Tired of waiting for asylum, migrants from caravan breach U.S. border

Migrants from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, put their hands in the air as they surrender to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official in San Diego County, U.S., after crossing illegally from Mexico to the U.S by jumping a border fence, photographed from Tijuana, Mexico, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Christine Murray

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Central American migrants stuck on the threshold of the United States in Mexico breached the border fence on Monday, risking almost certain detention by U.S. authorities but hoping the illegal entry will allow them to apply for asylum.

Since mid-October, thousands of Central Americans, mostly from Honduras, have traveled north through Mexico toward the United States in a caravan, some walking much of the long trek.

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, climb a border fence to cross illegally from Mexico to the U.S, in Tijuana, Mexico, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, climb a border fence to cross illegally from Mexico to the U.S, in Tijuana, Mexico, December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to stop the migrants entering, sending troops to reinforce the border and attempting a procedural change, so far denied by the courts, to require asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are heard.

Frustrated and exhausted after weeks of uncertainty, many of the migrants have become desperate since getting stuck in squalid camps in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.

So a number opted to eschew legal procedures and attempt an illegal entry from Tijuana as dusk fell on Monday at a spot about 1,500 feet (450 meters) away from the Pacific Ocean.

In less than an hour, Reuters reporters observed roughly two dozen people climb the approximately 10-foot (3-meter) fence made of thick sheets and pillars of metal. They chose a place in a large overgrown ditch where the fence is slightly lower.

Just before dusk, three thin people squeezed through the fence on the beach and were quickly picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol, witnesses said.

But along the border inland as darkness descended, more and more migrants followed, many bringing children.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials walk on the beach in San Diego County, U.S., as photographed through the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, December 3, 2018 REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials walk on the beach in San Diego County, U.S., as photographed through the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, December 3, 2018, REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Some used a blanket as a rope to help loved ones get over.

A mother and her children made it over the first fence and disappeared into the night.

The sight of them climbing the fence encouraged others, even as a helicopter patrolled overhead on the U.S. side.

Earlier, Karen Mayeni, a 29-year-old Honduran, sized up the fence while clinging to her three children, aged six, 11 and 12.

“We’re just observing, waiting to see what happens,” Mayeni said. “We’ll figure out what to do in a couple of days.”

Ninety minutes later, she and her family were over the fence.

A number of the migrants ran to try to escape capture, but most of them walked slowly to where U.S. Border Patrol officials were waiting under floodlights to hand themselves in.

‘STAND ON MY HEAD’

Some of the migrants are likely to be economic refugees without a strong asylum claim, but others tell stories of receiving politically motivated death threats in a region troubled by decades of instability and violence.

Applying for asylum at a U.S. land border can take months, so if migrants enter illegally and present themselves to authorities, their cases could be heard quicker.

U.S. officials have restricted applications through the Chaparral gate in Tijuana to between 40 and 100 per day.

Some may hope to defeat the odds and penetrate one of the most fortified sections of the southern U.S. border.

Those that made it across the fence in Tijuana still had to scramble up a hill and contend with a more forbidding wall to reach California, and U.S. Border Patrol agents had the territory between the two barriers heavily covered.

“Climb up. You can do it! Stand on my head!” one migrant said, egging his companion on.

One child and his mother got over the fence and ran up the hill behind. They turned around and waved to those still on the Mexican side.

(Reporting by Christine Murray; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Mexico calls for ‘full investigation’ of U.S. tear gas at border

FILE PHOTO: Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, run from tear gas released by U.S border patrol, near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Susan Heavey and Lizbeth Diaz

WASHINGTON/TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexico’s foreign ministry presented a diplomatic note to the U.S. government on Monday calling for “a full investigation” into what it described as non-lethal weapons directed toward Mexican territory on Sunday, a statement from the ministry said.

The formal request came a day after U.S. authorities fired tear gas canisters toward migrants in Mexico – near the border crossing separating Tijuana from San Diego, California – when some rushed through border fencing into the United States.

