Migrant caravan blocked at border; waiting drags into second day

Dozens of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States woke Monday morning on the ground outside a California border crossing after U.S. officials said they did not have enough space to accommodate the group engaged in a high-profile test of Trump administration policies.

The arrival of the 220 asylum seekers has set up a showdown between migrants, citing their right to seek shelter from persecution, and the Trump administration, which is trying to crack down on illegal immigration and says many asylum claims are fraudulent.

Trump tweeted last week that he had ordered the secretary of homeland security “not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country,” adding, “It is a disgrace.”

But under international law, the U.S. government is obliged to allow foreigners to apply for asylum.

Trump administration officials said they will begin processing the migrants when they have the capacity, but they have not indicated when that will happen. The San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego has detention space for about 300 people. U.S. officials have not said how many people are being held there. Asylum seekers are typically detained until officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conduct interviews to determine whether they have a credible fear of persecution or torture if they are sent home.

The first few dozen migrants, wearing white armbands to identify themselves, walked up to the San Ysidro entry point Sunday night. They and the other Central Americans had traveled from southern Mexico for weeks in a convoy that received extraordinary attention after conservative U.S. media highlighted their trip and the president denounced the caravan.

On Monday, many migrants sat on the ground on blankets and under donated blue tarps outside the border crossing. They passed around a Tijuana newspaper to try to learn scraps of information about their fate.

Trump has made this caravan a symbol of what he calls a porous border and lax immigration laws. He has used it as justification to deploy National Guard troops along the border and alleged that Mexico was not enforcing its immigration laws, further straining relations with a key U.S. ally.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently called the caravan “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.”

Many of the migrants say they face threats to their lives in their native lands. Karina Gomez Cruz, 16, who said she had left Nicaragua with her mother because of domestic violence and gang threats, spent the night at the border crossing and was wondering Monday what her future would hold.

“I’m bored of waiting, anxious to arrive and nervous because they don’t let us through,” Gomez Cruz said. “It’s far colder than in Nicaragua.”

Border Patrol officials had said in the days before the migrants’ arrival that they would process them as they would any other asylum seekers.

“We’re shocked that the port of entry would be at such capacity to not be able to receive any asylum seekers,” Leo Olsen, one of the caravan organizers, said Sunday evening as he waited with 30 of the migrants. “We are not planning on moving until we can talk further about the situation.”

If they succeed in entering U.S. custody, the migrants will be at the beginning of a perhaps longer and more complicated journey through the immigration court system. Migrants who pass the initial “credible fear” screening often get assigned a date in immigration court and then typically are released after a few days in custody. U.S. officials say many migrants skip their court dates and try to live illegally in the United States.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen issued a statement when the caravan reached the border, warning that the administration would prosecute its members if they entered the country illegally, if they made false claims or if they coached anyone into making false claims.

“That would really show how much the administration is willing to make the caravan an example of its harsh policy proposals,” said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Trump administration officials also say that more migrants are applying for asylum than in the past, in an attempt to take advantage of immigration rules. The number of foreigners making a claim of “credible fear” rose nearly 1,900 percent between 2008 and 2016, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

In past years, organizers have assembled caravans of asylum seekers to call attention to the plight of migrants on dangerous journeys, but they often traveled in obscurity. This year, conservative media in the United States seized on the caravan as a sign of out-of-control immigration, and Trump fanned the flames with tweets.

The caravan started with more than 1,500 people, but the numbers dwindled to about 200 as the group made its way north by foot, bus and train. Some have dispersed, and others chose to stay in Mexico. About 300 people remained in the northern Mexican city of Hermosillo to apply for humanitarian visas, organizers said.

Maria Magdalena Iraeta Martínez, 47, of El Salvador said she was planning to “cross with my kids to a place where I can finally be free, without threats.”

Five years ago, Martínez said, her family had been encircled in their home by armed members of the MS-13 gang. The gang members had attempted to recruit her son, William Rafael Carranza Martínez, now 25, but he had refused to join. Armed men entered the house early in the morning, escorted all of the extended family outside and threw them to the ground at gunpoint, she said.

The family fled to Guatemala and lived for several years in southern Mexico but continued to receive gang threats, she said.

At the front of the caravan, Carranza pushed his sister’s wheelchair up the ramp leading to the port of entry. His mother followed behind, crying.

“I ask God and the government to give me asylum,” she said.

Partlow reported from Mexico City. Nick Miroff in Washington contributed to this report.

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