TIJUANA, MEXICO — The first eight members of a Central American migrant caravan crossed into U.S. territory on Monday evening after waiting a day at the border, and authorities began a process to determine whether they will be granted asylum in the United States.
Even as the first of a group of 150 asylum seekers trickled into the port of entry at the San Ysidro crossing into California, the Trump administration showed that it will seek to punish some of the migrants, who have attracted the ire of President Trump and other senior members of his administration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that the Justice Department has filed criminal charges against 11 suspected members of the caravan for illegally entering the country, including one who has been deported previously, according to a statement. While the main caravan group is waiting to enter through legal channels at the port of entry, the statement said these migrants got picked up crossing into the country illegally elsewhere along the border.
“The United States will not stand by as our immigration laws are ignored and our nation’s safety is jeopardized,” Sessions said in a statement.
Alex Mensing, one of the caravan coordinators, said he did not know whether the people charged had been part of the caravan. In legal workshops, the migrants have been told that “crossing anywhere other than a port of entry is a crime that’s prosecutable, and we never encourage anyone to do that,” he said.
At the port of entry, U.S. authorities appeared to be following through on plans to accept the migrants into custody and begin the process of determining whether they would be granted asylum. The first group of eight, including three mothers, four children, and an 18-year-old male, entered the border crossing before 7 p.m.
The scene at the Tijuana border has garnered intense scrutiny. On one side of the standoff are about 150 migrants who cite their right to seek shelter from persecution back home and have traveled through Mexico in a caravan to highlight the suffering of asylum seekers. On the other side is the Trump administration, which is trying to crack down on illegal immigration and says many asylum claims are fraudulent.
Trump tweeted last week that he had ordered the secretary of homeland security “not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country,” adding, “It is a disgrace.”
But under international treaties it has signed, the U.S. government is obliged to allow foreigners to apply for asylum.
It remains unclear how fast the Trump administration plans to process the remaining migrants. The San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego has detention space for about 300 people. U.S. officials have not said how many people are being held there. Asylum seekers are typically detained until officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conduct interviews to determine whether they have a credible fear of persecution or torture if they are sent home.
The first few dozen migrants from the caravan, wearing white armbands to identify themselves, walked up to the San Ysidro entry point Sunday night but were not allowed to enter. They and the other Central Americans on the convoy had received extraordinary attention after conservative U.S. media highlighted their trip and the president denounced the caravan.
On Monday, many migrants sat on the ground on blankets and under donated blue tarps outside the border crossing. They passed around a Tijuana newspaper to try to learn scraps of information about their fate.
Trump has made this caravan a symbol of what he calls a porous border and lax immigration laws. He has used it as justification to deploy National Guard troops along the border and alleged that Mexico was not enforcing its immigration laws, further straining relations with a key U.S. ally.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently called the caravan “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.”
Asked about the asylum seekers Monday, Trump told reporters that “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.” He called for tougher border policies, including a massive wall.
Many migrants say they face threats to their lives in their native lands. Karina Gomez Cruz, 16, who said she had left Nicaragua with her mother because of domestic violence and gang threats, spent the night at the border crossing and was wondering Monday what her future would hold.
“I’m bored of waiting, anxious to arrive and nervous because they don’t let us through,” Gomez Cruz said. “It’s far colder than in Nicaragua.”
If they succeed in entering the United States, the migrants may still face a long and complicated journey through the immigration court system. Migrants who pass the initial “credible fear” screening often get assigned a date in immigration court and then are released after a few days in custody. U.S. officials say many migrants skip their court dates and try to live illegally in the United States.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen issued a statement when the caravan reached the border, warning that the administration would prosecute its members if they entered the country illegally, if they made false claims or if they coached anyone into telling lies.
“That would really show how much the administration is willing to make the caravan an example of its harsh policy proposals,” said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Trump administration officials say that more migrants are applying for asylum than in the past, in an attempt to take advantage of immigration rules. The number of foreigners making a claim of “credible fear” rose nearly 1,900 percent between 2008 and 2016, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
In past years, organizers have assembled caravans of asylum seekers to raise awareness about the plight of migrants, but they normally do not gain international attention. This year, conservative media in the United States seized on the caravan as a symbol that illegal immigration was surging, and Trump focused his Twitter ire on the march.
The caravan initially comprised over 1,000 people, but some decided to stay in Mexico and others peeled off to make their way north on foot or by bus and train.
For those who made it to Tijuana, Monday was a difficult day of waiting outside the port of entry.
Suany Rodriguez, 6, who had been running to the bathroom all day with a bad case of diarrhea, grabbed a Barbie before sitting down in the street in front of a pharmacy. Her mother, Irma Rivera, 31, said that the girl had woken up sick after a bitterly cold night.
The family had left Honduras after Rivera’s husband was killed in a field, she said. The farmers on the outskirts of their home town of Trujillo had long had conflicts with private security guards working for large landowners.
Rivera said she received anonymous phone calls stating that if any guards died in retribution for her husband’s killing, other members of her family would be slain. That’s why she is seeking asylum.
“We’re asking for them [U.S. authorities] to be fair. You don’t leave your country because you want to. The violence makes you leave,” Rivera said. “My life is at risk, and so are the lives of my children.”
Partlow reported from Mexico City. Nick Miroff in Washington contributed to this report.