TECUN UMAN, Guatemala—A caravan of several thousand Honduran migrants on their way to the U.S. breached Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala on Friday, but were held at bay by hundreds of Mexican police in a tense standoff, deepening a regional migration crisis.
The rush at the border came after Mexican officials said they would grant asylum to the caravan of about 3,000 migrants fleeing violence-prone Central America. But the Mexicans said they would let in only 100 to 200 migrants a day, because they couldn’t process asylum claims more quickly.
Despite the offer, the majority of Hondurans grew restive at the prospect of waiting for days or weeks following days of walking from their hometowns to Mexico. Hundreds of migrants, mostly young men, began pulling down a fence on the Guatemalan side of the border and soon overwhelmed the handful of Guatemalan police.
One of the migrants addressed the crowd from a house in this Guatemalan border town. “If they don’t let us cross now, we’ll cross by the river,” he said.
A caravan of some 3,000 migrants fleeing Honduras is continuing to walk north to the U.S. border, as Trump threatened to deploy the military and close the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo: Reuters
Migrants then rushed across the bridge that separates the two countries and tried to overwhelm some 500 federal police manning a thin fence. At one point, some in the crowd threw bottles and stones at the police, who responded with several volleys of what appeared to be tear gas. A helicopter roamed in the skies.
Some migrants carried babies in their arms, others pushed baby carriages, and nearly everyone carried their belongings in backpacks and handbags. Only a few women with children were allowed to enter Mexico.
After it became clear the Mexican police wouldn’t let the majority of the crowd through, dozens of young men began climbing the fence on the bridge and throwing themselves into the shallow river, tying several makeshift rafts together in an attempt to cross illegally to the Mexican side.
Mexico’s Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete claimed that caravan leaders “put pregnant women and children at the front of the group.” He said several Mexican police were injured as they contained crowds from crossing into Mexican territory.
The caravan has drawn the ire of President Trump. Mr. Trump has featured the caravan and the broader immigration issue in political rallies around the U.S. on behalf of Republican candidates in November’s midterm elections.
Most of the migrants plan to go to the U.S. and ask for asylum or try to cross the border illegally. Mr. Trump has vowed they will be sent back.
John Moore/Getty Images
Mr. Trump has long claimed the U.S. is hobbled by lax immigration laws, including a so-called catch-and-release policy, in which immigrants requesting asylum are released into the community while they await a hearing to determine their status.
The president said that, at his request, Mexico was trying to help control the flow of immigrants from neighboring countries, but that he was prepared to use U.S. military force if necessary.
Adding to pressure on Mexico to prevent the migrants from reaching the U.S. border, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Mexican authorities in Mexico City on Friday. The migrant caravan was at the top of the agenda.
“We’re prepared to do all that we can to support the decisions that Mexico makes about how they’re going to address this very serious and important issue to their country,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters after meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Mexican officials had hoped the offer of asylum would break up the large caravan and persuade many migrants to stay in Mexico rather than cross the country and try to enter the U.S. illegally.
“Mexico is in a bind,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “Mexico is saying it’s doing this for its own interest, and that’s true, but the U.S. is also putting a lot of pressure, and Mexico has to also maintain its relationship with the U.S.”
Earlier in the day, Mexico’s ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Manuel López Moreno, met with migrants in the central square of this town. He told the exhausted Travelers that they would be allowed to enter in an orderly manner.
“The border is not closed. We are open to receive them with order and according to the law,” Mr. López Moreno said in an interview.
Some of the migrants received the News with cheers. “Thank God! Thank God! We thank Mexico for its generosity and solidarity,” said Karissa Romero, a 31-year-old woman who joined the caravan on Sunday in Honduras with two of her children.
Mexico has a long record of defending the rights of its own migrants in the U.S. Images of the Honduran migrants being pushed back by Mexican police were sharply criticized by some in Mexico.
Mexico’s interior minister, Mr. Navarrete, said Mexico will continue with efforts to convince the leaders of the group to assist with the orderly entry of migrants into Mexico and respect the country’s laws, he told Mexican television.
“There is no possibility that we’ll act in a coercive way, hurting a vulnerable group,” he added.
The caravan began last week in Honduras and quickly grew in size. At the beginning, it was a group of 200 people who agreed on social media to travel together to ensure their safety through some of the world’s most violent countries. But it soon grew quickly. Residents and migrants say they joined the caravan because they didn’t have to pay thousands of dollars for a “coyote” smuggler to get them in the U.S.
“We just want to seek a better future. In Honduras, you work to survive and that’s not a worthy life,” said Dania López, 30, a divorced woman who arrived with her three children. She said she earned just $62 a week. “The journey is really difficult. My son told me this morning: Mom, let’s pay a taxi,” she added in tears while hugging her five-year old son, Ariel.
Mexico’s effort to offer asylum marks a departure from its handling of previous caravans, when migrants were sometimes given transit visas allowing them to pass through Mexico on their way to the U.S.
Aurora Vega, spokeswoman for Mexico’s government migration agency, said migrants would have to stay at a government-run shelter for the first 10 days of their stay while Mexican officials review their applications and ensure there are no criminals or terrorists among them. Mexico’s asylum agency will then decide whether to approve the requests of those who pass that first screening. The asylum application process typically takes close to 45 working days.
“They are not free to roam the country when they first arrive, and if someone is caught doing so, they will be deported,” she said. That means the caravan is unlikely to regroup anytime soon, she said.
During that time, migrants can choose whether to stay at a government-run shelter or go to one run by charity groups, Ms. Vega said. If they leave town during that period, the asylum request is canceled and applicants will be subject to deportation.
Asylum seekers in the U.S. also face a lengthy and complicated legal process. For those who pass an initial interview, the so-called credible fear bar, will have to prove to an immigration judge that they are likely to face persecution in their home country because of their membership in a particular social group and their government is either unwilling or unable to protect them.
Many asylum seekers from Central America have said they are fleeing gangs, domestic violence and other crime. Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling that said domestic violence and threats from gangs are generally not grounds for winning asylum in the U.S. He said such threats were “private violence.”
Nonetheless, those who do pass the credible fear bar and are released from immigration jails will face a yearslong wait for their case to be decided. More than 764,000 cases are currently pending in federal immigration courts.
While immigrants wait, they can apply for a work permit to be allowed to legally work while their case is being decided.
—Courtney McBride, Alicia Caldwell and Vivian Salama contributed to this article.
Write to Juan Montes at [email protected]
Source : WSJ