Caravan of hundreds of Central Americans moves into Mexico

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Hundreds of Central Americans crossed the Guatemalan border into Mexico early on Thursday, testing the Mexican government’s resolve to stem the movement of people north under pressure from the United States.

Television footage showed a caravan of migrants moving towards the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, after crossing the Suchiate River that divides Mexico and Guatemala.

Most want to reach the United States. However, U.S. President Donald Trump has put pressure on the Mexican government to adopt more restrictive measures to reduce the migrant flows.

Many of the Central Americans migrants heading north are fleeing economic hardship and violence at home.

Migrants, mainly from Central America, marching in a caravan cross the Suchiate river on the outskirts of Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico January 23, 2020. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

The current group of migrants is the largest surge of people to test Mexico since its president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and some Central American governments, made various agreements with Trump to reduce pressure on the U.S. southern border.

Trump has threatened to punish Mexico and Central American nations economically if they fail to address the migrant flows.

Migrants crossing into Mexico earlier this week faced tear gas from security forces, who delivered a firmer response than in previous mass crossings of the border.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said several hundred of the new arrivals were immediately deported.

(Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

U.S.-bound migrant caravan in tense standoff at border between Mexico and Guatemala

By Roberto Ramirez

TECUN UMAN, Guatemala (Reuters) – A large caravan of Central Americans was preparing to cross the Guatemalan border into Mexico on Monday, posing a potential challenge to the Mexican government’s pledge to help the United States contain mass movements of migrants.

The migrants were massed on a bridge connecting the two countries early on Monday morning in what appeared to be a tense standoff with Mexican migration officials and soldiers.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to punish Mexico and Central American countries economically if they fail to curb migrant flows, resulting in a series of agreements aimed at taking pressure off the United States in absorbing the numbers.

Migrants crossed into Mexico in small groups during the weekend after Mexican security officials blocked an effort by some Central Americans to force their way through the border.

The bulk of at least 2,000 migrants remained in the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman, opposite the Mexican town of Ciudad Hidalgo, with some saying they planned to set off for Mexico en masse early on Monday, believing that they stood a better chance of making progress in a large caravan.

Mexico has offered migrants work in the south, but those who do not accept it or seek asylum will not be issued safe conduct passes to the United States, the interior ministry said.

The ministry said in a statement on Sunday afternoon that Mexican authorities had received nearly 1,100 migrants in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco and set out various options to them in accordance with their migration status.

“However, in the majority of cases, once the particular migration situation has been reviewed, assisted returns will be carried out to their countries of origin, assuming that their situation warrants it,” the ministry said.

According to Guatemala, at least 4,000 people have entered from Honduras since Wednesday, making for one of the biggest surges since three Central American governments signed agreements with the Trump administration obliging them to assume more of the responsibility for dealing with migrants.

Mexico has so far controlled the border at Tecun Uman more successfully than in late 2018, when a large caravan of migrants sought to break through there. Many later crossed into Mexico via the Suchiate River dividing the two countries.

(Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Diane Craft)

This caravan of migrants headed south to Mexico – for Christmas

This caravan of migrants headed south to Mexico – for Christmas
By Daniel Becerril

JALPAN DE SERRA, Mexico (Reuters) – Poor Central American migrants who form caravans to fend off predatory gangs as they cross Mexico’s interior en route to the United States have made global headlines and drawn the ire of President Donald Trump.

But last week in the Texan border city of Laredo a caravan of about 1,500 families made up of Mexican migrants and Americans of Mexican origin set out in the opposite direction – for their Christmas holidays.

Driving large cars laden with clothes, perfumes and other Christmas presents, the Mexicans, all with U.S. legal status, bore scant resemblance to the Central American migrants trudging north on foot, except for their shared fear of criminal gangs.

“There’s a lot of extortion, corruption, many people have been attacked,” said Jesus Mendoza, a 35-year-old painter who obtained U.S. legal residency in August and returned to Mexico for the first time this year since 2001.

