Metairie construction worker Wilmer Toro has kept close watch on reports of thousands of migrants traveling by caravan from Central America toward the U.S. border in recent days.

Upset with President Donald Trump’s statements that some of those migrants are "criminals" or "unknown Middle Easterners," Toro, a Honduran native, decided it was time to organize his community here in New Orleans.

If the migrants make it to the U.S., he says, some may seek refuge within the large Honduran community in the New Orleans area. And they will need help.

He is now working to raise awareness in hopes of providing legal services for asylum seekers, arranging for temporary housing, and finding people willing to donate funds.

"We are thinking about how to raise the consciousness of people in our own community," Toro said in his native Spanish. “We’re trying to think of ways to support people once they do get there, if they are able to get here.” 

Toro's push into activism reflects the deep but relatively unnoticed ties between Central America and New Orleans that first developed nearly a century ago through the banana trade but have strengthened following Hurricane Katrina.

With a population of more than 25,000, Hondurans are the largest Hispanic group in the New Orleans area.

Their ties to the region stretch back into the early 1900s, when United Fruit Co. and Standard Fruit Co., now Chiquita and Dole, set up their headquarters in New Orleans and grew bananas in Honduras and other nearby countries for export to the U.S.

Many more migrants flocked to the area to help rebuild homes and businesses devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Others, often unaccompanied children, came to the region in more recent years for the same relief from drug cartels and political turmoil now sought by those traveling in the caravan.

More than 7,000 travelers are fleeing Central America's so-called northern triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in one of the largest groups to do so in years.

Other caravans have formed in recent years, just without the same media attention. Organizers say forming a mass caravan is safer than trying to exit countries in smaller groups.

The group began with 160 people in San Pedro Sula, one of Honduras’ most violent cities, on Oct. 12. By the time it reached the border at Guatemala, it was more than 1,600 people strong.

The caravan, mostly composed of Hondurans, still has more than 1,000 miles to go before it reaches the southern U.S. border, and it has inspired another smaller caravan to follow its footsteps.

It has also been turned into a congressional campaign issue by Trump, who has claimed the national Democratic Party is to blame for the migrants because it refuses to change “weak” immigration policy.

At a Montana rally last week, Trump claimed, without evidence, that Democrats purposely organized the caravan to sway public opinion ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Santos Canales, a Honduran native who has lived in the U.S. since 1999, said the fact that immigrants are undeterred by the possibility of deportation or the exhausting journey north proves just how bad things have gotten in his native country. 

"Many of us have a neighbor on that caravan, or a friend on that caravan," he said, using Chloe Sigal of the local immigrant advocacy organization Congress of Day Laborers as his translator.

"The thousands of people who are on that caravan, they are not making a choice to come on vacation. They are fleeing for their lives, and they have no other choice," said Canales. "It's very hard to do that sort of thing, and that's why we want to support them."

Toro has lived in the U.S. for more than a decade but still has family in Honduras. He said that many travelers in the caravan can reasonably be expected to reunite with their local relatives, children or friends.

But seeking asylum in the U.S. could be much more difficult now than under previous administrations, according to attorney Kathleen Gasparian of Gasparian Spivey Immigration, a Baronne Street firm that deals exclusively with immigration rights cases.

Under federal and international law, migrants from another country may request asylum within another country's borders if they can prove they are being persecuted at home because of their race or ethnicity, religion, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

But Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in June that people who cite fears of gang violence or domestic abuse may no longer receive such protection, a policy that will affect tens of thousands of immigrants from Central America seeking to live here legally over the next few years.

As a result, “kids and women who have suffered abuse, who have been trafficked, are going to be the ones who have a harder climb through the system,” Gasparian said. “It will take years for the judicial challenges to those decisions to flow through the courts.”

Political violence and threats from the drug cartels are behind many of the decisions by migrants to make their journey north.

Toro said his countrymen are trying to escape the cartels who want to use their children as drug mules or prostitutes.

They also want to earn more than the $1.90 a day that is the norm for many families, and that is subsequently “taxed” by drug lords who have free reign over major Honduran cities, he said.

“The American public doesn’t understand the source, the root cause, of why people are coming here,” Toro said.


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.