“When we saw the numbers, we were shocked,” said Irineo Mujica, a Mexican American activist who is helping organize the trek. “It’s impossible to travel with this many people.”
Trump warned on Twitter this week that a “big Caravan” was “now coming across Mexico and heading to our ‘Weak Laws’ Border” — one of a number of warnings he issued about the march. The president, who made the fight against undocumented immigration a core campaign promise, declared that he would sent troops to the border to prevent a flood of illegal crossers.
But while many of the Central Americans in the group say they will try to get to the United States on their own, it has been decided that the organized caravan will finish in Mexico City after a stop in the city of Puebla later this week.
In a puzzling turnabout, Trump on Thursday appeared to praise “strong immigration laws” in Mexico for keeping the caravan from moving toward the U.S. border. Earlier this week, Trump accused Mexico of doing little to halt the flow of migrants, and threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement as punishment.
“The Caravan is largely broken up thanks to the strong immigration laws of Mexico and their willingness to use them so as not to cause a giant scene at our Border,” Trump wrote in a tweet, which also took credit for policies that have limited border crossings.
In Mexico, some of the families huddled under tarpaulins and trees at a soccer field in Matias Romero said they were frustrated to learn that the caravan won’t reach the border, having counted on the protection offered by the big group.
After fleeing San Pedro Sula, Honduras, because of gang threats, Katerina Dominguez Enamorado, 22, had been in Tapachula, a southern Mexico town, when she joined the caravan. She expected it would end in Tijuana, the Mexican border town across from San Diego. If she had known it would go only halfway across Mexico, she said, she would have tried to work in Tapachula and save money for the journey.
“My mission is to reach Tijuana, even if I have to beg for money and hitchhike,” she said.
Mexican immigration officials on Wednesday handed out legal permits of up to a month to hundreds of migrants who spent their fourth day in a public park here in the southern state of Oaxaca, waiting for the caravan to continue. This spares them from immediate deportation but is not a long-term solution. For Mujica, the organizer, that’s as much as he expects.
Mujica, the director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a migrants’ rights group, said he never intended to bum-rush the group over the border. In fact, he said, many of the migrants hoping to reach the border planned to ask for asylum — not sneak over illegally.
Caravans like this one are common as an attempt to raise awareness, but they exist apart from the regular flow of migrants. Conservative U.S. media seized on this year’s caravan as an example of unchecked migration, and Trump’s comments brought it more attention.
Although the president has repeatedly warned about the dangers of illegal immigrants pouring over the border, the numbers have fallen. U.S. border authorities reported a 26 percent decline in the number of people detained along the Mexico border in 2017 compared with the previous year.
Mujica reiterated that the point of the caravan was to emphasize the need for legal reforms, draw attention to the migrants’ plight and press for more welcoming policies from Mexican authorities. He said “the best thing we have won” from the spotlight Trump has turned on this particular group is a high-level meeting with Mexican immigration authorities to talk about long-term change.
Before, “it was like deaf ears, nobody was listening,” Mujica said, adding that migrants will be able to “exercise their rights with these documents.”
Organizers say that migrants can now take buses on their own to Puebla, a city south of the capital, where a workshop on immigration law is planned for Friday. Rodrigo Abeja, one of the organizers, said help was being sought from a breakaway faction of Mexico’s teachers union, which has years of experience convening large protests and is generally aligned with the country’s leftist presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. But the logistics remain fluid.
Even before Trump got involved, this had become the biggest caravan that this group of organizers had seen.
Many Hondurans who fled after their country’s contested presidential election in November had already amassed in Tapachula and joined the caravan when it set off late last month. Mujica said that at least 80 percent of the migrants are from Honduras.
One of them, Maria Elena Colindres Ortega, 43, had been a congresswoman in Honduras until January. She said she joined in the hope of eventually applying for political asylum in the United States. More than 20 people were killed in post-election protests, and Honduras has long been a dangerous place for activists.
“I couldn’t wait for them to kill me,” Colindres Ortega said.
The hundreds of people gathered here still face daunting prospects. After the relative safety of the caravan ends, dangers abound for migrants, especially in the violence-ridden Mexican states along the U.S. border. And while most here have tales of woe, proving the need for asylum to U.S. courts is a different matter.
Misael Bonilla, 31, carried his three children’s birth certificates and a printed photograph of his slain brother-in-law that he hoped would be enough to allow his family to apply for asylum in the United States. The family has moved three times to evade the Barrio 18 street gang, which he said had fired gunshots at his house, left death threats on his phone and sent his stepson threats on Facebook.
“You take the risk of staying in your own country, where they are going to kill you, or you take the risk of taking this path, which is dangerous,” Bonilla said. “We thought it would be better to flee.”
Trump has made the migrant caravan a central theme in tweets. He has warned that Mexico must stop the group or risk being penalized in the negotiations over revising the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has also threatened to reduce U.S. aid to Honduras.
Maya Averbuch in Matias Romero contributed to this report.