U.S. border patrol faces probe; White House bashes asylum ruling

U.S. Border Patrol agents stand at attention during a 'Border Safety Initiative' media event at the U.S.-Mexico border in Mission, Texas, U.S., July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

By Makini Brice and Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has ordered an investigation into reports that border patrol agents have been posting offensive anti-immigrant comments and threats against lawmakers on a private Facebook group.

The move was announced amid mounting criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of a humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, with lawmakers and government investigators warning of dangerous conditions in migrant detention centers.

“Reporting this week highlighted disturbing and inexcusable social media activity that allegedly includes active Border Patrol personnel,” acting DHS head Kevin McAleenan said on Twitter on Wednesday, calling the reported comments “completely unacceptable.”

He said any employee found to have “compromised the public’s trust in our law enforcement mission will be held accountable.”

The Facebook posts, first reported by the non-profit news site ProPublica included jokes about the deaths of migrants and sexually explicit content referring to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who was highly critical of the detention facilities after a tour this week.

The White House also criticized a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle who on Tuesday blocked an administration move to keep thousands of asylum seekers in custody while they pursued their cases.

“The district court’s injunction is at war with the rule of law,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “The decision only incentivizes smugglers and traffickers, which will lead to the further overwhelming of our immigration system by illegal aliens.”

Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

The American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant rights groups sued the government in April after Attorney General William Barr concluded that asylum seekers who entered the country illegally were not eligible for bond.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman on Tuesday ruled that people detained after entering the country to seek asylum were entitled to bond hearings.

MIGRATION FLOWS

The record surge of mostly Central American families at the U.S. southwestern border has begun to ease after tougher enforcement efforts in Mexico, although the situation remains dire, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.

The U.S. government’s internal watchdog on Tuesday said migrant-holding centers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley were dangerously overcrowded, publishing graphic pictures of cells holding twice as many people as they were built for.

Mexico’s government, citing unpublished U.S. data, said migrant arrests at the border fell 30% in June from the previous month after it started a migration crackdown as part of a deal with the United States to avoid possible trade tariffs.

The Mexican government said it was now busing home dozens of Central American migrants from Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, who were forced to wait in Mexico for their asylum claims to be processed under a U.S. policy known as “Remain in Mexico.”

“Mexico’s effort to control the flow of migrants appears to have broken a growing trend,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

After migrant arrests reached a 13-year monthly high in May, immigration has arguably become the biggest issue for President Donald Trump and the Democratic contenders vying for the chance to face him in the 2020 presidential election.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker would “virtually eliminate immigration detention” if he wins the White House, his campaign said on Tuesday.

Presidential hopeful Julian Castro last week proposed decriminalizing border crossings as a step toward freeing up federal resources and eliminating thousands of cases clogging criminal courts – an initiative favored by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is also running for the Democratic nomination.

Trump, meanwhile, looked to stir up support for his policies, promising immigration raids after the July 4 U.S. holiday to arrest migrants with deportation orders.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, Diego Ore and David Alire Garcia in Mexico City, Jonathan Allen in New York and David Alexander and Makini Brice in Washington; Writing by Andrew Hay and Paul Simao; Editing by Michael Perry and Bill Trott)

U.S. ramps up returns of asylum seekers to Mexico, adding Cubans

FILE PHOTO: Migrants from Cuba are seen on the banks of the Rio Bravo river as they cross illegally into the United States to turn themselves in to request asylum in El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Julio-Cesar Chavez and Andrew Hay

EL PASO, TEXAS/TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – The United States is more than doubling the number of asylum seekers it returns to Mexico in one city and adding groups like Cubans as it rapidly expands a policy to make migrants wait out claims south of the border, Mexican and U.S. officials said.

The policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), is being applied to all Spanish-speaking asylum seekers, other than Mexicans, at three U.S.-Mexico border crossings, said a U.S. government official familiar with the program, who asked not to be named.

The Trump administration plans to expand the program, which faces court challenges, across the border to act as a deterrent to frivolous asylum claims during a surge in Central American migrant families.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security official said the administration was considering building temporary immigration courts along the border to process MPP returnees.

