MEXICO CITY—Thousands of Central American migrants who have been making their way north are gathering in Mexico City before deciding whether to head to the U.S. border as one very large caravan or in smaller groups, migrants and activists said.
An estimated 6,000 Central American migrants had gathered by Tuesday afternoon at a sports stadium near Mexico City’s airport that federal and local authorities are using as a shelter. Migrants got medical treatment, food and legal advice after a grueling 25-day, 1,000-mile trek through parts of three countries.
Some activists said the plan said the plan was to stay in Mexico City to wait for thousands more migrants in at least two other caravans in southern Mexico to arrive before deciding whether to set out north as a group that could top 10,000 people. But the activists cautioned that plans could change at any time.
Such a move could add to the political battle over migration in the U.S. In the days leading up to Tuesday’s midterm elections, President Trump made the caravans a top campaign issue, saying they are a danger to the U.S. Mr. Trump has vowed none will be allowed into the U.S. to seek asylum and ordered as many as 15,000 soldiers be sent to the U.S.-Mexican border.
The caravans, which include hundreds of migrants marching with children and babies, form part of a new dynamic in which migrants band together as they cross some of the world’s most murderous areas and avoid hiring expensive human smugglers, known as coyotes. But the visibility that gives the migrants protection could make it harder for them to cross, activists and immigration experts say.
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
The caravans have put a face on what is normally more invisible migration between Central America and the U.S. An average of 450 Central American migrants were apprehended at the U.S. southern border every day last year, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics. That means a caravan of some 6,000 migrants represents far less than two weeks’ worth of migration, given that not all undocumented Central American migrants are apprehended.
Migrants in the caravans say that they have left poverty and violence for what they hope will be a shot at the American dream.
After several weeks on the road, migrants were ecstatic to be in Mexico City, a city that marks roughly the halfway point in their trek to the U.S. border.
“For me, this is a big achievement, to be here in Mexico City. My baby and me have endured hunger, thirst, fatigue, sun, rain. But we didn’t give up and I’m proud of that,” said Cindy Milla, a 23-year-old single mother from Honduras, as she breast-fed her 10-month son. She wants to get to the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, which borders San Diego, and file for asylum.
Exhausted migrants rested on tarps inside giant tents set up by local officials, or spread sleeping bags on the stands after weeks of walking under the blistering sun by day and tropical downpours at night. Groups of men played cards, while teenagers organized a soccer game on a nearby field.
Workers also provided meals of rice, beans, hard-boiled eggs and bread rolls. A volunteer said the dining tent was providing nearly 20,000 meals a day.
Although there doesn’t seem to be consensus yet about when to leave, many migrants were fired up by having strength in numbers to head north and try to cross into the U.S. Most of the travelers said caravan leaders were holding nightly meetings to decide what to do next.
Rodrigo Abeja, a leader of People Without Borders, a migrant advocacy group that has been providing logistical support, said the plan was to rest in Mexico City for two weeks and wait for the other two caravans. Their presence in the capital could also serve as a way to protest and gain more visibility about their plight, he said.
Irineo Mujica, the head of People Without Borders, has discouraged the migrants from traveling to the U.S. border in a single group, saying it would be a tantamount to a “declaration of war” that might further inflame political passions north of the border.
But many of the migrants are lobbying to stay together.
“If it were up to me, we’d all arrive together at the border. We have rights, and Donald Trump is not the owner of the world,” said Walter Coello, a Honduran migrant who forms part of a nine-person informal management and dialogue committee elected by the migrants to coordinate their activities.
Mr. Trump has pressured Mexico to stop the caravans. Mexico has offered all the migrants a chance at asylum here, and some 3,200 applied right after crossing the country’s southern border with Guatemala. But the vast majority want to go to the U.S.
“Almost none of them are planning to apply for asylum in Mexico,” said Jacqueline Centeno, a worker with the National Human Rights Commission, which is providing assistance to the migrants in Mexico City. “They’re pretty much all planning to go to the U.S. They are animated by the size of the caravan and they’re excited by the idea of reaching the border.”
Enrique Flores, 32, a burly construction worker from the outskirts of the southern Honduras city of Choluteca, left his home in mid-October with his girlfriend and their two children, Sojey, a 1-year-old girl and Ian, 4. He said he hadn’t had work more than two days a week in over two years, and said members of Barrio 18 and MS-13, the two dominant gangs in Honduras, had threatened his mother and nephew.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like to have nothing to offer your kids: no education, no work, no future,” he said, bursting into tears. “At 9 years old, the gangs try to take your kids away from the family.”
Mr. Flores said he plans to petition for asylum in the U.S., and hopes to make it to New York, where he has friends who previously emigrated.
Many migrants are using the time in Mexico City to get information about how to seek asylum in the U.S. The Institute for Migrant Women, or IMUMI, a Mexican nonprofit founded by U.S. and Mexican human-rights lawyers in 2010, is providing support to women and children trekking north.
“You have to know that chances for you to cross to the U.S. are very low and detention is likely, OK?” Maddie Boyd, an American law student who works as intern for IMUMI, tells two Honduran migrants.
“The first thing you have to tell them in clear voice is, ‘I have fear to return to my country.’ You have to keep calm, that’s very important,” she adds. She said there are some 2,500 migrants in the Tijuana border crossing awaiting entry to request asylum. She and other lawyers were urging the migrants to enter the U.S. legally through a border checkpoint and not to cross illegally.