastructure in south and southeastern Mexico, and Central Americans will be given visas to work on these development projects.” 
Eric L. Olson
“The caravan is a manifestation of growing despair and frustration and insecurity and poverty in Central America. These have been longstanding, chronic problems in the region.”
“There has been a fair amount of good intentions, both on the part of the governments, the United States, and NGOs to address these problems. But I think the fact that the numbers of Central Americans, particularly from Honduras and Guatemala, continue to grow in a significant way, back almost to the peak of 2014 now, is an indication that the strategy thus far, while well-intentioned and defined on key issues, really hasn’t been enough to deal with these problems.”
“We can get caught up in a laundry list of major, deep problems that these countries are facing, but if I were to make a case for prioritizing something, I think the issue of governance, of transparency, better democratic institutions really has to be front and center, and a priority for U.S. policy.”

Andrew Selee

“President Trump is not wrong when he says that our asylum system doesn’t work, but the attempts that have been made for the past year to deal with asylum have all been in the way to narrow it, to make asylum harder to get. That’s not the best way to go about it… We need to actually have an asylum system that’s generous, that’s in the tradition of American foreign policy and American domestic policy, which is generous to people who are fleeing from violence, fleeing from persecution, and need protection. At the same time, we need to be selective about who comes in.”
“[America] has to work collaboratively with the Mexican government on this. The opening is there; it’s something we should take advantage of. We should begin to think creatively also about are there ways, for example, Mexico could process people for asylum, and then the U.S. could take some of those people through the refugee program to the United States?”





  • Carlos Heredia

    Advisory Board Member, Mexico Institute
    Associate Professor of International Studies, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE)
  • Eric L. Olson

    Global Fellow
    Director of the Central America-D.C. Platform, Seattle International Foundation
  • Andrew Selee

    Former Executive Vice President and Senior Advisor to the Mexico Institute
    President, Migration Policy Institute