While President Donald Trump recently tweeted that the migrant caravan of over 5,000 Central Americans is made up of some “very bad thugs and gang members,” a handful of immigration experts and advocates told HuffPost that’s not the case.
The reality, some experts said, is that the caravan is full of children who have embarked on a physically and mentally grueling trip to escape life-threatening situations in Central America. About half of the estimated 4,000 people in the caravan are children, ranging in age from 1-month-old babies to teenagers.
The more than two-week-long journey, which has reached southern Mexico, has at times involved walking for up to seven hours in 104-degree temperatures without access to clean water. The migrants are forced to sleep on the ground and don’t have enough blankets.
The trek has left children dehydrated, faint and sick, according to advocates and pediatricians. The group is so exhausted that they have paused for the past few days in Juchitan, a city in southern Mexico, to rest and in hopes that buses will take them to Mexico City.
“These are human beings,” said Alex Mensing, an organizer for Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the immigration rights group that organized the caravan. “The children on the caravan don’t know what a border means.”
Mensing and others told HuffPost that Trump’s use of the migrant caravan as a political weapon ― including the announcement that he’ll send 5,200 military troops to the border ― ignores the real-life suffering of vulnerable kids.
“They Can Die”
Manuel Valenzuela, an El Paso-based pediatrician who is volunteering with the caravan, said his biggest concern is the spread of infectious disease ― something that can easily happen in large groups with limited access to hygiene.
Migrants who sleep on pavement often don’t have easy access to showers, and until recently, when nongovernmental organizations delivered supplies, they didn’t have soap or hand sanitizer readily available, Valenzuela said. Because there aren’t enough doctors traveling with the group to treat thousands of people, a mass outbreak of illness could be fatal for children and elders, who have weaker immune systems.
“They can die,” Valenzuela said. “The chances to have, you know, many children very sick are very high.”
Valenzuela has been focusing on preventative measures, such as using a megaphone to remind people to wash their hands. So far, he said, he hasn’t seen anyone with a critical health condition.
Still, he said, children are suffering from gastrointestinal diseases (causing fevers, diarrhea and vomiting); dehydration, which has led to fainting; and bronchitis, which has made it hard for children to breathe.
Two children have been hospitalized this week.
On Monday, Valenzuela said doctors took a 4-year-old with bronchitis to the hospital. On Tuesday, Verónica Abreu Rivera, a project assistant for the Institute for Women in Migration, said a 15-year-old was taken to the hospital with a cardiac issue.
An Arduous Journey
Many of the children’s health problems stem from walking or being carried by their parents for hours at a time under the beating sun.
Mensing said the caravan tries to leave its camp at 3 a.m. to avoid the heat, but temperatures can still often rise above 90 degrees quickly.
Some advocates who traveled with the caravan told HuffPost that for most of the journey, migrants have not had steady access to clean water, meaning the children either drank contaminated water that made them ill or they became dehydrated. (Last week, UNICEF dropped off 20,000 liters of safe drinking water.)
Carlos Mendoza, the content manager at Amnesty International Americas, recalled watching a barefoot toddler faint while holding his mother’s hand in Tapachula, a city in southern Mexico.
Mendoza said the mother quickly picked up her son and started to fan him with her hands. He said he watched another small child faint in the back of a crowded truck while an adult rushed to splash the child’s face with water.
“What we saw is people in despair,” Mendoza said of the four days he spent with the caravan. “They were distressed and in the heat.”
Rocio Nuñez, the media manager for UNICEF in Mexico, said last week she met a mother who fled gang violence in Honduras with her two kids, one of whom has Down syndrome and a heart condition.
The 15-year-old was struggling to keep pace with the group, and Nuñez said the mother sent her older son ahead to see if the next destination had food and shelter. She also tried to get a lift from locals driving in the same direction, according to Nuñez.
Others said many parents have tried to find their children a ride to make the journey easier.
On top of the physical concerns, some doctors worry about how the caravan is affecting the children’s mental health.
Pediatrician Julie Linton, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said children who have already been traumatized by violence back home are often re-traumatized by their journey to the U.S.
“They are facing extreme stress,” she said, adding that their parents are often too preoccupied with logistics to provide them with the emotional support they need to feel safe.
Still, Linton said, although the caravan can be a harrowing experience, most children are fleeing even more dangerous situations that involve gang or domestic violence.
“Families are not making a decision to take an incredibly harrowing and dangerous journey lightly,” she said. “They are not choosing to flee their country [by] choice, but because they are trying to create a safe and hopefully better future for their children.”