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Migrant caravan reaches US-Mexico border to cold welcome

Jorge Duenes, Reuters | Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands trying to reach the US, gather at the border fence between Mexico and the United States after arriving in Tijuana, Mexico, on November 13, 2018.

The Central American migrant caravan trekking toward the United States converged on the US-Mexican border Thursday after more than a month on the road, undeterred by President Donald Trump's deployment of thousands of American troops near the border.

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Around 800 migrants riding on 22 buses arrived at dawn in Tijuana, which is located across from San Diego, California, and walked from the highway into the city in waves, their belongings on their backs.

They joined more than 750 other caravan members who had traveled ahead and reached the city in recent days.

The full caravan – some 5,500 migrants in all – was expected to continue arriving in Tijuana in the coming hours thanks to buses organized by charities, private donors and local authorities, with the last groups reaching the city by Friday.

Across the border, nearly 6,000 troops deployed by Donald Trump have been busy erecting concrete barriers and razor-wire fences to deter what the US president has described as an “invasion.”

“I feel better now that we’ve reached the border. Tired, but better. I’ve been on the road for a month, travelling with my four daughters,” Honduran migrant Miriam Fernandez, 32, told AFP.

Stones thrown

The migrants are mostly fleeing poverty and unrest in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where brutal gang violence has fueled some of the highest murder rates in the world.

Hundreds of Tijuana residents protested overnight at Friendship Park, a beachside square where the migrants have set up camp along the fence between Mexico and the United States.

Singing the Mexican national anthem and shouting anti-immigrant slogans, some protesters threw stones at the migrants, even targeting children in some cases, an AFP correspondent said.

“Get out of here,” a group of around 20 people shouted at a camp of Hondurans near the border, Reuters reported. “We want you to return to your country. You are not welcome.”

Migrants shouted back, in a confrontation that belied Tijuana’s reputation as a free-wheeling, tolerant city and lasted into the early hours of Thursday. Dozens of police arrived at the scene.

With some exceptions, Mexico has welcomed the Central Americans, offering food and lodging in towns during their journey. The migrants said they were stunned by the hostile attitude in Tijuana.

“We are not criminals. Why do [you] treat us like this if everywhere we have traveled in Mexico they treated us well?” migrants shouted back. “Think about the children who are here, please.”

Mexican Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete said the overnight protest was fueled by rumors that the migrants had refused food, shelter and clothing donated by local residents, and urged Mexicans not to “criminalize” the caravan.

Some migrants did in fact refuse to register at the shelter set up in Tijuana, fearful the authorities would pass their names to the United States, migrant rights activists said.

Long journey

The caravan began its journey on October 13 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras – more than 4,300 kilometers (2,700 miles) from Tijuana.

The migrants rushed the Mexico-Guatemala border six days later, clashing with riot police and then fording the river between the two countries when Mexican authorities refused to let them through as a group.

Traveling together to protect themselves from Mexican gangs that regularly extort, kidnap and kill migrants, they spent weeks walking and hitch-hiking through southern and central Mexico – many wearing only flip-flops or plastic shoes, others pushing their babies in strollers.

They accelerated their pace dramatically in northern Mexico, thanks to buses provided by donors and in some cases local authorities who preferred to send them on their way rather than host them in shelters.

Recent polls show a sizeable minority of Mexicans opposed to aiding the migrants as they head northward to the United States.

An October 26-28 survey of 1,000 Mexicans by polling firm Consulta Mitofsky showed that 51.4 percent were in favor of helping or protecting the migrants, while 33.8 percent took the opposite view, believing that they should be pressured to return home. The remaining respondents expressed no opinion.

No good options

Experts have warned that Tijuana’s shelters have limited capacity to host such a large group of migrants.

But the Central Americans likely face a long wait if they want to seek asylum in the United States and gain legal residence.

Under an executive order Trump issued last week, migrants who do not cross at official border posts will no longer be allowed to request asylum, and face automatic deportation.

However, official border crossings will probably only let them through in a trickle.

The United States says its asylum system is saturated, after requests increased by 2,000 percent in the past five years. There are currently 700,000 cases pending.

The European Commission urged the US not to send the migrants back to countries where they would be in danger.

“Every country in the world has every right to protect its borders and every country in the world has the obligation to do so in full respect of human rights,” said European Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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