More than 40 were arrested on the U.S. side, U.S. border authorities said, adding that none were believed to have successfully crossed further into Californian territory.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at an event in Mississippi that he would close the border if migrants “charge” the barrier. During the melee on Sunday, U.S. authorities shut San Ysidro, the country’s busiest border crossing, for several hours.

“We would close it and we’ll keep it closed if we’re going to have a problem. We’ll keep it closed for a long period of time,” Trump said.

Sunday’s incident was the latest chapter in a saga that has pitted Trump’s hardline immigration policies against thousands of migrants who have made their way north through Mexico from violent and impoverished Central American countries.

Tensions had been growing in Tijuana, and Trump said on Saturday the migrants would have to wait in Mexico until their individual asylum claims were resolved in the United States. That would be a significant shift in asylum policy that could keep Central Americans in Mexico for more than a year.

Trump went further on Monday, saying Mexico should send the Central Americans, mostly Hondurans, back home.

“Mexico should move the flag-waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries. Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it any way you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!” Trump tweeted.

Mexico has been in negotiations with the United States over a possible scheme to keep migrants in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed.

The team of Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who takes office on Saturday, has said no deal has been agreed on the migrants. But officials have hinted they could remain.

“We should be objective, whatever happens, they will stay in Mexico,” said Alejandro Encinas, an incoming deputy interior minister. “Migrants have rights and we will respect them.”

CRITICISM

U.S. government agencies defended the response to Sunday’s incident at the San Ysidro crossing south of San Diego, California. News pictures showing children fleeing tear gas prompted sharp criticism from some lawmakers and charities.

British aid group Oxfam said the use of tear gas was shameful.

“Images of barefoot children choking on tear gas thrown by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol should shock us to our core,” Vicki Gass, Oxfam America Senior Policy Advisor for Central America, said in a statement.

Democrats and other critics called the use of tear gas an overreaction and questioned the idea of keeping the migrants in Mexico to make asylum claims there.

Some rights advocates and legal experts were concerned that the Trump administration was seeking to exploit the clashes.

Geoffrey Hoffman, a professor and director of the University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic, which represents migrants applying for asylum, said the government would use it to push the argument that the migrants should remain in Mexico.

Still, Rodney Scott, chief U.S. Border Patrol agent in San Diego, told CNN the vast majority of those assembled at the border were economic migrants who would not qualify for asylum and said there were few women and children.

“What I saw on the border yesterday was not people walking up to Border Patrol agents and asking to claim asylum,” he said.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement that the agency has “confirmed that there are over 600 convicted criminals traveling with the caravan.”

She also said the women and children in the caravan were being used as “human shields” by organizers when they confront law enforcement.

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in a statement four agents were hit with rocks on Sunday, but they did not suffer serious injuries.

WAITING GAME

Tijuana police chief Mario Martinez told a news conference on Monday that 194 Central Americans had been arrested in the 15 days the caravan has been in the area.

The migrants have traveled through Mexico in large groups, or caravans. There are more than 7,000 at the U.S. border in Tijuana and the city of Mexicali, with more than 800 others still moving toward the border.

Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum, who has said his city is facing a humanitarian crisis, told a local radio station the United States would take up to three months to start processing asylum requests.

Many of those in Tijuana have said they will wait there until they can seek asylum. If they enter the United States, legally or illegally, they have a right to seek asylum.

Melkin Gonzalez, a 26-year-old Honduran man, recounting Sunday’s tear gas firing, said: “I fell in dirty water when I was running (away) and I still don’t have any clothes to change into. Even so, I’m not going back to Honduras, I want to go to the United States.”

The U.S. military said it had shifted about 300 service members from Texas and Arizona to California in recent days. In total, about 5,600 active-duty troops are on the border with Mexico.

U.S. military officials have said they expected troops to be repositioned as the situation developed and changed.

Nielsen said her agency was prepared to address any future violence by deploying more U.S. military forces.