The MPP expansion follows Mexico’s agreement earlier this month to receive thousands more migrants under the program.

As of June 19, according to Mexican officials, 13,987 people had been returned to Mexico under MPP.

In its first months, the policy primarily applied to Central American migrants, but as of Monday the United States began applying it to Spanish speakers more broadly, including Cubans, said Rogelio Pinal, a municipal official in Juarez, Mexico.

Cubans, a political force in U.S. election swing state Florida, have a history of being welcomed in the United States.

Pinal said his office was told returns from El Paso to Juarez would increase to 500 per day from around 200.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said the government was “actively pursuing expansion plans across the board to include all individuals unless specifically exempted,” in MPP returns.

The U.S. official said MPP would be expanded to cities in Arizona and south Texas. Mexican official confirmed new locations would include Brownsville.

Migrant advocates have raised concerns that asylum seekers have little access to legal counsel and are vulnerable in Mexican border cities, which have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Ruben Garcia, who runs El Paso’s largest migrant shelter, said there had been a sharp fall in the number of migrants released into the United States by U.S. authorities.

Garcia said reduced migration during summer heat played a role, but tighter immigration enforcement in Mexico and the MPP program were driving forces in the drop to around 125 releases per day from up to 700 three weeks ago.

(Reportting by Julio-Cesar Chavez in El Paso and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen resigns amid Trump anger over border

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (R) looks on at a signing ceremony for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S. November 16, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Patricia Zengerle and Diane Bartz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who oversaw President Donald Trump’s bitterly contested immigration policies during her tumultuous 16-month tenure, resigned on Sunday amid a surge in the number of migrants at the border with Mexico.

A senior administration official said Trump asked for Nielsen’s resignation and she gave it.

Trump, who has recently expressed growing anger about the situation at the border, said on Twitter: “Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service.”

In another tweet, Trump said Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, would become acting DHS secretary.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen speaks during a visit U.S. President Donald Trump’s border wall in the El Centro Sector in Calexico, California, U.S. October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Earnie Grafton/File Photo

In a tweet late Sunday, Nielsen said that she would stay on until Wednesday.

“I have agreed to stay on as Secretary through Wednesday, April 10th to assist with an orderly transition and ensure that key DHS missions are not impacted,” she said.

Nielsen’s departure was first reported by CBS News.

Nielsen, 46, had been DHS secretary since December 2017. Her departure had been repeatedly rumored over the past year, particularly after a wave of anger over the administration’s 2018 family separation policy at the border with Mexico and most recently as U.S. border officials estimated that 100,000 migrants were apprehended at the southern border in March, the highest level in a decade.

Another senior administration official said Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, after a blowup with Nielsen late last year, also recommended to Trump that she should go.

Trump has made a clampdown on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his two-year-old presidency, leading chants of “Build that wall” at his rallies as he has sought to cut back on the number of newcomers entering the United States without proper documentation.

Many of the migrants picked up last month were Central Americans seeking U.S. asylum.

Trump was so frustrated about the increase that he announced he would cut off U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. He also threatened to close the border with Mexico, although he later backed off that proposal with a threat to impose tariffs on auto imports.

In her resignation letter, Nielsen asked for more from Congress and the courts, which have opposed such Trump administration initiatives as his effort to limit immigration from Muslim nations and the border wall.

“I hope that the next Secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse,” she wrote to Trump.

Trump also took aim at Congress in another tweet later on Sunday, saying: “Country is FULL,” and saying Democrats in Congress must “fix loopholes” and repeating his threats to close the border or impose tariffs if Mexico does not do more.

Nielsen’s resignation was the latest high-profile departure from the Trump administration and leaves just four women in his Cabinet. Among others, Trump currently lacks a permanent secretary of defense or chief of staff.

LIGHTNING ROD

Nielsen’s departure was announced two days after the Republican president abruptly said on Friday he was dumping his nominee to be the top official at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Ronald Vitiello, saying he wanted someone “tougher.”

ICE is under the jurisdiction of DHS, which was formed following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

Repeatedly subjected to tough questioning by Democrats at congressional hearings, Nielsen became a lightning rod for criticism of Trump’s policies. She was confronted by protesters last year at a Mexican restaurant in Washington.