About half of the 12 million Mexicans living in the United States have legal residency, and Mexico’s Senate expected more than 3 million to return home this year.

But doing so by car poses a challenge as Mexico’s northern border regions have been racked by a tide of drug-fueled violence that led to a record 29,000 murders last year.

With three young children and a wife he met on Facebook, Mendoza was going back to a Mexico different to the one he left behind as a teenager before the country embarked on a so-called war on drugs in 2006 and violence spiraled.

“It’s a sad thing that some don’t want … to visit with their family because of the situation,” he told Reuters in Jalpan de Serra in central Mexico after arriving there on Dec. 16.

Trump has called migrant caravans bound for the United States “invasions” and has threatened to close the U.S. border with Mexico.

Mendoza’s caravan of hundreds of cars set off around 5 a.m. local time from a Walmart car park in Laredo, reaching its final stop in Jalpan some 14 hours later, shortly after dusk.

Such car caravans moving south into Mexico have been rare over the past decade. But those who reached their family homes say safety in numbers is vital.

“It’s sad that when I enter Mexico I don’t feel safe,” said Mariela Ramirez Palacios, a Mexico-born resident of Oklahoma. “The caravan is safe.”

(Reporting by Daniel Becerril; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Trump rejects Mexican efforts in face of fresh migrant caravan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Marines help to build a concertina wire barricade at the U.S. Mexico border in preparation for the arrival of a caravan of migrants at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on Mexico to do more to block a new caravan of migrants and asylum-seekers traveling through the country toward the United States, reiterating his threat to close the border or send more troops.

“A very big Caravan of over 20,000 people started up through Mexico,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It has been reduced in size by Mexico but is still coming. Mexico must apprehend the remainder or we will be forced to close that section of the Border & call up the Military.”

Trump said Mexico was not doing enough to apprehend and return migrants and, without offering evidence, said Mexican soldiers recently had “pulled guns” U.S. troops.

He said the incident probably was “a diversionary tactic for drug smugglers” and armed troops were being sent to the border.

Mexican officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Trump’s statement.

Trump has made cracking down on immigration a priority that fueled his 2016 presidential campaign and election victory. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to U.S. authorities in March, according to the White House, which said it was the highest number in a decade.

In response to what Trump has described as a crisis, his administration has sent thousands of active-duty and National Guard troops to the border and moved border agents to handle an influx of migrants. Last month, Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border if the Mexican government did not immediately stem illegal migration.

When Congress declined to designate money to build a border wall, Trump declared a national emergency earlier this year over the issue in a bid to redirect funding for the project, thrusting the immigration issue to the forefront of the 2020 presidential race.

The head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillen, on Tuesday pointed to an increase in deportations from the country, saying Mexico had returned 15,000 migrants in the past 30 days.

He did not specify where the people were deported to, but the majority of people traveling through Mexico to the United States are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where migrants say they are fleeing corruption, gang violence and entrenched poverty.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Trott)

Many U.S.-bound caravan migrants disperse as asylum process stalls

A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, shelters as he rests on a street in Tijuana, Mexico, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Christine Murray

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Thousands of Central American migrants spent weeks traveling north through Mexico in caravans, walking and hitching rides when possible, only for many to give up hope and turn back when they met resistance at the U.S. border.

Others hopped the border fence, often directly into the hands of immigration authorities on the U.S. side, while still others dug in at temporary lodgings in Tijuana for the long process of seeking asylum from a reluctant U.S. government.

As rain poured down on a former music venue in Tijuana that holds a diminished crowd of 2,500 migrants, Jessica, 18, grabbed her feverish 1-year-old daughter and took her inside to a friend while she figured out what to do with her broken tent.

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, line up for a food distribution outside a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, line up for a food distribution outside a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Jessica had traveled from El Salvador and said she and her husband were waiting in the Barretal camp for the right moment to try to cross the border illegally.

