MATIAS ROMERO, MEXICO – Mexican officials stepped up efforts on Tuesday to register a dwindling group of hundreds of largely Central American migrants who are moving through Mexico toward the United States, seeking to disperse the “caravan” that has drawn the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump, who has long sought to take a tough stance against illegal immigration, has railed against the caravan that has worked its way from the Guatemala-Mexico border in the past 10 days. Over the weekend, and again on Tuesday, he reiterated threats to torpedo the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) if the migrants are not stopped.
In response, the Mexican government said on Monday the migrants in the caravan are undergoing an “administrative procedure” — a process that officials said would determine whether they had the right to stay in Mexico or would be returned to their countries of origin.
The caravan was organized by U.S-based advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which seeks to draw attention to the rights of migrants and provide them with aid. The Mexican government says such caravans, which travel by road, rail and on foot, have been organized every year since 2010.
Hundreds of men, women and children, many of them from Honduras, were stuck on Tuesday in the town of Matias Romero in the poor southern Mexican state of Oaxaca awaiting clarification of their legal status after officials began registering them.
Confused and frustrated by paperwork, many migrants were uncertain what lay in store, and desperate for information.
“What was the point of all this then if they don’t let us stay?” Elizabeth Alvalos, a migrant from El Salvador who was traveling with two children, said angrily. “There’s no food, my children haven’t eaten since yesterday.”
Hundreds of people camped out overnight in a park near the town’s train station, with shoes and bags strewn about.
The group convened at the southern border town of Tapachula on March 25th, reaching a peak of around 1,500 people. But by Tuesday the number was down to around 1,100, according to Pueblo Sin Fronteras spokeswoman Gina Garibo. Many had broken off from the group, eager to move on more quickly, she said.
The government said on Monday evening that around 400 people in the caravan had already been sent back to their home countries.
Many of those in the caravan aimed to stay in Mexico because they had family ties there or planned to work, Garibo said.
Martin Roja, a local director of Grupo Beta, the welfare arm of Mexico’s migration authorities, said his group was in Matias Romero registering migrants to provide them with documentation that could regularize their migration status within Mexico.
Such measures could include processing asylum requests, and Roja said the officials in Matias Romero were not there to detain the migrants. However, other officials have said that those with no grounds to be in Mexico will have to leave.
Those migrants permitted to be in Mexico are free to make their way to the U.S. border, where it is up to U.S. authorities to decide whether or not they can enter the country, the Mexican government says.
Trump said on Tuesday he would use U.S. military forces to protect the nation’s border with Mexico until there is a border wall and “proper security” in place.
Stopping illegal migrants crossing into the United States from Mexico was a key platform of Trump’s election campaign that has carried into his presidency.
He has sought to link stopping the migrant flow, and his plans for a southern border wall, to the current renegotiation of NAFTA, the accord between Canada, the United States and Mexico that underpins much of Mexico’s foreign trade.
However, the caravan of migrants also poses a political problem for Mexico’s unpopular government in a presidential election year.
President Enrique Pena Nieto is barred by law from seeking re-election in the July 1 vote, but the ruling party candidate is running third, well behind the front-runner.
The government does not want to be seen as kowtowing to threats by Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Mexico.
In a country where millions of people have friends or relatives who have migrated legally or illegally to the United States, many Mexicans harbor sympathy for the Central Americans attempting to make the same journey northward.
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are among the most violent and impoverished countries in the Americas, prompting many people to leave in search of a better life.