By Delphine Schrank
TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Hundreds of people from a Central American migrant caravan rallied on Sunday at the U.S.-Mexico border, many preparing to report to U.S. authorities later in the day to make asylum claims that may land them in detention centers.
The month-long caravan that at one point gathered 1,500 immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador drew the wrath of President Donald Trump during its journey through Mexico.
Trump pressured Mexico to stop the migrants before they reached the border, linking Mexican efforts to stem the flow of Central Americans to the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) currently being renegotiated in Washington.
The remaining 400 or so members of the caravan now face hard choices, whether to cross illegally into the United States, ask for asylum at the border or try to remain in Mexico.
“I feel a little cold. I feel anxious,” said Jaime Alexander from El Salvador in the morning, shaking slightly on his way to the Tijuana, Mexico side of the border fence on a Pacific Ocean beach.
Some young men clambered up and straddled the fence, legs dangling into California. The migrants were cheered on the San Diego side by U.S. immigration activists.
The rally was a final public act after a roller-coaster few weeks for the caravan and was intended to raise awareness about the fate of migrants in Latin America, organizers said. On the U.S. side, the March Without Borders group trekked from Los Angeles to greet the caravan.
DETENTION, DEPORTATION POSSIBLE
Later, Alexander and some other migrants boarded buses to take them to the nearby San Ysidro border crossing. U.S. authorities have advised that there may be delays in their ability to process such a large group of migrants and that some “may need to wait in Mexico as (border officials) work to process those already within our facilities.”
The group from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador arrived in Tijuana on buses over the past couple of days, and most of them said Saturday they intended to seek legal asylum in San Diego.
Death threats from local gangs, the murder of family members, retaliatory rape, and political persecution back home prompted them to flee, members of the group have told Reuters.
But by Sunday morning, doubts were setting in after briefings by U.S. immigration lawyers told the group of the hardships they could suffer if their asylum cases were not strong enough, including detention, deportation and long periods of forced separation from their families.
A security guard back home, Alexander, 36, said he fled after death threats from two gangs. His feet were still swollen from days of walking as the group made its way to the border.
Asylum seekers must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution at home, and the overwhelming majority of those from Central America are denied refuge in the United States. After making a claim, asylum seekers are usually kept in detention centers. Women with young children generally spend less time locked up and are released to await their hearings.
Those denied asylum are generally deported to their home countries.
U.S. border authorities said Saturday that some people associated with the caravan had already been caught trying to slip through the fence and encouraged the rest to report to authorities.
“We are a very welcoming country but just like your own house, we expect everyone to enter through our front door and answer questions honestly,” San Diego Chief Patrol Agent Rodney S. Scott said in a statement about the caravan
The lawyers advising the migrants said those without strong asylum cases were should remain in Mexico. The Mexican government has offered year-long visas to some of the migrants, but some caravan members who sought them said they had not yet come through.
Mexico deports tens of thousands of Central Americans every year back across its southern border with Guatemala.
(Reporting by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Phil Berlowitz and Cynthia Osterman)