Last year, Nielsen came under increasing pressure by critics to step aside after the Trump administration adopted the policy of separating migrant children from their parents as part of its “zero tolerance” approach intended to deter families from leaving home in the hope of entering the United States.

After criticism as pictures of children in cages were spread across the world, Trump signed an executive order in June ending family separations and requiring that families be held together in federal custody while the adults awaited prosecution for illegally crossing the border.

But the government reported that at least 245 children were taken from their families between that time and the first months of 2019.

Trump insists that the arrival of immigrants across the southern U.S. border constitutes a national emergency so important that he sidestepped Congress’ refusal to provide him with billions of dollars he requested to build the border wall.

Representative Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said Nielsen’s tenure at DHS “was a disaster from the start.”

He said in a statement, however, that she should not serve as a scapegoat, blasting Trump for “terrible and cruel policies.” Noting that the department now has neither a permanent secretary nor deputy secretary, Thompson called on the administration to work with Congress “in good faith.”

Before she was nominated as secretary, Nielsen worked as a deputy to former Marine General John Kelly, who headed DHS before becoming White House chief of staff.

Kelly resigned as chief of staff on Jan. 2 amid reports of a strained relationship with Trump.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch and Rich McKay; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Peter Cooney)

White House says Trump undecided on deal to avert another shutdown

President Donald Trump has not yet decided whether to back a deal hammered out by congressional negotiators to avert another partial government shutdown, the White House said on Tuesday, putting the future of the agreement that contains funds for U.S.-Mexican border security but not his promised wall in doubt.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump has not yet decided whether to back a deal hammered out by congressional negotiators to avert another partial government shutdown, the White House said on Tuesday, putting the future of the agreement that contains funds for U.S.-Mexican border security but not his promised wall in doubt.

Democratic and Republican negotiators reached the tentative deal on Monday night on border security provisions and money to keep several government agencies including the Department of Homeland Security funded through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year. Temporary funding for about a quarter of the government is due to expire on Friday.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we will get this through,” Democratic Representative Nita Lowey, who chairs the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, told CNN. “We cannot shut the government down.”

Asked if the Republican president had signaled support for the bipartisan deal, Lowey did not answer directly, but said it had the backing of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, who control the chamber.

Trump, who triggered a 35-day partial government shutdown with his December demand for $5.7 billion to help build the border wall, has not yet made up his mind on the deal, said a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“No decision has been made,” the official said.

Republican Senator Richard Shelby on Monday said the House-Senate committee set up last month at the end of the previous shutdown had an agreement in principle to pay for border security programs.

A final agreement is expected by late on Wednesday. The funding legislation would need to be passed in the House and Senate and signed by Trump.

Trump last month agreed to end the shutdown without getting money for a wall, which is opposed by Democrats. The shutdown roiled financial markets and left hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors without pay.

Trump’s long-promised wall was a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. He had said it would be paid for by Mexico and not by U.S. taxpayers.

Congressional sources said the agreement includes $1.37 billion for new fencing along 55 miles (90 km) of the southern border but only with currently used designs, such as “steel bollard” fencing. It will also address immigrant detention beds.

Trump will have to decide whether to sign the measure into law given its backing from congressional Republicans, or side with conservative commentators who have the president’s ear such as Sean Hannity of Fox News, who late on Monday called it a “garbage compromise.” Democrats oppose the wall but support border security efforts.

Trump has threatened to declare a “national emergency” if Congress does not give him wall money.

“Just so you know – we’re building the wall anyway,” Trump said at a rally in the border city of El Paso, Texas, shortly after the deal was reached. “Maybe progress has been made – maybe not.”

Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from Texas considering a 2020 White House run, accused Trump at a counter-rally nearby of stoking “false fear” about immigrants and telling “lies” about O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso.

