A few hundred Hondurans formed a caravan bound for the United States on Wednesday after hurricanes battered the country, posing a fresh challenge to efforts to stem immigration from Central America on the cusp of a new US administration.
Mostly younger migrants with backpacks and some women carrying children left the northern city of San Pedro Sula on foot for the Guatemalan border after calls went out on social media to organise a caravan to the US.
Striking just two weeks apart in November, hurricanes Eta and Iota hammered infrastructure, homes and crops, killing about 100 people in Honduras. The neighbouring countries of Guatemala and Nicaragua also suffered widespread damage.
“We lost everything, we have no choice but to go to the United States,” an unidentified middle-aged man in the caravan with his wife and cousin told Honduran television.
The man said he was from La Lima, a municipality on the southeastern edge of San Pedro Sula that was hard hit by flooding caused by Eta and Iota.
Guatemala’s migration authorities warned the approaching migrants that to enter the country, they would need negative coronavirus tests and passports.
Central Americans had already begun leaving their homes following the devastating hurricanes.
If the exodus grows, it could become the first significant caravan to hit the road since Joe Biden defeated US President Donald Trump in the presidential election last month.
Trump, who is due to leave office on January 20, has made curbing illegal immigration a top priority, and has put pressure on Mexico to help him. A caravan of thousands moving through Central America was broken up in October.
President-elect Biden has promised to pursue a “humane” migration policy and offer help to Central America to ease migratory pressures.
And as a last-minute immigration crackdown that incoming president Biden will likely try to reverse, the Trump administration finalised a regulation on Thursday that greatly restricts access to asylum in the US.
The final rule cuts off asylum access for most migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border through a series of changes to eligibility criteria, according to experts and advocates. In addition, it directs immigration judges and asylum officers to deny broad types of asylum claims, such as those based on domestic abuse and gang violence, with some exceptions.
It instructs asylum officers and judges to weigh negatively applications from migrants who crossed into the US illegally, used fraudulent documents, or passed through other countries without seeking refuge elsewhere first.
“This will better ensure groundless claims do not delay or divert resources from deserving claims, and in particular, will better ensure the security of our nation’s borders by facilitating the efficient review of claims in a manner consistent with the law and the integrity of our immigration system,” the US Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security said in a statement on Thursday.
The rule will “eviscerate” migrant protections if it remains in place, said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council, and “put asylum out of reach for all but the lucky few”.
“The rule is yet another Trump administration policy that will separate refugee families to punish them for seeking US asylum,” said Eleanor Acer, the senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First.
The latest restrictions are set to take effect on January 11, just nine days before Biden takes office. The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding its stance on the measure.