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Here’s what happens when migrant caravan arrives at U.S. border

San Francisco Chronicle 10/23/2018 By Tal Kopan

Slideshow by photo services

WASHINGTON — President Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric Monday about a caravan of thousands of Central Americans making its way toward the U.S., even as uncertainty grew over what will happen to the migrants if they reach the border.

Trump has seized on the caravan as a key talking point heading into the midterm elections. The president has been pointing to the growing group of migrants as justification for his aggressive immigration proposals.

“Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy. Must change laws!” Trump tweeted Monday.

A source familiar with the government’s information on the caravan said there was no evidence “Middle Easterners” were mixing into it. It’s unclear whether Mexico will allow the group to continue the remaining 1,000-plus miles to the U.S. border without interfering.

Here are some answers common questions about the caravan:

Q: Why do caravans form?

A large factor attracting migrants is potential safety in numbers. It is virtually impossible to travel through Mexico to the U.S. border without paying smugglers, as the organized crime cartels control territory that migrants need to cross. On the way, the migrants are often abused, extorted and assaulted. Caravans offer an opportunity to travel together and avoid some of those dangers.

Caravans have also been seen as an opportunity for migrants and their supporters to call attention to their plight. There is extreme violence and poverty in what’s known as the Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — which remains the largest driver of migrants to the U.S. border.

Q: What happens when they reach the U.S.?

It is impossible to predict how many of the migrants will eventually reach the border. In the past, hundreds of migrants have fallen away from caravans as they traveled, either turned back by Mexico, settling there, or setting off on their own.

The migrants usually intend to turn themselves in to authorities in the U.S. Once they’re at a designated port of entry or if they are apprehended trying to cross illegally, they can tell officials that they have a fear of persecution in their home country. That triggers an asylum interview.

Q: Where will they arrive?

A caravan last spring ended up in Tijuana, so most of the migrants tried to cross at the San Ysidro port of entry south of San Diego.

That border crossing is the busiest in the hemisphere and regularly has long wait times for migrants seeking asylum. In April, some migrants had to wait there for weeks.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan testified at a congressional hearing in July that the wait at that crossing at the time was 1,000 people long. The port can process 50 to 100 people a day, he said.

Q: So will they be let into the U.S.?

It depends. By law, asylum seekers must be given a chance to make their case once they set foot on U.S. soil. But the U.S has been stopping people before they get to the border, which officials call the “limit line,” until space is available. There is a shelter network on the Mexico side of the border.

An inspector general report analyzing the administration’s handling of the family separation crisis this summer faulted that “metering” for causing more people to cross into the U.S. illegally after they were turned away from the port of entry.

Aerial view of Honduran migrants onboard a truck as they take part in a caravan heading to the US, in the outskirts of Tapachula, on their way to Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico, on October 22, 2018. - President Donald Trump on Monday called the migrant caravan heading toward the US-Mexico border a national emergency, saying he has alerted the US border patrol and military. (Photo by PEDRO PARDO / AFP)PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images

Aerial view of Honduran migrants onboard a truck as they take part in a caravan heading to the US, in the outskirts of Tapachula, on their way to Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico, on October 22, 2018. - President Donald Trump on Monday called the migrant caravan heading toward the US-Mexico border a national emergency, saying he has alerted the US border patrol and military. (Photo by PEDRO PARDO / AFP)PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images
© Pedro Pardo / AFP / Getty Images
Long waits could also worsen an already dangerous situation, said Eric Olson, an expert on Mexico and Latin America at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan institute in Washington. Cartels target desperate migrants at the border, he said, and homicide rates have skyrocketed there this year.

“You introduce more chaos, more uncertainty to those areas and you’re going to exacerbate a very difficult humanitarian situation,” Olson said “There are very active criminal organizations operating in those areas that specialize in moving migrants, and they are going to certainly take advantage of the situation.”

Q: What happens once they’re here?

Once on U.S. soil, either legally at a crossing or caught illegally, an immigrant claiming fear of persecution back home is interviewed to assess whether that fear is “credible.” Those who pass that screening are given a court date, often years in the future, at which they can make their case for asylum. Those found not to have a credible fear are put into expedited deportation proceedings.

Most immigrants waiting for asylum proceedings are let out of detention, often with tracking devices. The Trump administration, however, has sought to be able to detain immigrants for longer and to move their cases through faster.

Q: Is the U.S. preparing for their arrival?

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment about preparations for the caravan. In a statement, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the U.S. would work with other countries to prosecute criminal organizations that “prey” on migrants.

Ur Jaddou, a former counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration who now works for pro-immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, said the administration should be getting ready.

Instead, Jaddou said, Trump is “stoking fear, tweeting about it. ... He’s using this to scare people rather than seeing it as, ‘We have a problem, we should address it appropriately,’ as a good government should do.”

Q: What are the migrants’ chances of being granted asylum?

Historically, roughly 80 percent of migrants pass their initial credible-fear interview, but fewer end up winning their legal case for asylum. To stay in the U.S., asylum seekers must prove to an immigration court that they are being persecuted for something they cannot change, and that their government is unable or unwilling to protect them.

Q: What has changed, if anything, under Trump?

The administration has made it even more difficult for many Central Americans to win asylum. Jeff Sessions has used his unique authority as attorney general to overrule the immigration courts’ appellate body and reinterpret asylum law more narrowly. Sessions ruled this summer that most victims of domestic and gang violence don’t qualify for asylum, a decision over which California has sued the administration.

But the right to claim asylum is not something the Trump administration can change by itself. That is enshrined in both domestic and international law, and would require legislation in Congress to change.

Q: What about families and children?

Laws and court settlements require that immigrant children be held in custody for only short periods — either three days by themselves or 20 days as part of a family. Children who arrive alone must be handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs a shelter network that houses the children until they can be placed with an adult in the U.S.

The Trump administration separated more than 2,500 families to prosecute the parents this spring, then backtracked amid an international outcry. Since June, families caught crossing the border illegally have been held and processed together and most have been released into the U.S. with monitoring if they pass their asylum interview.

Tal Kopan is the San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: tal.kopan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @TalKopan

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