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The mystery of ‘unknown Middle Easterners’: Who is really in the migrant caravan?

Thousands of Central American migrants arrived in southern Mexico on Oct. 21, on their journey to the United States. (Video: Luc Forsyth/The Washington Post)

TAPACHULA, Mexico — No one here has seen any “unknown Middle Easterners” among the Central Americans heading north through Mexico.

“Hardened criminals” have been tough to identify, as have “very tough criminal elements.”

Those are the ways President Trump has described members of the migrant caravan. When a reporter asked him how he was so sure, he responded: “Don’t be a baby.”

So who are the more than 5,000 people who left Central America in recent weeks, joining a group that hopes eventually to cross into the United States?

Their stories are often reduced to the reasons they fled their hometowns: people running from violence or poverty or trying to reunite with American wives and children. But watching the enormous procession march through the streets of southern Mexico, the most striking thing about the group’s demographic is how varied it is.

Women push babies in strollers next to clusters of teenage boys. At night, small families sleep on the ground next to middle-aged men smoking cigarettes. One man walks with his 3-month-old puppy named Muñeca on a red leash. One teenager shows off his tattoo of a marijuana leaf.

A little girl carries a stuffed koala on her head. A pregnant woman stops to take a break in the shade. A young couple kisses after a rainstorm. A 6-month-old girl wears a yellow dress that reads, “Little baby dancer.” A man wears a shirt he bought in Arizona, before being deported for the sixth time.

When they see an American reporter, some of them smile and yell out whatever words of English they can remember. Some of them curse America’s president. Some of them name the cities where they lived for years before being deported. Some of them ask for money or food or water.

Some of them can afford cheap hotels. Most sleep on the ground outside. Some are having second thoughts, hearing translated news clips of Trump’s threats to dispatch the military. Most can’t think of anything that would deter them.

Trump said: “These aren’t babies, these aren’t little angels coming into our country."

In many cases, they literally are babies. But in general, the best way to think about the caravan is not as a concentrated group of good or bad people, or young or old people, or asylum seekers or economic migrants.

Instead, it’s as if an entire town collected its belongings in backpacks and plastic bags, and started walking north.

The organizers here have stopped referring to the group as a caravan.

They prefer another word: “Exodus.”

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