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Resilience strategies ‘on the move:’ Navigating the border regime in Mexico and the US

By Rosario Rizzo Lara | OMC 2024

A mural on the US-Mexico Border Wall. Taken by the author in 2016.

The substantial arrival of Central American migrants and asylum seekers in the US in the aftermath of the Salvadoran (1980-1992) and Guatemalan Civil Wars (1960-1996) led the US and Mexico to work jointly on a series of programmes to curb undocumented migration. As part of these programmes, the US provided both financial support for the implementation of security controls, surveillance technology, and checkpoints along Mexico's southern border, as well as training and deployment for immigration officers. The US also strengthened its borders by continuing to fund the construction of the border wall, increasing the budget for the Border Patrol and ICE, as well as detention facilities, among other expenditures. These programmes, along with the immigration policies the US and Mexico have implemented, have led to increased detention, deportation, and physical, emotional, and legal violence against migrants along the migratory route. In spite of the effects of these policies, migration from Central America has not stopped; rather, it has increased in the last two decades. 

What strategies have Central American migrants with precarious status and asylum seekers used to arrive in Mexico and at the US-Mexico border in the wake of immigration restriction? Drawing on literature on resilience and transit migration, I identify three strategies migrants have deployed on the move. I use resilience as a framework to highlight migrants’ ability to mitigate and avoid risks, and with that knowledge, create new pathways for overcoming obstacles along the way.

I use this framework and apply it to a case study of Central American migrants with precarious status. Drawing from qualitative secondary data, statistics, reports, and a literature review, I identify three strategies:

  1. Smugglers. For decades irregularised migrants have hired coyotes (smugglers) to cross international borders as options for authorised crossing into countries have become more limited. Early accounts of their work as “facilitators” go back to the 1920s. However, the securitisation measures that Mexico and the US have implemented, along with the criminalisation of migration, have caused a significant increase in the cost of coyotes, as the crossings are riskier and more dangerous, becoming more expensive and unaffordable for migrants. 

  2. The Formation of Small Groups in Transit. Those who cannot afford a smuggler use different strategies to cross the border, such as walking in small groups along the migratory routes. Groups are usually formed of family members, acquaintances, and friends of three to eight people. These groups provide other migrants with temporary safety (as long as they are together) and information about the route.

  3. The Migrant Caravans. The caravans constitute a stepping stone to the formation of groups. The caravans are a collective strategy migrants use to reduce the costs of travelling, poor treatment, and extortion by immigration and police officials. Also, migrants gather in these large groups to prevent the violence they commonly experience in transit. The largest caravan to date, that of October 2018, allowed members to cross international borders and arrive at the Mexico-US border. With the caravan, those who had been invisible were made visible. Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans who composed the caravan vividly condemned their governments and claimed their right to freedom of movement and asylum.  

Findings show how strategies are deployed based on the circumstances migrants face. Depending on the resources – human, social, economic, and institutional – that migrants possess, they use different strategies to cope and adapt to the environment in which they are. 

Moreover, the creation and use of strategies indicate an evolution from the micro- to the macro-level. For instance, migrants use micro-level strategies, such as hiring coyotes to cross the border when they can afford to hire one. If that is not the case, they can use meso-level strategies, such as adhering or forming small groups to traverse Central American countries and Mexico. Lastly, migrants who lack resources, networks, and knowledge about the migratory route can deploy other strategies, macro-level strategies, like forming and joining the migrant caravans to cross countries to arrive in the US. In other words, migrants have created strategies, individual and collective, vis-à-vis the restrictive migratory context. Finally, these strategies have evolved and will continue to expand as long as the need for migrants with precarious statuses and asylum seekers to leave their countries continues.

Rosario de la Luz Rizzo Lara is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University San Bernardino. She has a Joint Doctorate in Migration and Modernity from the University of Kent and the Freie Universität Berlin. She holds a M.A. in Latin American Studies from The University of Texas at Austin, and a B.S. in International Business Management from Universidad Veracruzana. She also received a Post Graduate Certificate on US-Mexico Border Studies from El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. Her current research focuses on the Migrant Caravans of Central America to the US. She is interested in how the caravans came about, the mobilisation strategies used by organisers, and collective action frames articulated to mobilise participants.


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