“Getting asylum is really difficult,” she said. “They ask you for a lot of evidence and it’s impossible. It’s not like they say it is.”

Other migrants face the same dilemma. Of 6,000 who arrived in Tijuana in the caravans last month, 1,000 have scrambled over border fences, and most of those were detained, the head of Mexico’s civil protection agency David Leon told local media on Wednesday.

A further 1,000 have accepted voluntary deportation, he said, while others are living on the street outside the municipal sports center where they first arrived, or in smaller shelters. The director of the Barretal camp, Mario Medina, said he expected hundreds more to arrive within days.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to make it harder to get asylum, but a federal court last month placed a temporary restraining order on his policy that only permitted asylum claims made at official ports of entry.

Under former President Barack Obama a system dubbed “metering” began, which limits how many can ask for asylum each day in Tijuana. Lawyers say Trump is using the system more aggressively to stem the flow at the port of entry.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokeswoman said the agency works with Mexico and charities to manage the flow but denied that people were being prevented from making asylum claims.

Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, which did not respond to requests for comment, has said in the past it protects migrants rights while respecting other countries’ immigration policies.

Looking after the large groups of Central Americans is a challenge for Mexico. New President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has vowed to issue more work visas and on Friday pledged to do more to improve conditions at the Barretal shelter.

His government is in talks with Washington about an immigration plan, including a U.S. proposal to make asylum seekers stay in Mexico until their claim is decided, a process that can take years. Some believe that would deter people from seeking refuge.

 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials detain a group of migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, after they crossed illegally from Mexico to the U.S, as seen from Tijuana, Mexico, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials detain a group of migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, after they crossed illegally from Mexico to the U.S, as seen from Tijuana, Mexico, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

NAVIGATING THE LIST

Despite the wait, more people are adding their names to the semi-formal asylum list. Created a couple of years ago around the time an influx of Haitians arrived in Tijuana seeking to enter the United States, it has been challenged in a U.S. lawsuit that claims it deliberately delays asylum seekers.

Migrants put their names in a black-and-white ledger, controlled by around eight migrant volunteers. Those on the list are given a number and must wait months to pass through for an interview. The list contains thousands of names from around the world.

Each day, CBP officials communicate with Mexican immigration officials who then tell the migrants how many can go through, according to volunteers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They said between 40 and 100 per day are usually sent.

At the end of each day, Mexican immigration officials guard the ledger. Lawyers have cited multiple problems with this system. For instance, they have said, some people on the list could be Mexicans fleeing the federal government.

Some migrants expressed distrust of the list. Honduran Anabell Pineda, 26, said she thought the process was not for her as she left behind a daughter in Honduras.

“They say, though I don’t know, that asylum is for people that don’t want to go back to their country, and I do want to go back,” she said.

Pineda, traveling with her son, said that once she gets her paperwork, she plans to find a job in Mexico City.

Pineda has applied for a humanitarian visa that will get her a work permit in Mexico, a better bet than trying to get to the United States, she said.

“It’s really difficult to cross, because of what happened last time. I don’t want to put my children in danger,” she said, referring to disturbances in which U.S. officials launched tear gas at migrants last month.

At a jobs fair set up by the federal Labor Ministry, coordinator Nayla Rangel said more than 3,000 migrants, mainly from the caravan, had job interviews.

Rangel said there were more than 10,000 jobs open in the state of Baja California, with salaries around 1500 pesos ($74) per week. For many migrants hoping to send money to families in Central America, that likely would not be enough.

(Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Daniel Flynn, David Gregorio and Tom Brown)

Trump likely to give U.S. troops authority to protect immigration agents

A migrant, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, poses for a photo after climbing up the border fence between Mexico and United States while moving to a new shelter in Mexicali, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Idrees Ali and Lizbeth Diaz

WASHINGTON/TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is likely to give U.S. troops authority to protect immigration agents stationed along the U.S. border with Mexico if they come under threat from migrants seeking to cross into the United States, a U.S. official said on Monday.

