By Delphine Schrank
TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Some 140 Central American migrants waited anxiously on the Mexican side of the U.S. border on Tuesday following a second night in a makeshift camp, determined to remain until their asylum requests are processed after the first eight members of their caravan were let into the United States overnight.
Gathering people along the way, the caravan set off more than a month ago from southern Mexico on a 2,000-mile trek to the California border, drawing attention from American news media after President Donald Trump demanded such groups be denied entry and that stronger immigration laws be enacted.
Bundled in blankets and donated clothes to ward off the cold, the mood among the men, women and children camped in a square by the border crossing was muted. At night some had prayed, while others, trying in vain to sleep in the biting wind, worried about what was to come next. They relied on donations of oranges and sandwiches for food.
“I’m preoccupied, anxious,” said Reina Isabel Rodriguez from Honduras, lowering her voice so as to not be overheard by two grandsons, ages 11 and 7, who she has looked after for years.
After meeting with attorneys advising the migrants, Rodriguez said she knew she likely would be separated from the two boys, the eldest of whom was abandoned by his mother after she was gang raped by members of the brutal Mara 18 crime group.
Alex Mensing, from the Pueblo Sin Fronteras transnational immigrant rights group that coordinated the caravan, urged U.S. authorities to respect the law and not separate family members.
On Monday evening, U.S. officials admitted eight women and children, bolstering the determination of others to remain at the border. This first group of migrants was expected to remain in detention for several days while their claims are processed.
Many of those from the caravan, including scores of children, fled gang violence and instability in Honduras, with most of the others from Guatemala and El Salvador.
The U.S. Justice Department said it was moving ahead on the first prosecutions against what it called “suspected” members of the caravan. The department said it filed criminal charges against 11 migrants accused of entering the country illegally west of the San Ysidro, California, border crossing.
Nicole Ramos, an attorney advising caravan members in Mexico, said she did not believe the 11 facing U.S. criminal charges were part of the caravan group. Six of those named by the Justice Department are Honduran, two from Guatemala, two from El Salvador and one from Mexico, according to court documents.
Several appeared in San Diego federal court on Monday and were provided attorneys. Representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego, and the federal defenders office, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump’s hard line against illegal immigration has been a centerpiece of his presidency, as he pursues an “America First” agenda that includes a proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexican border that he has said is needed to stem the flow of immigrants and drug trafficking.
The processing of undocumented arrivals restarted on Monday after delays over the weekend caused by the surge in migrants at the San Ysidro port of entry, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) said.
While delays were expected to ease, an agency representative said some individuals “may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities.”
On the asylum applicants, the Trump administration’s hands are tied by international rules obliging the United States to accept some applications. Most in the caravan said they were fleeing death threats, extortion and violence from powerful street gangs.
Dozens of members of the caravan had been sleeping out in the open for two nights before the arrival of the tents in the surroundings of the busy San Ysidro port of entry, after cheering the news late on Monday that CBP had opened the gate to the first eight.
The caravan swelled to 1,500 people at one point but has since dwindled as people left the group.
“We crossed the whole of Mexico,” said Angel Caceres, who said he fled Honduras with his 5-year-old son after his brother and nephew were murdered and his mother beaten and raped. They would stay, he said, “until the last person is in, as long as it takes.”
It was not clear when more of the group would be allowed to make their asylum bids.
The majority of asylum claims by Central Americans are ultimately unsuccessful, resulting in detention and deportation. Asylum seekers must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution at home, most often from a state entity. Central Americans fare badly in such claims because the state is rarely seen as directly responsible for the life-threatening situations they leave behind.
(Additional reporting by Edgard Garrido in Tijuana, Dan Levine in San Francisco, Sarah Lynch and Roberta Rampton in Washington and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Will Dunham)