TAPACHULA, Mexico (AP) — Thousands of Central American migrants gathered Monday in this southern Mexican town, where they prepared to embark on the arduous 2,000-mile walk to the U.S. border even as President Donald Trump rained more threats on their governments.
Just over two weeks before the U.S. midterm elections, in which Trump has made illegal immigration a rallying call for his Republican base, Trump again blasted Democrats for what he called “pathetic” immigration laws.
“Every time you see a Caravan, or people illegally coming, or attempting to come, into our Country illegally, think of and blame the Democrats for not giving us the votes to change our pathetic Immigration Laws!” he tweeted Monday.
In another tweet, he blamed Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for not stopping people from leaving their countries. “We will now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to them,” he wrote.
A team of AP journalists traveling with the caravan for more than a week has spoken with Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, but has not met any Middle Easterners, who Trump suggested were “mixed in” with the Central American migrants.
It was clear though that more migrants were continuing to join the caravan.
Denis Omar Contreras, a Honduran-born caravan leader with the organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras — People Without Borders — said Trump should stop accusing the caravan of harboring terrorists.
“There isn’t a single terrorist here,” he said. “We are all people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. And as far as I know there are no terrorists in these four countries, at least beyond the corrupt governments.”
He said the caravan planned to resume its advance later Monday morning, toward the town of Huixtla, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) away.
Caravan leaders have not defined the precise route or decided where on the U.S. border they want to arrive. However, some 200 participants in a much smaller caravan last spring that was organized by Contreras’ organization made it to Tijuana, which is about 2,500 miles from Tapachula. Still, that crowd of 1,200 people shrank significantly by the time it reached the U.S. border, with many migrants deciding to stay in Mexico and others splitting away to try crossing on their own.
In recent years, most Central American migrants traveling on their own have opted for a more direct route that took them to Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas, about 1,140 miles from Tapachula.
The caravan is likely to lose its cohesiveness as it gets deeper into Mexico as groups traveling at different rates split off and many decide to take their chances on asylum in Mexico.
It was clear Monday, though, that for now it was still growing as migrants rushed to catch up overnight.
In interviews along the journey, migrants have said they are fleeing widespread violence, poverty and corruption in Honduras. The caravan is unlike previous mass migrations for its unprecedented large numbers and because it largely began spontaneously through word of mouth.
José Anibal Rivera, 52, an unemployed Honduran security guard from San Pedro Sula crossed into Mexico by raft Sunday and walked up to Tapachula from Ciudad Hidalgo to join the caravan.
“There are like 500 more people behind me,” he said.
He vowed to reach the U.S. border, still more than 2,000 miles away at its closest point. “Anything that happens, even if they kill me, is better than going back to Honduras,” he said.
Ana Luisa España, a laundress from Chiquimula, Guatemala, joined the caravan as she saw it pass through her country.
Even though the goal is to reach the U.S. border, she said: “We only want to work and if a job turns up in Mexico, I would do it. We would do anything, except bad things.”
Isis Ramirez, 32, a mother of three from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, awoke Monday morning on a square of sodden cardboard in Tapachula’s town square, her swollen feet stretched out in front of her, wrapped in bandages applied by paramedics. Blisters had formed on her feet from the cheap plastic sandals she wears.
“There are more sick people. It’s better that we rest today,” she said.
Nearby, Julio Asturias, 27, a migrant from San Juan, El Salvador, charged his cellphone from a dangling wire.
“I want to return to Arizona, and when I heard that the caravan was passing, I joined it,” he said, adding that he was deported a couple of months ago after being pulled over for a burned-out tail light.
Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador suggested Sunday that the United States, Canada and Mexico work out a joint plan for funding development in poor areas of Central America and southern Mexico.
“In this way we confront the phenomenon of migration, because he who leaves his town does not leave for pleasure but out of necessity,” said Lopez Obrador, who takes office Dec. 1.
The migrant caravan, which started out more than a week ago with fewer than 200 participants, has drawn additional people along the way and has swelled to an estimated more than 5,000 after many migrants found ways to cross from Guatemala into southern Mexico as police blocked the official crossing point.
Late Sunday, authorities in Guatemala said another group of about 1,000 migrants had entered that country from Honduras.
Migrants received help Sunday from sympathetic Mexicans who offered food, water and clothing. Hundreds of locals driving pickups, vans and cargo trucks stopped to let them clamber aboard.
Civil defense officials for Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas said they had offered to take the migrants by bus to a shelter set up by immigration officials about five miles (seven kilometers) outside Tapachula, but the migrants refused, fearing that once they boarded the buses they would be deported.
Ulises Garcia, a Red Cross official, said some migrants with injuries from their hard trek refused to be taken to clinics or hospitals, because they didn’t want to leave the caravan.
“We have had people who have ankle or shoulder injuries, from falls during the trip, and even though we have offered to take them somewhere where they can get better care, they have refused, because they fear they’ll be detained and deported,” Garcia said.
Jesus Valdivia was one of the many who pulled his pickup truck over to let 10 or even 20 migrants hop in at a time, sometimes causing the vehicle’s springs to groan under the weight.
“You have to help the next person. Today it’s for them, tomorrow for us,” Valdivia said.