MEXICO CITY – Central American migrants traveling in a caravan plan to leave Mexico City early Friday morning to continue their long journey northward to the U.S.-Mexico border even as the Trump administration moves forward with its plan to dramatically cut back immigrants’ ability to request asylum.
The migrants voted late Thursday night to leave Mexico City, beginning at 6 a.m. (EST), en route to the city of Querétaro, which is about 120 miles north of the Mexican capital. The migrants, who number between 4,000 and 5,000 and include women and children, will be on foot along a heavily traveled highway after they failed to secure buses from United Nations officials to get them to the U.S. southern border. About 200 marched to a local UN office to demand buses to transport them.
Supporters say the group is looking to go through a safer – albeit longer – route to Tijuana, which is at least 1,600 miles away from Querétaro.
The call to set out on Friday morning came only hours after Trump administration officials announced Thursday its plan to restrict asylum claims by refusing to hear cases of anyone not entering the country legally through an authorized port of entry. The administration’s move is expected to be challenged in court by immigrant advocates and others.
Under U.S. law, migrants are allowed to request asylum whether they present themselves at ports of entry or sidestep those ports and illegally enter the country. But the rules proposed by the administration would bar those who enter illegally from making an asylum claim and place them into expedited deportation proceedings instead, according to a posting by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security on the Federal Register late Thursday.
Trump is likely to sign a presidential proclamation as early as Friday outlining the asylum restrictions, which would kick-start the new rules.
When the last caravan reached the USA in April, 401 presented themselves at ports of entry, as the administration has urged them to do, but 122 quit waiting and entered the country illegally to request asylum, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
At his lengthy and combative news conference on Wednesday, Trump repeated his characterization of the caravan as “an invasion” to the U.S. when questioned by a reporter.
“I consider it an invasion, you and I have a difference of opinion,” he told the reporter.
News of the administration’s proposed restrictions on asylum reached migrants part of the caravan, but didn’t seem to dissuade most from giving up on their goal of getting to the U.S. southern border.
“I don’t care what Donald Trump says,” quipped Honduran migrant Jorge López, 18, who plans to apply for asylum. “I’ll go through the front door, but if they don’t allow it, I’ll enter whatever way I can.”
López previously drove a tricycle taxi in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, one of the most violent cities in the hemisphere. He said he joined the caravan after tattooed gangsters gave him an ultimatum: join them as a hit man or else.
“I fled my country,” López said on a chilly evening in Mexico City as he searched desperately for a pair of shoes to replace a pair of Crocs he had been given. “I can’t return to Honduras. They’ll kill me.”
Central American migrants have said they are determined to get to the U.S. border, citing rampant poverty and government corruption, in addition to gang violence and extortion they faced in their home countries.
To qualify for asylum, migrants must first pass a credible fear of persecution or torture interview at the border conducted by a U.S. immigration officer. Most migrants believe just fleeing violence conditions in their home country and poverty is enough to qualify.
“There isn’t any work. There is a lot of poverty, a lot of crime a lot of a lot of things,” said Maria Lidia Romero, 17, who was traveling with her 6-month-old daughter, Lesli Danesi Romero.
The caravan had paused in Mexico City since the first migrants started converging Saturday night on the capital – some 1,000 miles from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the first of three caravans currently in Mexico originated on Oct. 12.
The migrants remain nearly 700 miles from the closest U.S. port of entry at Laredo, Texas, though caravan coordinators have cited Tijuana as the preferred destination due to there being more employment opportunities in the city and relatively less violence than other Mexican border areas.
Some in the caravan raced to Mexico City – such as López, who found a trucker willing to take him from Veracruz state to the national capital in a trailer. But many migrants expressed doubts about going it alone.
“If we were to go it alone, I’d be scared. But in the caravan, there are human rights organizations with us and there’s media coverage,” said Joel Noriega, a Honduran heading north in hopes of “supporting my family.”
Noriega hadn’t heard of the plans to make asylum requests more restrictive, but tough talk from north of the border didn’t discourage him or make him consider trying his luck in Mexico.
“He says these things,” he said, “But we’ll take God’s hand and hopefully get through.”
The caravan’s journey through Mexico has put outgoing Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in a bind because taking action against the migrants would appear to be acquiescing to Trump’s demands. During his successful campaign, president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who takes office in December, said Mexico wouldn’t do the “dirty work of any foreign government.” But he has said little about the caravan other than to promise work visas for migrants choosing to stay in Mexico.
Peña Nieto announced a plan for caravan participants called, “You’re home,” which provided temporary work visas and access to health care and education. The majority of caravan participants declined the offer, however, according to a statement from Mexico’s interior ministry.
“We’re not assured of anything here so it’s better to keep on going,” said Darwin Mejia, 29, an out-of-work construction worker who wanted the opportunity to earn dollars in the United States. “I hope they will give us permission to work. The person who will decide is God. We’re putting ourselves in his hands.”
Mexico City, meanwhile, has welcomed the caravan with open arms, housing thousands of migrants in a sports stadium on the east side of the city, offering complimentary health checkups and providing three meals a day. Generous locals dropped off bundles of warm clothes, while barbers cut hair for free and mariachi bands serenaded the guests.
“We’ve been treated very well,” Noriega said “We’ve been given food clothes. We can’t complain.”
At least two more caravans are currently traveling toward Mexico City.
Christopher Gascon, the Mexico representative for the International Organization for Migration, estimated there are an estimated 4,000 migrants in the other caravans working their way through southern Mexico.
Mexico City government authorities told The Associated Press that nearly 5,000 migrants are being sheltered in the sports complex, with more than 1,700 migrants under the age of 18, including 310 children under age five.
The Mexican government told the AP that most of the migrants have refused offers to stay in Mexico, and only a small number have agreed to return to their home countries. About 85 percent of the migrants are from Honduras, while others are from the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
The Associated Press and the Arizona Republic’s Daniel Gonzalez contributed.
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