U.S. lawmakers face a deadline to approve funding for the federal government by Dec. 7. Trump has threatened to shut down the government unless Congress pays for his planned border wall.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Idrees Ali in Washington, Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Steve Holland in Gulfport, Mississippi; Writing by Susan Heavey and Frances Kerry; Editing by Alistair Bell, James Dalgleish and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. fires tear gas into Mexico to repel migrants, closes border gate for several hours

Migrants run from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol, near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – U.S. authorities shut the country’s busiest border crossing and fired tear gas into Mexico on Sunday to repel Central American migrants approaching the border after U.S. President Donald Trump vowed the asylum-seekers would not easily enter the country.

Traffic in both directions was suspended for several hours at the San Ysidro port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana, U.S. officials said, disrupting trade at the most heavily trafficked land border in the Western Hemisphere. Pedestrian crossings and vehicle traffic later resumed, officials said.

Tensions on the border had been rising in recent days, with thousands of Central American migrants who arrived in a caravan camped out in a sports stadium in Tijuana. On Sunday, Mexican police broke up the latest in a series of daily protests, triggering a rush toward the U.S. border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers stopped the migrants with a volley of canisters emitting large clouds of gas as U.S. and Mexican government helicopters clattered overhead.

The Mexican government said it had retaken control of the border crossing after nearly 500 migrants tried to cross the U.S. border “in a violent manner,” and vowed to immediately deport Central Americans who attempt to enter the United States illegally.

Trump has raised alarm for weeks about the caravan of Central American migrants as it approached the United States, with its members planning to apply for asylum on reaching the country.

The mostly Honduran migrants are fleeing poverty and violence and have said they would wait in Tijuana until they could request asylum in the United States, despite growing U.S. measures to tighten the border.

Hundreds of caravan members including women and children protested peacefully on Sunday with chants of “We aren’t criminals! We are hard workers.” As they neared the U.S. border, they were stopped by Mexican authorities, who told them to wait for permission.

As the morning wore on, and it became clear they would not get permission, people started to express frustration.

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, make their way across Tijuana river near the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, make their way across Tijuana river near the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

MILITARY POLICE DEPLOYED

Groups of migrants, some of them bearing the Honduran flag, broke off and headed toward the border fence, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers gathered on the other side, backed by U.S. military police, San Diego police and the California Highway Patrol.

The Americans responded with tear gas after the migrants hit them with projectiles, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said on Twitter.

“Border Patrol agents deployed tear gas to dispel the group because of the risk to agents’ safety,” the statement said.

Protesters were caught between the Mexican and U.S. authorities. A young woman fell to the ground unconscious, and two babies cried, tears streaming from the gas, a Reuters witness said.

“They want us to wait in Mexico but I for one am desperate. My little girl is sick and I don’t even have money for milk,” said Joseph Garcia, 32, of Honduras. “I can’t stand it anymore.”

Trump has deployed military forces to the border to support the Border Patrol and threatened on Saturday to close the entire southern border.

Military police were sent to the border crossing and military engineers moved barricades as part of the enforcement, the U.S. Northern Command said in a statement on Sunday.

“Department of Defense military personnel will not be conducting law enforcement functions, but are authorized to provide force protection for Customs and Border Protection personnel,” the statement said.

An average of 70,000 vehicles and 20,000 pedestrians cross from Mexico to the United States at San Ysidro each day, according to the U.S. General Services Administration.

Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center research group in Washington, called the closure a “drastic response” and said it would cost “many millions of dollars.”

U.S. and Mexican negotiators met on Sunday to discuss a plan to keep the Central Americans in Mexico while their asylum claims are heard. Normally, asylum-seekers announce their intention on arriving at U.S. ports of entry or after crossing the border illegally.

Trump has been pushing for a U.S.-Mexico border wall and warned on Thursday there could be a government shutdown next month if the U.S. Congress failed to provide funding. Sunday’s events took place at one of the stretches where there is a physical border barrier.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana; Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Doina Chiacu and Julia Harte in Washington; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Tensions rise at U.S.-Mexico border as migrants, holiday travelers wait to cross

A migrant boy, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, runs while holding a toy at a temporary shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA (Reuters) – Hundreds of Central American migrants in Mexico massed on Thursday around a tense U.S. border crossing, where security measures held up long lines of Mexicans headed to Thanksgiving gatherings on the other side of the frontier.