Without new funds, federal agencies would again have to suspend some activities this weekend, ranging from maintenance of national parks to the publishing of important economic data.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Steve Holland in Washington and Roberta Rampton in El Paso, Texas; Editing by Will Dunham)

Explainer: How U.S. shutdown over border wall fight might play out

Jocelyn Lofstrom, whose husband is a federal worker, prepares a sign prior to a protest of the partial U.S government shutdown on day 33 of of the shutdown in the Hart Senate office building in Washington, U.S., January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – On the 34th day of a partial U.S. government shutdown, President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats remain at odds over his demand for funding for a wall on the border with Mexico.

Trump has refused to sign any legislation to fund an array of government agencies, including the departments of agriculture, commerce, justice, interior and homeland security, unless it includes $5.7 billion for his long-promised wall.

The Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, have rejected the wall as ineffective and immoral and want the government to be reopened before any further talks about border security.

As long as the stalemate continues, 800,000 federal employees are on furlough or working without pay.

The following are some possible ways the standoff might end:

GLIMMERS OF COMPROMISE

The Senate is due to vote on two measures on Thursday: Trump’s proposal to fund government agencies through Sept. 30 while paying for a wall and also providing some temporary protections for some undocumented immigrants (“Dreamers”), and a Democratic plan to reopen the government through Feb. 8 while border security negotiations continue.

Both measures are expected to be defeated. If they are, that could clear the way for a new round of negotiations between Congress and Trump.

The fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is willing to allow the votes suggests he may be trying to persuade lawmakers of both parties to compromise. The speaker of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, told reporters on Thursday that she was willing to meet face-to-face with Trump.

POSSIBLE WAYS TO BREAK THE IMPASSE

* Congress and Trump find a way to temporarily re-open the government under a promise of serious border security negotiations over the next month or so.

* Democrats agree to more than the $1.3 billion in border security funding they have been backing, but less than the $5.7 billion Trump wants. If Trump faces a public opinion backlash or there are signs Republican lawmakers may be abandoning him, he might have to settle for less.

* Democrats and Republicans agree on $5.7 billion in border security funding this year, but the language allows both sides to claim victory by including different ways of securing the border. Democrats insist the money will not be used to build a wall; Trump and his fellow Republicans tout the money that will include funding for various types of barriers and other tools to discourage illegal immigration and drugs.

* A “grand bargain” emerges that reopens the government, bolsters border security and also provides protections from deportation for “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents. Other changes to immigration law also could be included. Such a deal would fund federal programs through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, add funds for an array of border security tools without imposing tough new constraints on immigration that Trump has previously attempted.

TRUMP DECLARES ‘NATIONAL EMERGENCY’

While the possibility that this might happen has faded recently, Trump could revive his threat to declare a national emergency at any time. His rationale would be that illegal immigration jeopardizes U.S. security and he is empowered to act by redirecting existing federal funds to build the wall. Defense Department accounts could be targeted for use on the border.

Under the Constitution, Congress holds the power to make decisions about spending U.S. taxpayers’ money and using presidential powers to move funding around is almost certain to face legal challenges.

Taking this step would probably lead to prompt enactment of legislation reopening the government under the belief that Trump would sign it into law, without the $5.7 billion.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Sonya Hepinstall)

House Democrats to test Republicans on Trump’s wall demand

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) arrives for a House Democratic party caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – On the 19th day of a partial U.S. government shutdown, Democrats were set on Wednesday to test Republicans’ resolve in backing President Donald Trump’s drive to build a wall on the border with Mexico, which has sparked an impasse over agency funding.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats, who took control of the chamber last week, plan to advance a bill to immediately reopen the Treasury Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and several other agencies that have been partially shut down since Dec. 22.

Democrats are eager to force Republicans to choose between funding the Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service – at a time when it should be gearing up to issue tax refunds to millions of Americans – and voting to keep it partially shuttered.

In a countermove, the Trump administration said on Tuesday that even without a new shot of funding, the IRS would somehow make sure those refund checks get sent.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told Fox News on Wednesday that Trump was still considering a declaration of a national emergency to circumvent Congress and redirect government funds toward the wall.

The Republican president’s push for a massive barrier on the border has dominated the Washington debate and sparked a political blame game as both Trump and Democrats remain dug in.

