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Despite Trump threats, U.S. officials allow caravan members to seek asylum

Elmer Zelaya Gomez and Evelyn Vega, from El Salvador, wait with their daughter Nayely, 7, in Tijuana, Mexico, at the San Ysidro border crossing. They were among the group of asylum seekers waiting Tuesday to cross the U.S. border to have their asylum cases processed. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

MEXICO CITY — For weeks, President Trump has expressed alarm about a caravan of Central American migrants heading for the United States and vowed to keep them out. But on Tuesday, U.S. officials allowed small groups of the asylum seekers across the border, bowing to U.S. and international law regarding such cases.

By Tuesday evening, 25 of the 150 migrants had been escorted to San Diego to begin the process of applying for asylum. Their arrival appeared to be a blow to Trump’s efforts to block the caravan — a campaign that has involved calling out the National Guard, threatening Mexico if it did not stop the migrants and warning that the participants, mostly women and children, represented a threat to national security.

In the end, though, it was not clear that the episode would be a setback for a president who turns his frustration into punctuation in his fight against illegal immigration.

Eight women and children from a Central American caravan entered the United States on April 30 to seek asylum after a month-long trail across Mexico. (Video: Reuters)

The president has used the migrants’ journey to repeatedly project a show of force, announcing that he would deploy National Guard troops to the Mexican border and invoking the caravan to call for tougher immigration policies, such as constructing a border wall, that have so far eluded him.

“We are a nation of laws. We have to have borders,” Trump said at a news conference this week with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, noting that he has been watching the caravan “for weeks” as it traveled north. “We don’t have borders, we don’t have a country.”

That show of force belies the reality: In one sense, the Trump administration’s hands are largely tied when it comes to these migrants.

Despite Trump’s demands, relayed to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, to “not let these large Caravans” into the United States, federal law and international treaties mandate that the administration consider the requests of asylum applicants. The asylum process can take years.

The Trump administration vs. the caravan: Here’s what you need to know

The United States each month receives thousands of people seeking asylum, saying they cannot return home because they face danger as a result of their political beliefs, their religion, their race or other issues. Those cases are normally processed with little fanfare, and other convoys of Central American migrants have made similar journeys in recent years without attracting much attention.

But conservative American media and the president seized on video images of the latest caravan — which comprised around 1,500 people when it set out a month ago from the southern Mexican city of Tapachula — as a sign of out-of-control migration.

The caravan is “a symbol. It’s something that he can easily understand and his supporters can understand, for him to score political points,” said Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank.

In one of his first tweets on the caravan, Trump said it was evidence that the border was “Getting more dangerous.” He escalated his rhetoric, at one point threatening Mexico and Honduras with reprisals if they did not stop the convoy. “Cash cow NAFTA is in play, as is foreign aid to Honduras and the countries that allow this to happen,” he tweeted.

Trump also repeatedly used the caravan to lambaste Congress, which has not been willing to approve some of his immigration proposals.

“Now we’re working on the border with the worst laws any country — no matter where you go, all over the world, they can’t even believe it. And we’re doing the best we can with it,” Trump said at this week’s news conference. “But we have to have changes in Congress, and we have to have it quickly.”

The caravan episode gave Trump another opportunity to satisfy those in his conservative base who have been his most ardent supporters. His retreat to his signature hard-line positions early last month came not only in conjunction with news coverage of the caravan but at a time when his base was showing signs of impatience that Trump had as yet failed to fulfill major campaign promises on immigration. At that time, Trump had reluctantly signed a $1.3 trillion spending measure that did not include measures he had sought cracking down on illegal migration — a package that was abhorred by his base and prompted a backlash in conservative media.

After a day at the border, first 8 members of migrant caravan make asylum claims

Attorneys who represent asylum applicants argued, however, that Trump’s rhetoric would be useless in deterring migrants, since many had no other option but to flee their homelands.

Government officials “think their words and rhetoric can deter people from coming here unlawfully,” said Bryan Johnson, an immigration lawyer based in Bay Shore, N.Y. “But the people who come aren’t going to be deterred. They don’t have a choice.”

That was the argument of Luis Alexander Rodriguez Pineda, 18, who came from El Salvador with his cousin and his uncle. He said he escaped from his country and joined the caravan because of death threats against him from gangs.

“Since we left Tapachula, the president has been saying we’re terrorists who are going to enter the country, but it’s not true,” he said. “Now we’re waiting for his answer. But we know that he has no right to deny us asylum.”

U.S. officials started processing the asylum seekers Monday night, after keeping them waiting for a day because of what authorities called a lack of capacity. While the government was obliged to grant the migrants asylum interviews, the arc of their cases is impossible to predict. The Trump administration has said that many asylum applicants disappear after being freed following their initial court dates, joining the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country. Because most members of the Central American caravan are families, they would typically be released with ankle bracelets to monitor their movement, or on bail bonds.

With the enormous amount of attention on the caravan, however, some lawyers worried that these migrants would be more likely to be deported quickly.

“This particular group was more open about how they were coming to the U.S., and now they're suffering the political consequences,” Johnson said.

Supporters of tighter immigration policies applauded Trump’s actions, even if they did not keep out members of the caravan.

“The administration seems to have responded vigorously enough to avoid sending the message that future efforts like this caravan will succeed,” said Mark Krikorian, the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “Once you send the signal that some people will be able to get away with this, others will receive that signal and follow . . . and 150 people will become 150,000 and after that a million.”

But some members of Trump’s base remain frustrated as his immigration proposals have stalled.

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter sarcastically tweeted this week “THEY’RE TERRIFIED, KIRSTJEN!” in reference to the homeland security secretary’s remarks to the migrants that they would be referred for prosecution if they cross the border illegally.

Coulter added: “Caravan: ‘We’ll see you soon Mr President!’ ”

Kim reported from Washington. Nick Miroff in Washington contributed to this report.

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