With few belongings and many of them with children in tow, the migrants set out for the crossing from the baseball field in the Mexican border city of Tijuana where they have been camped out. Around 6,000 migrants who have trekked across Mexico in a caravan in recent weeks are now crammed into the field.

They arrived at the Chaparral border crossing, opposite San Diego, California, and said they would wait there until they could request asylum, in spite of growing U.S. measures to tighten the border.

“We are already desperate, last night it rained and we all got wet. There is no room left. We are all sick. My children have a cold … and nobody has come to give us help,” said David, a Honduran who only provided his first name.

Earlier on Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump said he had authorized the use of lethal force on the border and warned that the United States could close the whole frontier.

The San Ysidro vehicular crossing into San Diego, one of the busiest in the world, was briefly shuttered in the afternoon by U.S. officials as they performed a security exercise.

Tens of thousands of Mexicans enter the United States daily to work or study, and many were trying to get to Thanksgiving celebrations. Mariana del Campo, a retired professor, had hoped to make it across before the closing but was stuck in the line.

“What’s happening on the border is maddening,” she said as she waited in her car. “I don’t know how long we can put up with this. Someone is going to get tired or explode.”

Also stuck in her car waiting to cross for Thanksgiving was 54-year-old Aurora Diaz, who said her U.S.-based daughter was reluctant to visit Mexico in case Trump closed the border.

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, make their way to the El Chaparral port of entry border crossing between Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico, November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, make their way to the El Chaparral port of entry border crossing between Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico, November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

U.S. OR BUST

Tensions were palpable at the pedestrian crossing where the Central Americans had gathered. Mexican police and soldiers stood guard while a helicopter buzzed over the U.S side.

Edgar Corzo, an official from Mexico’s human rights commission, spoke into a megaphone to the crowd, telling them they could request assistance in Mexico.

But migrants arrived with blankets and prepared to bed down for the night outside the border station. Some of the children cried and complained of the cold.

Authorities in Tijuana said the migrants are facing up to a six-month wait to be able to get an appointment to plead their case for asylum with U.S. authorities.

Earlier this week, U.S. officials briefly closed the main border crossing in Tijuana, putting up concrete barricades and razor wire after reports that migrants could try to rush the crossing.

“I want President Trump to know that we’re peaceful people, we don’t have weapons, we haven’t come to do evil,” said a man who declined to give his name, holding a white flag on a wooden stick that read “Peace, God is with us.” “We want to work, we want them to help us for the love of God,” he added.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz, Writing by Michael O’Boyle, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. judge blocks Trump asylum restrictions

FILE PHOTO: Members of a migrant caravan from Central America and their supporters sit on the top of the U.S.-Mexico border wall at Border Field State Park before making an asylum request, in San Diego, California, U.S. April 29, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Dan Levine

SAN FRANCISCO – A U.S. judge on Monday temporarily blocked an order by President Donald Trump that barred asylum for immigrants who enter the country illegally from Mexico, the latest courtroom defeat for Trump on immigration policy.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order against the asylum rules. Tigar’s order takes effect immediately, applies nationwide, and lasts until at least Dec. 19 when the judge scheduled a hearing to consider a more long-lasting injunction.

Representatives for the U.S. Department of Justice could not immediately be reached for comment.

Trump cited an overwhelmed immigration system for his recent proclamation that officials will only process asylum claims for migrants who present themselves at an official entry point. Civil rights groups sued, arguing that Trump’s Nov. 9 order violated administrative and immigration law.

In his ruling, Tigar said Congress clearly mandated that immigrants can apply for asylum regardless of how they entered the country. The judge called the latest rules an “extreme departure” from prior practice.

“Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden,” Tigar wrote.

Tigar was nominated to the court by President Barack Obama.

Previous Trump immigration policies, including measures targeting sanctuary cities, have also been blocked by the courts.

The asylum ruling came as thousands of Central Americans, including a large number of children, are traveling in caravans toward the U.S. border to escape violence and poverty at home. Some have already arrived at Tijuana, a Mexican city on the border with California.

