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Migrant Caravan Arrives at U.S. Border, but Long Road Awaits

Migrant Caravan Arrives at U.S. Border, but Long Road Awaits


They had fled El Salvador because of a gang’s death threats, they said, and were planning to apply for asylum when they crossed into the United States from Tijuana. Organizers had encouraged participants to seek asylum at Tijuana rather than Mexicali because it was easier to arrange for volunteer lawyers.

Photo



A health official with a migrant family in Mexicali on Tuesday.

Credit
Meghan Dhaliwal for The New York Times

“We’ve almost arrived in the United States,” Mr. Claros said, smiling broadly at his brother. But then he considered the legal road ahead, and his smile faded.

“There’s still a long way to go,” he said.

Another several hundred caravan members were expected to follow later in the day in a separate convoy of buses, and a third contingent, traveling atop freight trains, later this week.

The group of migrants set off from Tapachula, Mexico, on March 25, and moved north, more or less en masse, by foot, hitchhiking, on buses and by stowing away on trains.

Such mass migrations have become an annual rite, usually around Easter week, with the size of the group providing protection against the criminals who lurk along the path and helping to draw public attention to their plight.

This year’s group, which numbered upward of 1,200 in the journey’s early stages, was perhaps the largest on record. Still, like all the caravans that have come before, this one might easily have gone unnoticed had it not ended up on “Fox & Friends,” a favorite television show of President Trump.

The president posted a series of messages on Twitter that warned of dangers from the group. Mr. Trump used the caravan as a cudgel against the Mexican government, accusing it of doing little to curb illegal northward migration, and as grounds to deploy the National Guard to the southwest border of the United States.

With the caravan nearing the Mexico-United States border this week, Mr. Trump returned to the subject, saying on Twitter on Monday that he had instructed the Department of Homeland Security “not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country.”

Photo



The Hernández family rested at the Hotel del Migrantes in Mexicali on Tuesday.

Credit
Meghan Dhaliwal for The New York Times

“It is a disgrace,” he declared.

He also took another shot at Mexico, saying that it “must stop people from going through Mexico and into the U.S.” and proposing that the matter be “a condition” of a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.

About an hour later, Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s foreign secretary, rejected Mr. Trump’s remarks as “unacceptable.”

“Mexico decides its immigration policy in a sovereign manner,” Mr. Videgaray said.

Two members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, also weighed in with tough statements about the caravan.

Mr. Sessions said he had ensured there would be “sufficient prosecutors” and immigration judges to defend the nation’s legal interests and handle the arriving migrants. The migrants in the caravan, he said, “ignored the willingness of the Mexican government to allow them to stay in Mexico” and their arrival at the border was “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.”

Mr. Sessions’s statement did not seem to allow for the possibility that some members of the caravan might have legitimate claims to asylum in the United States.

Caravan organizers estimated that 100 to 300 of the migrants intended to petition for asylum when they presented themselves to American authorities at the border. The United States grants people asylum if they can prove persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political belief or other factors, a process that can take years.

Since Mr. Trump took office last year, the administration has not ordered customs officials to turn away asylum seekers. But it has said that the asylum system encourages undocumented immigrants without valid claims to swarm the border.

In recent years, judges have approved fewer than half of all asylum requests, and the percentage of Central Americans who are approved is substantially lower. Many asylum seekers from Central America claim they have been victimized by gangs, which is harder to prove than political persecution.

If their petitions are denied, asylum seekers can be deported. But since many are released while their cases are pending, some never return to court and evade deportation. The Trump administration has said that asylum seekers should be released less often, and lawyers have reported that more applicants are being detained.

Tristan Call, a volunteer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a transnational advocacy group that coordinated the caravan, said Mr. Trump’s denunciation of its members reflected “a policy to punish the least protected people.”

Mexican authorities have defended their handling of the caravan, saying that they have acted within Mexican and international law. Many of the current caravan participants received temporary travel documents from the Mexican government providing protection from deportation and giving them several weeks to apply for legal immigration status in Mexico or leave the country.

The advocacy group’s original plan was to push the caravan as far north as it could, accompanying those migrants who planned to settle in northern Mexican cities or hoped to cross, legally or not, into the United States. Based on such movements in the past, the organizers expected the vast majority of participants to drop out along the way, either to travel separately in smaller, more nimble groups or to stay in Mexico.

Given the size of this year’s group and the intense international focus that Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts brought, the coordinators announced that they would disband the caravan once it reached Mexico City, the capital.

But the caravan kept gathering momentum, which ultimately carried it beyond the capital.

“A large number of caravan members remained organized themselves and did not want to break up,” said Alex Mensing, project coordinator for Pueblo Sin Fronteras. “Since they stuck together, we made the decision to keep going with them.”

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