In a nationally televised address on Tuesday night, Trump asked: “How much more American blood must be shed before Congress does its job?” referring to murders he said were committed by illegal immigrants.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell opened the Senate on Wednesday with an attack on Democrats for not supporting Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for the wall.

But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Trump’s speech was a rehash of spurious arguments and misleading statistics.

“The president continues to fearmonger and he makes up the facts,” Schumer said.

DEMOCRATIC TACTICS

Later in the week, Pelosi plans to force votes that one-by-one provide the money to operate departments ranging from Homeland Security and Justice to State, Agriculture, Commerce and Labor.

By using a Democratic majority to ram those bills through the House, Pelosi is hoping enough Senate Republicans back her up and abandon Trump’s wall gambit.

The political maneuvering comes amid a rising public backlash over the suspension of some government activities that has resulted in the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

Other “essential” employees are being required to report to work, but without pay for the time being.

As House Democrats plow ahead, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will go to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to attend a weekly closed lunch meeting of Senate Republicans.

They are expected to urge them to hold firm on his wall demands, even as some are publicly warning their patience is wearing thin.

Later in the day, Trump is scheduled to host bipartisan congressional leaders to see if they can break the deadlock. On Thursday, Trump travels to the border to highlight an immigration “crisis” that his base of conservative supporters wants him to address.

With tempers running high over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion just for this year to fund wall construction, there are doubts Pelosi’s plan will succeed in forcing the Senate to act.

McConnell has not budged from his hard line of refusing to bring up any government funding bill that does not have Trump’s backing even as a few moderate members of his caucus have called for an end to the standoff.

The funding fight stems from Congress’ inability to complete work by a Sept. 30, 2018, deadline on funding all government agencies. It did, however, appropriate money for about 75 percent of the government by that deadline – mainly military and health-related programs.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Trott and Alistair Bell)

U.S. to send some migrants back to Mexico as immigration cases proceed: Nielsen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will soon begin returning individuals who illegally cross the U.S. southern border back to Mexico to wait there while their immigration cases proceed, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Thursday.

The policy change is part of the Trump administration’s efforts to tighten U.S. immigration laws to let in fewer immigrants seeking to enter both legally and illegally.

“Aliens trying to game the system to get into our country illegally will no longer be able to disappear into the United States, where many skip their court dates,” Nielsen said in a statement. “Instead, they will wait for an immigration court decision while they are in Mexico.”

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Immigration agents arrest 160 workers at Texas trailer plant

The badge of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Fugitive Operations team is seen in Santa Ana, California, U.S., May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

(Reuters) – U.S. agents have arrested 160 employees of a trailer manufacturing plant in north Texas who they said violated immigration laws and were working illegally in the United States.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said late Tuesday its agents raided a plant owned by Load Trail in Sumner, about 110 miles (180 km) northeast of Dallas.

“Businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens create an unfair advantage,” Katrina Berger, an agent for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit, said in a statement.

No criminal charges have been filed, ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said in an email. He declined to say if any charges would be brought against the company, citing the ongoing investigation.

Load Trail described itself on its website earlier this month as a 22-year-old family-owned business whose staff peaked at more than 500 employees in 2007 and that produces a variety of trailers and parts. The company did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

ICE said it was interviewing all of the 160 suspects it rounded up to determine whether any of them qualify for “humanitarian release” such as being as sole care-givers of children. The agency did not provide the nationalities of the suspects.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Migrant ‘caravan’ that angers Trump nears U.S.-Mexico border

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, rest at a temporary shelter, in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Edgard Garrido

HERMOSILLO, Mexico (Reuters) – Hundreds of Central American migrants traveling in a “caravan” were in limbo in the northern Mexican city of Hermosillo on Monday on the final stretch of a journey to the United States where President Donald Trump ordered officials to repel them.

About 600 men, women and children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras had been waiting on Monday in Hermosillo, Sonora to board a train or take buses for the remaining 432 miles miles to the border with California.

Traveling together for safety, their numbers were down from a peak of about 1,500 people since they began their journey on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala almost a month ago, as smaller groups broke away.