Ahead of U.S. congressional elections earlier this month, Trump denounced the approach of a caravan of migrants as an “invasion” that threatened American national security, and he sent thousands of U.S. troops to the border to help secure it.

Currently, the troops do not have authority to protect U.S. Customs and Border Patrol personnel. The new authority could be announced on Tuesday, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials briefly closed the busiest border crossing from Mexico early on Monday to add concrete barricades and razor wire amid concerns some of the thousands of Central American migrants at the border could try to rush the crossing.

Northbound lanes at the San Ysidro crossing from Tijuana to San Diego, California, were temporarily closed “to position additional port hardening materials,” a U.S. CBP spokesperson said.

A Department of Homeland Security official, who requested anonymity, told reporters on a conference call that U.S. officials had heard reports some migrants were intending to run through border crossings into California.

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, move to a new shelter in Mexicali, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, move to a new shelter in Mexicali, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The closing was rare for the station, which is one of the busiest border crossings in the world with tens of thousands of Mexicans heading every day into the United States to work or study.

“Today was a lost day of work. I already called my boss to tell her that everything was closed and I did not know what time I would be able to get in,” said Maria Gomez, a Mexican woman who crosses the border every day for work. “I cannot believe this is happening.”

Trump had remained mostly silent about the caravan since the Nov. 6 vote, but on Monday he posted a photo on Twitter showing a fence that runs from the beach in Tijuana into the ocean now covered with razor wire.

Critics charged that his talk of a migrant “invasion” was an effort to rouse his political base ahead of the elections.

Officials have stressed that the 5,900 active-duty U.S. troops on the border are not there in a law enforcement capacity and that there are no plans for them to interact with migrants.

Instead, their mission is to lend support to the CBP, and they have been stringing up concertina wire and erecting temporary housing.

The commander of the mission told Reuters last week that the number of troops may have peaked, and he would soon look at whether to begin sending forces home or shifting some to new border positions.

About 6,000 Central Americans have reached the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, according to local officials. More bands of migrants are making their way toward Tijuana, with around 10,000 expected.

Hundreds of local residents on Sunday massed at a monument in a wealthy neighborhood of Tijuana to protest the arrival of the migrants, with some carrying signs that said “Mexico first” and “No more migrants.”

Last month, thousands of Central American migrants began a long journey from Honduras through Mexico toward the United States to seek asylum.

Other bands of mostly Salvadorans followed, with a small group setting off on Sunday from San Salvador.

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler and Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. briefly shutters border crossing to brace for migrants

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Special Response Team (SRT) officers stand guard at the San Ysidro Port of Entry after the land border crossing was temporarily closed to traffic from Tijuana, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – U.S. officials briefly closed the busiest border crossing from Mexico early on Monday to add concrete barricades and razor wire amid concerns that some of the thousands of Central American migrants at the border could try to rush the crossing.

Northbound lanes at the San Ysidro crossing from Tijuana to San Diego, California, were closed “to position additional port hardening materials,” a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said.

A Department of Homeland Security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters in a conference call later that U.S. officials had heard reports some migrants were intending to run through border crossings into California.

Ahead of U.S. congressional elections earlier this month, President Donald Trump denounced the approach of a caravan of migrants as an “invasion” that threatened American national security. He sent thousands of U.S. troops to the border.

By dawn on Monday, 15 of 26 vehicle lanes had reopened at the San Ysidro crossing, according to the DHS official.

It was a rare closing of the station, which is one of the busiest border crossings in the world, with tens of thousands Mexicans heading every day into the United States to work or study.

“Today was a lost day of work. I already called my boss to tell her that everything was closed and I did not know what time I would be able to get in,” said Maria Gomez, a Mexican woman who crosses the border every day for work. “I cannot believe this is happening.”

