The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More than 10,000 migrants request visas as caravan hits Mexico

Honduran migrants who have decided to seek the Mexican humanitarian card wait on the bridge that crosses the river Suchiate to enter Mexican territory through the city of Hidalgo, Mexico, on Jan. 21, 2019. (Luis Villalobos/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

MEXICO CITY — Mexico said Wednesday that more than 10,000 people have requested visas to cross its southern border as it seeks to grant legal documents to members of a rapidly growing U.S.-bound migrant caravan from Central America.

If the migrants travel together, the convoy could exceed the size of the last such caravan, which became a flash point in U.S.-Mexican relations as President Trump seized on it to argue for building a giant border wall

But the new movement is far less organized than the last caravan. Those migrants traveled together in part to avoid arrest. The current group of migrants, in contrast, will have legal papers and may disperse.  

Still, analysts said the new Mexican policy of welcoming migrants with visas marked a stark change from the past — and could lead to an increase in migration and tensions with the Trump administration. 

“If word gets out that people are able to get in legally, to work, that creates a huge incentive for people who hadn’t thought of migrating,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group. 

The latest caravan set out from Honduras on Jan. 15 and initially totaled only about 2,000 people. But other migrants continued to join the human flow as it began to reach the Mexican border and its members were welcomed with the chance to apply for humanitarian visas. 

The visas are part of a new policy by center-left President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has decried the sometimes-brutal treatment of Central American migrants by Mexican security forces in the past. In recent years, under American pressure, Mexico has also escalated its efforts to detain such migrants traveling without documents.

López Obrador has called for reducing migration by investing in job creation in Central America. But his government has also indicated its willingness to work with the Trump administration, which is seeking to have Mexico host migrants applying for U.S. asylum during the entire process, which can take months or years. 

Trump portrayed the last caravan as a national-security threat — even though most of the migrants appeared to be fleeing poverty and violence — and ordered the U.S. military to the border in response. Now, the president is locked in a bitter fight with congressional Democrats over a border wall, with his demand for funding leading to a government shutdown.  

“Mexico is doing NOTHING to stop the Caravan which is now fully formed and heading to the United States,” Trump tweeted Saturday. On Wednesday, he threatened to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, saying the countries were “doing nothing for us.”   

Since Mexican authorities started accepting applications for the new visas last Thursday, more than 10,000 migrants have applied — including 8,446 adults and 1,897 children or adolescents, according to figures issued Wednesday morning. The vast majority are from Honduras, which suffers high levels of violence, poverty and political instability.

So far, Mexican authorities have granted just 628 visas, causing the number of those stalled on the border to swell.  

The soaring number of migrants requesting visas has raised questions about whether such mass movements may become a regular phenomenon. The border city of Tijuana has struggled to accommodate about 5,000 people who arrived in November in the last caravan. About 1,800 are still there, according to Cesar Palencia, the head of migrant affairs for the city — many facing long waits for asylum interviews with U.S. officials. 

“At the moment we are beyond capacity, and there is still no shelter space,” Palencia said in an interview. If a new caravan arrived, he said, it “would overwhelm us.” 

Some analysts cautioned that the huge number of Central Americans seeking visas did not necessarily represent a jump in migration — yet. 

Stephanie Leutert, head of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin, noted that Mexican authorities apprehended more than 18,000 Central Americans trying to cross the country’s southern border illegally in October, and approximately 12,000 in November. Some in the group seeking humanitarian visas, she said, may have been planning to cross illegally — and simply took advantage of a legal option when it emerged.

But if the policy continues, she said, it could change some of the dynamics of migration. “It’s a 180-degree flip” for Mexico, she said. 

Among those waiting Wednesday to receive visas was Samy Vazquez, 38, of San Pedro Sula, who said he had gotten death threats for his work as a human-rights activist in Honduras and wanted to seek asylum in the United States. 

Now that he was getting a visa, he said, he had decided to send for his family in Honduras so they could sign up, too. “I’m not sure if it’s best to travel with the big group or if we should take a bus to the border,” he said by telephone.

Mexico has tried to help past caravan members by offering them jobs and temporary work permits. But the vast majority of the migrants want to head to the United States, Mexican officials acknowledge.

For migrants in Tijuana, seeking asylum in U.S. starts with a worn notebook

While Washington focuses on the wall, Mexico fears its own border crisis

For Central Americans, children open a path to the U.S. — and bring a discount

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news