Scenes of Syrian and African refugees risking their lives to reach Europe’s shores had a local equivalent this year in the masses of Central Americans who travelled more than a month to the US-Mexican border, many carrying young children or pushing them in strollers. Playing to the same antiimmigrant sentiment leveraged by Europe’s far right, US President Donald Trump called it an “invasion,” sought to overhaul US asylum policy and deployed thousands of troops to the border.
Among the lasting images of 2018 are seas of dogged migrants walking in flip-flops or flimsy plastic shoes; crying children taken from their parents and held in cage-like enclosures under the Donald Trump administration’s since-abandoned practice of separating undocumented families; and hundreds of desperate migrants rushing the US-Mexican border, only to be battled back with tear gas.
Latin Americans have long migrated to the United States – half a million Central Americans cross Mexico each year to chase their ‘American dreams’ – but they used to do it in secret.
This was the first time the US had confronted such a large, visible influx of Central Americans, as people fleeing poverty and violence used social media to organise themselves into caravans, seeking protection from kidnapping, extortion and murder by crime gangs that prey on migrants.
For Trump, it played into his political message at the height of an election season.
“If you want to protect criminal aliens – VOTE DEMOCRAT. If you want to protect Law-Abiding Americans – VOTE REPUBLICAN!” he tweeted on November 3, three days before the US midterm elections.
Trump’s party lost control of the House of Representatives in the elections – though it gained seats in the Senate, enabling him to claim his nationalism had resonated with voters.
Facing a new political reality, Trump has threatened to partly shut down the federal government by refusing to sign a spending bill if Congress does not give him US$5 billion to build his much-wanted border wall.
For the migrants now stuck on the border, the choices are bleak: join the huge lines to enter the United States legally and file long-shot asylum applications; sneak across and hope for the best; settle in Mexico; or go home.
In the wider region, the number of Venezuelans fleeing the country’s economic and political implosion meanwhile swelled to 2.3 million since 2015.
The once-wealthy oil-producing country has veered toward the brink of collapse under leftist President Nicolás Maduro, who won a new sixyear term in May in a widely condemned election marred by irregularities.
Carmen Fuenmayor, 57, a teacher, joined the exodus but returned to Venezuela after nine months struggling to find work. She will spend Christmas alone this year. Her daughters are still in Ecuador.
“They have their lives. I decided mine was here in Venezuela,” she said.
The exodus of Venezuelans has stoked tension across the region.
In Brazil, an angry mob in the border town of Pacaraima set fire to Venezuelan migrant camps in August, chasing out 1,200 people.
In Peru, where 600,000 Venezuelans have fled, the government last month began requiring passports for those who would follow them.
A court blocked a similar measure in Ecuador.
Numbers for Argentina are hard to come by, but national migration officials say some 99,435 Venezuelan citizens have settled (temporarily or permanently) in Argentina since 2006. Since the start of 2017, some 50,000 are believed to have entered Argentina, though it is unknown how many left in that time as well.
Colombia has opened its doors to the most: today, nearly one million Venezuelan immigrants already live in the country, which has a total population of around 50 million.
Government officials said that last week that if the crisis continued at its current rate, as many as four million Venezuelans could be living in Colombia by 2021.