Trump had remained mostly silent about the caravan since the Nov. 6 vote, but on Monday he posted a photo on Twitter showing a fence that runs from the beach in Tijuana into the ocean now covered with razor wire.

About 6,000 Central Americans have reached the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, according to local officials. More bands of migrants are making their way toward Tijuana, with around 10,000 expected.

Hundreds of local residents on Sunday massed at a monument in a wealthy neighborhood of Tijuana to protest the arrival of the migrants, with some carrying signs that said “Mexico first” and “No more migrants.”

Last month, thousands of Central American migrants began a long journey from Honduras through Mexico toward the United States to seek asylum.

Other bands of mostly Salvadorans followed, with a small group setting off on Sunday from San Salvador.

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Central Americans stalled at U.S.-Mexico border, mull work offers

A migrant from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America to the United States, prepares to get on a bus bound for Mexicali at a makeshift camp in Navojoa, Mexico November 17, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Lizbeth Diaz

MEXICALI, Mexico (Reuters) – Hundreds of migrants from a caravan of Central Americans were stalled at the U.S.-Mexico border on Saturday, where a handful said they welcomed recent Mexican offers of employment in the face of a hostile U.S. reception.

The Mexican government last week reiterated job offers to the migrants, saying that those who obtained legal status could occupy thousands of vacancies, most of them in the country’s “maquiladoras,” doing factory work.

Since arriving at the border last week, they have been denied entry through the gates linking Mexico to the United States.

Dozens of the mostly Hondurans waited in lines to bathe and washed clothes sullied from 2,600 miles of relentless travel.

Several members of the caravan, which left the crime-wracked city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Oct. 13, told Reuters they would be willing to stay put in Mexico rather than face rejection across the border.

“If we had work, we would stay. This has been very tiring,” said Orbelina Orellana, a 26-year-old Honduran mother of three, waiting at the Alfa and Omega shelter in the city of Mexicali, which borders Calexico, California.

“I cry a lot to not be able to feed them as I’d like,” Orellana said of her children. “I just want an opportunity.”

Briefly stalled by Mexican riot police on a highway crossing between two southern Mexican states late last month, a dozen migrants told Reuters they rejected such offers, preferring to try their luck in the United States.

But on Saturday, some said that thinking had changed.

“We had the idea to cross to the United States, but they told us it will be nearly impossible,” said Mayra Gonzalez, 32, traveling with her two children. “We cannot starve as we wait to find out if they’ll give us asylum. Better to work, by the grace of God, here in Mexico.”

In a sharp reversal of longstanding U.S. policy, President Donald Trump’s administration last week began enforcing new rules that curtail asylum rights for anyone who arrives without documents at the U.S. border.

Trump earlier this month deployed almost 6,000 troops along the long U.S. border with Mexico.

As they wound north through Mexico, the migrants were helped along by local authorities and residents who offered food, clothing and even free rides on daily treks that averaged 30 miles a day, much of it on foot.

But that welcome became noticeably frostier as the caravan reached the border.

In Tijuana, a city long accustomed to a population of migrants in transit, deportees and U.S. pleasure-seekers, a clutch of local residents last week threw rocks at the migrants, telling them to go home.

But some said the Central Americans could help boost the local economy.

“We are not against migration,” Ulises Araiza, President of the Association of Human Resources of Industry in Tijuana, told Reuters.

“We know the situation that these people face in their country. But we also favor order so as to integrate them into the labor sector, because only in Tijuana do we have a demand in the maquiladora industry for 5,000 people.”

(Writing by Delphine Schrank, editing by G Crosse)

‘Not enough room’: migrant flows strain Mexican border shelters

Migrants, part of a caravan traveling from Central America en route to the United States, wait to hitchhike after resting in a makeshift camp in Juan Rodriguez Clara, Mexico, November 13, 2018. Picture taken November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – The arrival in the Mexican border city of Tijuana of the first few hundred travelers from migrant caravans is stretching to the limit shelters already overflowing with other people, and sparking signs of friction among the population.

Lugging heavy bundles and small children, an unprecedented caravan of thousands of mostly Honduran migrants set off for the United States in mid-October, many of them fleeing violence and poverty at home. Two other copycat groups of mainly El Salvadorans followed behind.

U.S. President Donald Trump has declared the caravans an unwelcome “invasion,” and threatened to close down the Mexico-U.S. border to keep them out, ordering some 7,000 troops to reinforce the frontier, including in Tijuana with barbed wire.

It has not stopped people trying to reach the border, including those from the caravans, others traveling from Central America independently, and Mexicans fleeing violence in cartel-plagued states.

Jose Maria Garcia, director of the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter, said he had been warning authorities since the Honduran caravan set out that migrant refuges were already operating at capacity in the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali.

“People are still arriving, but we’re not prepared to receive them,” Garcia told Reuters. He said he believes the incoming caravans would be the largest number of migrants to arrive in the city in such a short time in recent memory.

The buildup in Tijuana will be a test of tougher asylum rules introduced by Trump, which some experts believe will push more people to try to cross illegally. Few of the 20 migrants interviewed by Reuters were aware of the new rules.

Tijuana has a history of absorbing visitors, including Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, a large American population and Haitians who settled in the city south of San Diego in 2016 after failing to cross the U.S. border.

As many as 1,000 people who broke away from the first caravan have reached Tijuana in the last few days, with a similar number expected later this week. Thousands more could soon follow as the main body of the caravans arrive.

Almost 3,000 people – many of them Mexicans – are now waiting in migrant shelters to request asylum alongside hundreds of Central Americans, said Cesar Palencia, head of the Tijuana city government’s migrant outreach team.

U.S. border officials process about 75 to 100 asylum claims a day, so it could be a month before new arrivals are seen, said Pedro Rios, of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that works with migrants.

Of the 14 migrant shelters on the 2,000-mile (3,200 km)Mexico-U.S. border, 10 are totally overcrowded, Palencia said. Dozens of arrivals from the caravan camped on the beach on Tuesday night.

“People have received us kindly, but they say there’s not enough room for everyone, so we decided to spend the night on the beach,” said a Honduran woman in Tijuana as she washed her face in a public bathroom, asking to remain anonymous.

“It was a terrible night for me and my children.”

The bulk of the group that formed after the Honduran caravan began entering Mexico over three weeks ago is now moving up the Pacific northwest coast through the state of Sinaloa, made up of between 4,000 and 5,000 people, authorities say.

FRICTIONS

The Mexican government has urged the migrants to register for asylum in Mexico, or risk deportation. The incoming government of President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has vowed to provide jobs and visas to the Central Americans.

That message has not been popular with all Mexicans, many of whom fear for their own futures.

“We also need help,” said Olga Cruz from the western state of Michoacan, who had come to Tijuana to seek asylum in the United States with her three children.

“Not a day goes by (in Michoacan) without somebody being killed, and I don’t want my children growing up like this,” she said. “But if the government only focuses on helping (Central Americans) they leave nothing for us,” she added.

On Monday, a group of about 80 mainly LGBT people who split from the migrant caravan moved into a building in a wealthy area of Tijuana. Residents shouted at them to leave and demanded that local authorities take steps to eject them.

(Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Dave Graham and Bill Berkrot)

Mattis defends Mexico border deployment in first troop visit

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen tour Base Camp Donna in Donna, Texas, U.S., November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Phil Stewart

By Phil Stewart

BASE CAMP DONNA, Texas (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended the deployment of thousands of troops to the border with Mexico as he traveled there on Wednesday, saying the mission was “absolutely legal” and justified, and that it was improving military readiness.

