US-bound caravan faces hunger, Biden plans immigration reform

About 8,000 migrants face crackdown as Biden plans to offer citizenship pathways to 11 million undocumented in the US.

Hondurans taking part in a new caravan of migrants, set to head to the US, line up to receive water from the Red Cross after arriving to the El Florido border crossing point with Guatemala, in El Florido, Honduras [Yoseph Amaya/Reuters]

Hundreds of mostly Honduran migrants huddled overnight on a highway in eastern Guatemala in the early hours of Monday after domestic security forces used sticks and tear gas to halt the passage of a US-bound caravan just days before US President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

As many as 8,000 migrants, including families with young children, have entered Guatemala since Friday, authorities say, fleeing poverty and lawlessness in a region rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and back-to-back hurricanes in November.

“There’s no food or water, and there are thousands of children, pregnant women, babies, and they don’t want to let us pass,” a Honduran who only gave the name Pedro told the Reuters news agency.

Guatemalan authorities said late on Sunday they have sent 1,568 migrants back home since Friday, the vast majority to Honduras. Nearly 100 were returned to El Salvador.

A Reuters witness said about 2,000 migrants were still camped out on the highway near the village of Vado Hondo, about 55 kilometres (34 miles) from the borders of Honduras and El Salvador, after clashing with Guatemalan security forces on Sunday.

Reports say the migrants are facing food shortages and hunger while stuck on the highway.

Some migrants evaded the gridlock by fleeing into the hills to continue onward to the border of Mexico, where the government has deployed police and National Guard troopers.

“We ran into the mountains because I’m travelling with my one-year-old,” Diany Deras, a Honduran, told Reuters.

Biden’s plans

Biden, whose stated plans for immigration are a far cry from the hardline policies of the administration of Donald Trump, is preparing to assume office as the caravan marches towards the United States.

A path to citizenship is at the forefront of his goals. Ron Klain, Biden’s incoming chief of staff, said on Saturday that Biden will send an immigration bill to Congress “on his first day in office”. He did not elaborate and Biden’s office declined to comment on specifics.

The move has surprised advocates given how the issue has long divided Democrats and Republicans, even within their own parties.

“This really does represent a historic shift from Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda that recognises that all of the undocumented immigrants that are currently in the United States should be placed on a path to citizenship,” Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, who was briefed on the bill, told The Associated Press news agency.

Trump has issued travel bans for people of numerous, mostly majority non-white countries, used illegal requirements to clamp down on asylum claims and increased deportations.

Biden’s transition official, speaking on background, advised people not to make for the US.

“Overcoming the challenges created by the chaotic and cruel policies of the last four years, and those presented by COVID-19, will take time,” the official told Reuters.

Political considerations

But there are political issues that could delay the bill.

Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said Biden told advocates on a call on Thursday that Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate may delay consideration of the bill and they should not count on a passage within 100 days.

“I was pleasantly surprised that they were going to take quick action because we got the same promises from Obama, who got elected in ’08, and he totally failed,” Garcia told the AP news agency.

Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum and among those briefed on Thursday night, said immigrants would be put on an eight-year path to citizenship.

President-elect Joe Biden speaks as he announces members of economics and jobs team at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware on January 8 [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

There would be a faster track for those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, which shields people from deportation who came to the country as young children, and Temporary Protected Status, which gives temporary status to hundreds of thousands of people from strife-torn countries, many from El Salvador.

Democrats control all branches of government, but with razor-thin margins. Democratic legislators will likely need to negotiate aspects of the bill with Republican colleagues for passage.

Fourteen Republican senators voted for an immigration reform bill in 2013.

The Homeland Security Department estimates there were 12 million undocumented people in the US in 2015, nearly 80 percent of them for more than 10 years.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies