The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the U.S. border, a diminished migrant caravan readies for an unwelcoming reception

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TIJUANA, Mexico — The American president, a former real estate mogul, does not want Byron Garcia in the United States. But the Honduran teenager was too busy building his own hotel empire this week to worry much about that.

Vermont Avenue and Connecticut Avenue were his. Now he was looking to move up-market.

The mini-Monopoly board on the dusty floor of the migrant shelter was small, but it fit well in the small space beside the tents. His older sister, Carolina, rolled a 2 and landed on Oriental Avenue.

“That’ll be $500,” said Garcia, 15, gleefully extending his hand. “I love this game!”

Garcia is coming to America on Sunday. Or maybe not. His mother, Orfa Marin, 33, isn’t sure it will be a good day to walk up to the border crossing and tell a U.S. officer that her family needs asylum. She knows President Trump wants to stop them.

Marin and her three children are among the 300 or so remaining members of the migrant caravan who have arrived here at the end of a month-long geographic and political odyssey, a trip that has piqued Trump’s Twitter anger and opened new cracks in U.S.-Mexico relations.

The organizers of the caravan say they are planning to hold a rally Sunday at Friendship Park, the international park where a 15-foot border fence splits the beach. From there, activists and attorneys plan to lead a group of the migrants to the U.S. port of entry at San Ysidro, Calif., where they will approach U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and formally request asylum.

Tired and anxious after more than a month on the road, they bring searing personal stories of murdered family members and gang threats back in Central America. It will be up to U.S. courts — if they are admitted into the country — to sort out whether they deserve protection or deportation.

Organizers say they expect about 100 people to attempt Sunday’s crossing but acknowledge that many could get “cold feet” after so much buildup.

Regardless of the final number, it will be something considerably more modest than the procession of 1,500 people who appeared on Fox News in late March and seized the president’s attention. His successive tweets depicted them as a lurid threat moving to storm a lawless U.S. border.

Trump has ordered U.S. soldiers to deploy and Homeland Security officials to block the migrants. But the diminished version of the caravan that has arrived here, mostly women and children, has only underscored its meekness.

The families are drained after weeks of travel, coughing children and pinto beans. They have crowded here into shelters in the city’s squalid north end, where the sidewalks are smeared with dog droppings and skimpily dressed women hand out drink promotions among the strip clubs and brothels. The tall American border fence is two blocks away.

Children play on the sidewalks outside the shelters, the boredom broken whenever a car with donations arrives to drop off clothes and toys.

Central Americans migrants in Mexico have long been treated as a kind of renewable natural resource, ripe for exploitation by thieves, predators and politicians. The geopolitical importance attached to this particular group was a sign to many here that the U.S. president had recognized an opportunity, too.

“We’re not terrorists or bad people,” Marin said.

Regardless of its size, Trump officials have measured this caravan in symbolic terms, as an egregious example of the “loophole” they want to shut and an immigration system whose generosity is being abused, they say, by hundreds of thousands of Central Americas trying to dupe it.

U.S. law generally allows foreign nationals who reach U.S. territory to apply for asylum, and it bars the government from holding minors in prolonged detention. Adults traveling with children who reach the border and request asylum typically spend a few days in federal custody before they are released and assigned a court date, often many months or years away.

The vast majority of Central American asylum requests are not approved, but many applicants skip out on their court appearances to remain in the United States illegally as long as possible.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen issued new warnings this week threatening caravan members with criminal prosecution if they file a false immigration claim. Anyone who advises migrants to do so also faces prosecution.

The escalating threats have ­fueled speculation that Customs and Border Protection officers could stop caravan members from approaching the port to make the asylum request, or that Mexican authorities could intervene at the last minute to force them back.

In an interview, Pete Flores, the top official for CBP’s San Diego field office, said that asylum procedures at the border crossings have not changed and that the “status quo” remained in effect.

“If someone arrives, we take their claim and we will process them,” Flores said. “We will take them as our capacity allows them to come into the port of entry.” The San Ysidro detention cells can hold about 300 people, he said.

The chance that Mexican authorities would block caravan members from reaching the border appeared remote. The state governor sent three tour buses to bring them from Mexicali. Police and military patrols circled by the shelters every few minutes and kept close watch on the homeless and addicted men living on the streets, some of them long-ago deportees who never made it back to their U.S. lives.

“I’m not afraid, but I know that President Trump doesn’t want to let us in,” said Yorleny Cantarero, 27. “And besides, I can’t go home.”

Organizers have told her asylum is “guaranteed by the United Nations,” she said.

Cantarero said that her abusive husband has threatened to kill her and that the police don’t enforce the restraining order against him. She left her son, 9, with his father in Honduras and fled with their daughters, ages 7 and 2. She was living with the girls in a rented room in southern Mexico and earning $6 a day at a fruit stand when she heard about the caravan. She saw it as the only safe way for a young mother with no money to get a chance at asylum.

“These people have no option but to seek refuge in another country, and they have every right to seek asylum, they have decided to face the consequences and to be strong in demanding what is their right,” said Leonard Olsen, 26, a law student and one of several caravan organizers from the United States. He wore a tattered Philadelphia Eagles cap and arrived in Tijuana on Thursday with a busload of women and children.

Among the 300 who reached the end of the line here are many who say they are not planning to cross at all, including men whose previous deportations make it exceedingly difficult to make an asylum claim. A painful separation awaits other families, who fear men with them will be jailed and deported if they cross as a family.

Jeannette Gonzalez, 28, was traveling with her daughters, ages 4 and 10 months, and the girls’ father, to whom she is not married. He will go first with the 4-year-old, while she remains in Tijuana with the baby until the father and the older girl are released from U.S. detention. Then the family will attempt to reunite.

The girls’ father, a forklift operator, will be killed if he is deported to El Salvador, Gonzalez said, because he has refused to work for a gang as a driver.

Nielsen and other Trump officials have urged the migrants to remain in Mexico, where many have qualified for asylum protections. But Gonzalez said she has no family there, while an aunt in Texas is ready to take them. If they can get into the United States.

“Obama was the son of an immigrant. He understood,” Gonzalez said. “But Trump doesn’t want us there, and we’re scared.”