The effects of the pandemic on forced migration in Central America, Mexico and the USA

COVID-19 has put us in a dilemma. We are faced with choices as individuals and as a society to move forward from our current predicament:

• we are either overcome by “fear of the other” or we grow in “solidarity with others”;
• we either assume an “every person for themselves” attitude, or we unite without leaving anyone behind;
• we either see God as the cause of all our suffering or as our comforter and support in facing it with hope.

The path we choose will determine the future of humanity. In Latin America, the pandemic has accelerated and aggravated the systemic crisis of migration in the region by exacerbating the structural causes of forced displacement: inequality and violence. It has made migrant populations more vulnerable by creating a greater need to migrate, with more difficulty and risk: there are now fewer sources of income and support during their journey. It has also led to increased militarization and migration restrictions.

As a result, migrants suffer greater emotional and physical challenges during their exodus and require greater humanitarian assistance. Many of them are now stranded and destitute; disappear without a trace; are being unfoundedly stigmatized as carriers of COVID-19; and are more likely to be deported. Ironically, the pandemic has highlighted the crucial role migrants play in host countries as many of them are doing essential and high-risk jobs. However, they are not always adequately compensated or recognized or given health protection. They are often considered indispensable, but disposable.

Faced with this crisis, the Jesuit Migration Network, has increased services and adapted delivery: most shelters continue to serve migrants in person; other centres give psychological, legal and spiritual support and information virtually; they are increasing hospitality campaigns in host communities; they have developed new ways to monitor the status of migrants, to prevent, document and denounce human rights violations which have increased due to excessive immigration control and increased aggression from organized crime; they are also trying to influence governments in the region to end rapid and indiscriminate deportations.

Guatemalan police stop migrants coming from Honduras last October 2020. Photo: ERIC-Radio Progreso.

This last issue is one of the most serious violations of human rights at this time: governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to deport thousands of vulnerable people without due process.

The Trump Administration carried out 59,710 expulsions between March and October of this year.1 The Guatemalan government, under the pretext of the pandemic, forced the “voluntary repatriation” of 2,159 Hondurans who sought to reach the United States in a caravan last October. Among them were women, families, and unaccompanied minors, who were not allowed to seek much needed shelter.2 Upon their return, young people risk being tortured or killed by local gangs (maras) from whom they sought escape.

The Mexican government threatened people in the caravan with 10 years in prison if they entered the country without complying with strict health measures.3 This contravenes the government’s policy of not criminalizing, much less penalizing, those who disregard these measures. Mexico’s president himself does not even wear a mask.

Yet another caravan was set to leave Honduras last December 10 but was immediately stopped by the Honduran government. The authorities argued none of the migrants could verify undergoing COVID-19 testing.

All these restrictions ignore the root causes of forced displacement and the impact of recent hurricanes Eta and Iota on over half a million people in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. A great majority have lost their crops, their belongings, their sources of income. As a member of the last caravan said: “I am forced to leave because I lost everything in the floods.”4 “How do I tell my son, I don’t have a house, I don’t have food to give you?” added a woman while crying.5

It is clear that there is no basis for stigmatizing migrants as carriers of the virus and the real reason for deportation is the growing opposition of governments in welcoming them. We must assume a culture of solidarity and hospitality in order to realize Pope Francis’s expressed desire in his Encyclical Fratelli Tutti: “If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless … If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected.”6

2 IGM, Informe Caravana 2020, 3 de octubre 2020.
3 INM, Boletín 366/2020 Advierte INM sanción a personas extranjeras que ingresen al país sin medidas sanitarias derivadas del SARS-Cov-2, 1° de octubre del 2020
6 Papa Francisco, Fratelli Tutti, # 35

Banner photo: Young people with the migrants’ caravan from Honduras are stopped by the Guatemalan police last October 2020. Credit: ERIC-Radio Progreso.


  • Rafael Moreno SJ is the Regional Coordinator of the Jesuit Migration Network – Central America and North America (RJM – CANA).