Migrants from a Central American caravan that has been camped out in a Mexico City sports stadium for almost a week began their onward journey towards the US on Friday despite Donald Trump’s move to tighten the rules for asylum seekers.
Carrying a donated mattress rolled up in his backpack, Osman Elías said his plans had not been changed by the president’s decision to deny asylum to anyone entering the US illegally.
“I’m not looking for political asylum . . . I’m going to cross illegally and try my luck over there,” said the 28-year old farmer, who had left his wife and two children behind in Ocotopeque in Honduras. “Trying to get political asylum is just a waste of time.”
The majority of migrants — estimated to be at least 4,500 — were planning to leave on Saturday for the central city of Querétaro, some 230km away, after failing to persuade the UN to send 380 buses to transport them north.
Dozens, like Mr Elías, were tired of waiting. Some stopped to consult a Mexico City metro map on the stadium gates, planning to get to the end of the line and pick up the highway — and hopefully a ride — from there.
Mr Trump has called the caravan an “invasion” and is deploying some 7,000 troops to secure the border. He said on Friday that he was “acting to suspend, for a limited period, the entry of certain aliens in order to address the problem of large numbers of aliens travelling through Mexico to enter our country unlawfully”.
The order, which he said was based on national security concerns, will be reviewed after 90 days.
The migrants are the first of an estimated four caravans now in Mexico. They are fleeing economic hardship along with extortion and violence by gangs that were born in the US but are now flourishing in Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America after mass deportations in the 1990s.
Mr Trump’s move takes aim at migrants who cross the border and turn themselves into the US authorities. The White House says 124,511 illegal immigrants were refused at southern border ports of entry in fiscal year 2018 and 396,579 were apprehended entering illegally elsewhere.
Immigrant advocacy groups said the crackdown could be illegal. The ACLU on Friday sued to block Mr Trump’s earlier proclamation, saying it was illegal and denied protection to vulnerable individuals.
The policy “undermines the rule of law and is a great moral failure because it tries to take away protections from individuals facing persecution — it’s the opposite of what America should stand for,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project.
“Under international law, you cannot punish someone seeking asylum for entering illegally,” added Sarah Pierce, an analyst at think-tank the Migration Policy Institute.
The White House said the number of asylum claims has soared by 1,700 per cent in the past nine years and that migrants are often coached to “say the magic words” in order to pass the first filter — an interview to determine if they face “credible fear” at home.
“Most migrants from the Northern Triangle do not have valid asylum claims, but they are released into the country because our asylum system has become overwhelmed,” the White House said.
Ms Pierce said immigrants crossing illegally could still apply for “withholding of removal”. Although that is not the same as asylum — the requirements are more onerous and the benefits more limited, and even dependent children need to qualify on their own merits.
Mr Trump said he wants to route migrants to legal points of entry. “Illegal aliens will no longer get a free pass into our country by lodging meritless claims in seeking asylum,” he said.
That raised the prospect of thousands of migrants “stuck in camps at the Mexican border”, Ms Pierce said. “This policy will definitely create a huge problem for Mexico.”
It is also a growing headache for Mexico’s president-elect, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who takes office on December 1. He has said he wants both to protect migrants and preserve good relations with Mr Trump.
Bryan Flores, his wife Brenda Ramírez and their 4-year-old son Wilmer were among those hoping for asylum, claiming that corrupt police and gangs in Ocotopeque had tried to kill them by dousing their car and home in petrol for not paying extortion.
“We’re going to the [border] bridge to ask for asylum,” Mr Flores said. “God willing — for our son.”
But Carlos González, a 25-year-old cashier at a clothing company from Guatemala, planned to go with the caravan to the border city of Tijuana and wait with relatives there “until things calm down a bit” before trying to cross illegally.
“I’ve done it before,” he said. “Many here want to ask for political asylum but it’s impossible,” he said as he set off from the stadium.
It was his fourth bid. He was deported from the US after living there a year, and was picked up by Mexican immigration authorities and returned on two subsequent attempts.
“We’re not an invasion,” said Balmore Cárdenas, 36, who joined the caravan in Guatemala a month ago. He said he is fleeing gang death threats in San Salvador. Two of his cousins had been shot dead and his job as a taxi driver made him a target in a city where residents cannot move freely between neighbourhoods controlled by rival gangs.
“We’re just poor people who need help.”