“IT IS TOO MUCH”

Rights groups have said immigrants are being forced to wait days or weeks at the border before they can present themselves for asylum, and the administration has been sued for deliberately slowing processing times at official ports.

At a hearing earlier on Monday, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt said the order clearly conflicted with the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows any person present in the United States to seek asylum, regardless of how they entered the country.

Gelernt said the ACLU had recently learned Mexican authorities have begun barring unaccompanied minors from applying at U.S. ports of entry.

Mexico’s migration institute said in a statement to Reuters that there was “no basis” for the ACLU’s claims, noting that there had been no such reports from the United Nations or human rights groups that are monitoring the situation at the border.

Uriel Gonzalez, the head of a YMCA shelter for young migrants in Tijuana, said he had not heard of any new measures directed at unaccompanied minors. He noted there were already long lines to get a turn with U.S. authorities.

“This can take a while because the number of migrants has overwhelmed capacity. It is too much,” he said.

The judge on Monday wrote that Trump’s refugee rule would force people with legitimate asylum claims “to choose between violence at the border, violence at home, or giving up a pathway to refugee status.”

Caravan participants began to arrive last week in Tijuana on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, which has put a strain on shelters where many will wait to seek asylum. Their presence has also strained Tijuana’s reputation as a welcoming city, with some residents screaming at the migrants, “Get out!”

Trump sent more than 5,000 soldiers to the 2,000-mile (3,100 km) frontier with Mexico to harden the border, although critics dismissed the move as a political stunt ahead of congressional elections on Nov. 6.

(Reporting by Dan Levine in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana; Editing by Leslie Adler, Tom Brown and Andrew Heavens)

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)

New Salvadoran migrant caravan forms; hundreds wait at U.S.-Mexico border

People in a caravan of migrants departing from El Salvador en route to the United States sit on a bus, in San Salvador, El Salvador, November 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By Nelson Renteria

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – At least 150 Salvadorans set off on Sunday from their impoverished Central American country in a U.S.-bound caravan, ignoring their likely rejection at the U.S.-Mexico border where a larger caravan of mostly Hondurans has been stalled for days.

Guarded by police officers, the men, women, and children of the gathering caravan marched through San Salvador’s streets to Guatemala-bound buses, loaded with heavy backpacks, water and the knowledge of an arduous 2,700-mile (4,300-km) trek ahead to the U.S. border.

The group from El Salvador was at least the fourth caravan to set off since a first, large-scale mobilization in neighboring Honduras, which departed on Oct. 13 from the crime-wracked northern city of San Pedro Sula.

That caravan quickly grew to thousands as it moved north on daily 30-mile (50-km) treks. Many of its members were still winding their way on Sunday through Mexico toward the U.S border, where hundreds of early arrivals have been waiting since last week to cross.

Ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm U.S. congressional elections, President Donald Trump denounced the large caravan as an “invasion” that threatened American national security and sent thousands of active-duty U.S. troops to the border with Mexico. Trump has not publicly focused on the caravan since the election.

Inspired by the public spotlight on the larger caravan, Salvadorans organized themselves on social networks and the WhatsApp application to launch the latest effort.

Among them was Manuel Umana, a 53-year-old farmer from the town of San Pedro Masahuat, who said he decided to join Sunday’s caravan to escape MS-13, a brutal criminal gang that controls large parts of El Salvador and neighboring Honduras.

“We are already threatened by the gangs where we live,” said Umana, pointing to scars on his face he said gang members had inflicted five years ago. “We no longer can live with these people.”

His motives echoed dozens of migrants in the earlier caravans who told Reuters they were abandoning their homes to escape a toxic mixture of violence, corruption and economic insecurity.

El Salvador and Honduras compete for the highest homicide rates in the world, according to official figures. Both countries rank among the poorest in the Americas.

“It is very dangerous but we have no other alternative. We are determined to do what we need to do,” said Umana, before leaving with the rest of the caravan from the Salvadoran capital’s central Plaza Salvador del Mundo.