Many women and children in the group were planning to seek asylum in the United States after they reach Tijuana, said Rodrigo Abeja, a coordinator from immigrant rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras that has been organizing similar caravans for several years.

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, receive shoes at a temporary shelter, in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, receive shoes at a temporary shelter, in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Moving from town to town, the impoverished and bedraggled travelers became a lightning rod for U.S.-Mexico relations after Trump launched a succession of tweets in early April, telling Mexican authorities to stop them.

On Monday he again lashed out, threatening that failure to stop the caravan could stall the already tense renegotiation of NAFTA.

“I have instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “It’s a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so Naive! WALL”

Following Trump’s Tweets, the group was considering applying for asylum status in Mexico, a Reuters witness traveling with them said.

Trump’s concern with the caravan coincides with recent U.S. border patrol data showing a sharp rise in the number of immigrants found illegally crossing the border, a setback after immigration from Central America evaporated in the months following his election.

While it is not clear what will happen when the group arrives at the border, or if it will disperse before it gets there, there are signs the U.S. is preparing legal defenses. Following Trump’s messages, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he had ordered officials to ensure that sufficient prosecutors and immigration judges were available at the border “to adjudicate any cases that may arise from this ‘caravan.'”

Some migrants told Reuters they would stay in Mexico. Others said they would find other ways to cross. At least 200 were likely to claim asylum if they made it over the border, according to migrants and caravan organizers.

Marie Vincent, a U.S.-based immigration attorney who met the caravan on a stop along the way, said many of the immigrants had a strong case for U.S. asylum either because they faced political persecution, lethal threats from gangs, or violence because of gender or sexual identity.

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, gesture during a demonstration against the U.S President Donald Trump's immigration policies, in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, gesture during a demonstration against the U.S President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, in Hermosillo, Sonora state, Mexico April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Vincent said one of those with a persuasive case was the survivor of a flawed witness protection program in Honduras who had been “stabbed and shot at more times than he could count.”

Faced with another death threat, he escaped to Guatemala and then to Mexico from a hospital bed with the tubes still stuck in his body — one of them hanging from his stomach, she said.

Some of the group had been dissuaded from seeking asylum by warnings about detention conditions they might endure in the United States, she said.

Although Honduras and El Salvador rank among countries with the highest homicide rates in the world, rejection rates for asylum claims from those countries are very steep.

(Additional reporting and writing by Delphine Schrank in Mexico City; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Scott Malone)

Trump to order National Guard to protect border with Mexico

FILE PHOTO - Members of the U.S Army National Guard monitor the Oculus transportation hub ahead of the U.S presidential election in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will sign a proclamation on Wednesday ordering the deployment of the National Guard to help protect the border with Mexico, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said.

Troops may be heading to the border as early as Wednesday night, Nielsen said, saying that the National Guard would support U.S. Custom and Border Protection but would not be involved in enforcement.

Nielsen spoke at a White House news briefing a day after Trump sharpened his anti-immigration rhetoric by saying he wanted to deploy U.S. military forces until his promised border wall is built.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen speaks during a press briefing on border security at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen speaks during a press briefing on border security at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

“The president has directed that the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security work together with our governors to deploy the National Guard to our southwest border to assist the Border Patrol,” Nielsen said. “The president will be signing a proclamation to that effect today.”

She said the administration had drafted legislation and would be asking Congress to provide the legal authority and resources to address “this crisis at our borders.”

She did not give the number of the troops to be deployed or the cost of the operation.

Nielsen said that despite steps taken by the administration, the levels of drug smuggling, illegal immigration and dangerous gang activity across the border were unacceptable.

Trump met with Defense Secretary James Mattis, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Nielsen and other officials to discuss border issues on Tuesday.

“Until we can have a wall and proper security we’re going to be guarding our border with the military,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday, lamenting what he called “horrible” U.S. laws that left the southern border poorly protected.

On Wednesday, Trump said in a tweet: “Our Border Laws are very weak while those of Mexico andCanada are very strong. Congress must change these Obama era, and other, laws NOW!”

(This version of the story was refiled to add dropped word “but” in paragraph two)

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Eric Beech and Leslie Adler)