President Donald Trump’s politically charged decision to send U.S. troops to the Mexico border came ahead of U.S. midterm congressional elections last week, as Trump sought to strengthen border security as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Trump’s supporters, including Republicans in Congress, have embraced the deployment.

But critics have assailed it as a political stunt to drive Republican voters to the polls. They have scoffed at Trump’s comparison of caravans of Central American migrants, including women and children, to an “invasion.”

Mattis, speaking to a small group of reporters traveling with him, rejected criticism and said the deployment was the right thing to do.

“It’s very clear that support to border police or border patrol is necessary right now,” Mattis said, noting that that was the assessment of the Department of Homeland Security.

He added the deployment was deemed legal by Trump administration attorneys and was improving readiness by giving troops more experience in rapid deployment.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis alongside U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, addresses troops at Base Camp Donna in Donna, Texas, U.S., November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Phil Stewart

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis alongside U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, addresses troops at Base Camp Donna in Donna, Texas, U.S., November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Phil Stewart

The visit took Mattis near the Texas town of Donna, where U.S. troops have set up a base camp near a border crossing point with Mexico. General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the head of U.S. Northern Command, greeted him as he landed.

Mattis said U.S. soldiers were making rapid progress erecting barriers along the border and estimated the first, construction phase of the U.S. military effort could be completed within 10 days.

“I would anticipate with what we’ve been asked to do so far, probably within a week to 10 days, we’ll have done what’s needed,” Mattis told the reporters. “Of course, it will be a dynamic situation and there will be new requests coming in.”

Mattis said the U.S. military was also rehearsing helicopter operations to help support U.S. border personnel, potentially flying them to new locations if the caravans of migrants shift direction.

The deployed U.S. troops are not expected to directly interact with migrants, most are unarmed, and they are only assigned tasks that support U.S. border personnel, including building temporary lodging.

Standing alongside Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Mattis told troops their job was to back up Nielsen’s agency and to ignore the media.

“Now there’s all sorts of stuff in the news and that sort of thing. You just concentrate on what your company commander, your battalion commander tells you,” Mattis said.

“If you read all that stuff, you’ll go nuts … You know what your mission is here. You’ve had to deploy on short notice to a non-traditional location and do your jobs. So you focus on doing that.”

SCRUTINY FROM CONGRESS

Trump’s Democratic opponents have threatened to investigate the matter once they take control of the House of Representatives early next year after gaining a majority in the House in the midterm elections.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security, told Reuters that Trump had used the military “as a prop to stoke fear and score political points.”

“We will soon be finally able to conduct oversight of this gross abuse and the President’s many failed border security policies,” said Thompson, who is expected to lead the committee when the Democrats take control of the House in January.

It is unclear how long the deployment will last. Mattis initially authorized it through mid-December but it could be extended.

Mattis estimated about 5,900 troops were participating in the border mission. The U.S. military has offered a breakdown accounting for 5,600 of them, estimating about 2,800 troops in Texas, 1,500 in Arizona and another 1,300 in California.

Asked whether troops’ families should expect their loved ones to remain deployed through Thanksgiving or even Christmas, Mattis declined to speculate.

“We are a 365-day-a-year military. Rain or Shine. Light or dark. Cold weather or hot weather,” he said, declining to estimate costs of the deployment until he had better data.

Trump railed against illegal immigration to win the 2016 presidential election and has shown no signs of easing up on the issue in the wake of last week’s vote.

Last week, he effectively suspended the granting of asylum to migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, seeking fresh ways to block thousands of Central Americans traveling in caravans from entering the United States.

Mattis compared the mission to other deployments in the past, largely comprised of U.S. National Guard, during Democratic and Republican administrations.

“We determined that the mission was absolutely legal and this was also reviewed by Department of Justice lawyers. It’s obviously a moral and ethical mission to support our border patrolmen,” Mattis said.

“There’s nothing new under the sun.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by James Dalgleish)