Far to the north on Sunday, in the city of Tijuana that abuts California, hundreds of people from the larger caravan braced for planned protests from local Mexicans both in favor and against them.

Just over the northern border, nearly 6,000 U.S. troops in recent days have stretched barbed wire to dissuade illegal entries.

U.S. immigration authorities, meanwhile, barred passage to dozens of the migrants who in recent days formed orderly lines to enter through the San Ysidro Port of Entry connecting Mexico to San Diego.

(Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana; Writing by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Will Dunham)

Exclusive: U.S. troop levels at Mexico border likely at peak – commander

FILE PHOTO: Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, commander of U.S. Army North 5th Army, visits the San Ysidro border crossing with Mexico in San Diego, California, U.S. November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Phil Stewart

BASE CAMP DONNA, Texas (Reuters) – The number of U.S. troops at the border with Mexico may have peaked at about 5,800, the U.S. commander of the mission told Reuters, noting he would start looking next week at whether to begin sending forces home or perhaps shifting some to new border positions.

The outlook by Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, while not definitive, suggests that the high-profile military mission could soon achieve its goal of helping harden the border ahead of the expected arrival of caravans of Central American migrants in the coming weeks.

The deployment, which critics have called a pre-election political stunt by President Donald Trump, was initially expected to reach more than 7,000 forces, acting in support of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized the mission through Dec. 15 and while Buchanan did not rule out an extension, he did not think one appeared likely at this point, based on the current set of tasks assigned to the military.

“It is a hard date. And we have no indications that CBP is going to need us to do our work for longer than that,” Buchanan said on Wednesday at Base Camp Donna in Texas, as Mattis toured the site near the Mexico border.

He acknowledged that there could be new requests, saying: “If we get an extension, we get an extension. But I’ve got no indications of that so far.”

Asked whether he thought the troop levels had peaked, Buchanan said: “I do. We might increase by a hundred here or there, but probably not.”

Trump’s politically charged decision to send U.S. troops to the border with Mexico came ahead of U.S. 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 said it was designed to drive Republican voters to the polls. They have scoffed at Trump’s comparison of caravans of Central American migrants, including women and children, fleeing poverty and violence, to an “invasion.”

Mattis defended the deployment on Wednesday, saying the mission was “absolutely legal,” justified and was improving military readiness.

‘RIGHTSIZING’

Buchanan also said his mission guidelines were clear – to support CBP personnel. He said his work was apolitical.

“I’m not being directed to do anything unnatural from above me,” said Buchanan, who is commander of U.S. Army North.

The Pentagon says there are no plans for U.S. forces to interact with migrants and instead have been carrying out support tasks for CBP, like stringing up concertina wire and building temporary housing for themselves and CBP personnel.

In recent days, up to 1,000 migrants linked to the caravans have arrived in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, with a similar number expected to arrive in the next day or so. Thousands more could arrive in border towns over the coming days as the bulk of the caravans arrive.

Buchanan estimated that about 5,800 troops were deployed in total, with about 1,500 in California, 1,500 in Arizona and 2,800 in Texas. Buchanan acknowledged he might shift forces east or west along the border if needed.

Mattis told reporters earlier on Wednesday that 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.

Buchanan suggested troops would go home once they had fulfilled requests by CBP.

“At some point in time, I’m not going to keep troops here just to keep them here. When the work is done, we’re going to start downsizing some capability,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan would need to make any recommendations on redeployment of troops to General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the head of U.S. Northern Command. O’Shaughnessy would then report to Mattis.

He suggested a recommendation could be made in the near future.

“I’m looking as early as next week to start thinking through rightsizing if we need to change. Or do I need to shift (troops elsewhere on the border),” Buchanan said, without predicting when changes might occur.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

U.S. lays barbed wire at border as migrant caravan draws closer

U.S. Marines work to move building materials as they harden the border with Mexico 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

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA (Reuters) – Hundreds of Central American migrants planning to seek asylum in the United States moved toward the country’s border with Mexico on Tuesday as U.S. military reinforced security measures, laying barbed wire and erecting barricades.

Some 400 migrants who broke away from the main caravan in Mexico City arrived in the border city of Tijuana on Tuesday by bus, according to a Reuters witness. Larger groups are expected to arrive in the coming days, human rights organizations said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he would travel to the border area on Wednesday, his first visit since the military announced that over 7,000 U.S. troops would go to the area as the caravan of mostly Hondurans has made its way through Mexico.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a statement that it would close lanes at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa crossings from Tijuana to allow the Department of Defense to install barbed wire and position barricades and fencing. Tijuana, in the Mexican state of Baja California, is at the westerly end of the border, around 17 miles (38km) from San Diego, California.

“CBP has been and will continue to prepare for the potential arrival of thousands of people migrating in a caravan heading toward the border of the United States,” Pete Flores, the agency’s director of field operations in San Diego, said in a statement, citing a “potential safety and security risk.”

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has taken a firm stance against the caravan, which began its journey north on Oct. 13 and briefly clashed with security forces in the south of Mexico early on its route.

On Friday, Trump signed a decree that effectively suspended the granting of asylum for those who cross the border illegally, a move that could drastically slow claims at gates of entry.

But migrants planning to seek asylum in the United States said they were undeterred by the crackdown.

“I prefer to be in detention in the United States than to return to my country, where I know they are going to kill me for being different,” said Nelvin Mejía, a transgender woman who arrived in Tijuana on Monday with a group of about 70 people seeking asylum. “Last month, they killed my partner, and I do not want to end up like that.”

For years, thousands of mainly Central American immigrants have embarked on long journeys through Central America and Mexico to reach the United States. Many of them die in the attempt or are kidnapped by organized crime groups.

Several thousand more migrants in at least three caravan groups are making their way through Mexico toward the border.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; writing by Julia Love, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

New migrant caravan departs Salvadoran capital for U.S.

People walk in a caravan of migrants departing from El Salvador en route to the United States, in San Salvador, El Salvador, October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By Nelson Renteria

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – About 2,000 migrants began walking north from El Salvador’s capital on Wednesday, the latest of several groups trying to reach the United States, even as President Donald Trump increases pressure to halt the flow of people.

The migrants departed in two groups, including men and women pushing strollers and others with children on their shoulders. On Sunday, a separate group comprising about 300 people set off for the U.S. border from the Salvadoran capital.

People walk in a caravan of migrants departing from El Salvador en route to the United States, in San Salvador, El Salvador, October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

People walk in a caravan of migrants departing from El Salvador en route to the United States, in San Salvador, El Salvador, October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

A caravan estimated to number at least 3,500 people, which left Honduras in mid-October and is now in southern Mexico, has become a major issue in U.S. congressional elections on Nov. 6.

The bulk of migrants caught trying to enter the United States illegally via Mexico come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Many make the dangerous journey north to escape high levels of poverty and violence in their homelands.

The United States is in the process of sending 5,200 troops to its southern border as part of Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration. The prospect has so far not discouraged people from leaving El Salvador.

“It scares us a little. But since we’re seeing a ton of people going together, we can help one another to cross,” said Jose Machado, one of the migrants departing San Salvador, carrying a backpack stuffed with clothing and toiletries.

Trump, who has threatened to slash U.S. aid to Central America and close the U.S. border with Mexico, said in a tweet on Wednesday that Mexico needs to keep up efforts to discourage the migrants, who he described as “tough fighters.”

A clash at the Mexico-Guatemala border on Sunday left one migrant dead and several law enforcement officers injured.

“Mexican soldiers hurt, were unable, or unwilling to stop Caravan. Should stop them before they reach our Border, but won’t!” Trump said in a Tweet.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Wednesday praised Mexico’s actions to slow the movement of people, but told Fox News: “They can do more.”

Police estimated the two groups leaving San Salvador numbered around 1,000 each. One cohort left around dawn, followed by a second later in the morning.

Some waved Salvadoran flags as motorists honked in support and shouted, “God bless you.”

(Reporting By Nelson Renteria, Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Dave Graham and Alistair Bell)