TIJUANA, Mexico — The uncomfortable and dangerous rides atop freight trains are now in the past. So are the cold nights sleeping in parks, the hot days walking in the unforgiving sun and the unpredictability of the next meal or bath.
Yet for hundreds of migrants who arrived in this border city this week after a month traveling en masse across Mexico, perhaps the hardest part is to come. The hope of sanctuary in the United States had sustained them throughout the trip, and, for many, one person now stood in the way: the president of the United States.
“He doesn’t want anyone to enter,” said José Ignacio Villatoro, 20, who said he fled gang violence in Guatemala with his parents and three siblings. Mr. Villatoro was standing within sight of the border fence this week, weighing what he had been through and the effort that is still required.
“I’m thinking about how to enter because it’s not at all easy,” he said, looking at his shoes. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
This has now become the defining challenge of the migrant caravan.
The group is planning to walk en masse on Sunday to the border crossing leading to southern San Diego, with those planning to petition for asylum presenting themselves to American border officials and making their case for sanctuary.
The caravan’s push north began on March 25 in Tapachula, a city on Mexico’s border with Guatemala. These group migrations have become something of an annual event in Mexico, intended to provide security-in-numbers for participants and draw attention to the migrants’ plight.
The participants, the vast majority fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, numbered upward of 1,200 in the initial stages of the journey, perhaps the largest group on record. Still, the caravan might have passed mostly unnoticed, like those in the past, had President Trump not caught wind of it.
Mr. Trump posted tweet after tweet on the subject, portraying the caravan as a danger to the United States and evidence of lax immigration enforcement in Mexico. He used it as grounds to deploy National Guard troops to the southwest border.
This week, as the caravan neared the northern border of Mexico, the Trump administration ordered additional judges, prosecutors and asylum officers to staff precincts on the United States’ southwest border ahead of its arrival.
Mr. Trump mobilized his Cabinet as well, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling the caravan “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system,” and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen issuing two statements, the latest on Wednesday, threatening prosecution for anyone who illegally entered the United States or made “a false immigration claim.”
Mr. Trump’s comments have filtered down to the caravan by way of relatives’ phone messages and word-of-mouth, and via the reporters who have descended from time to time.
“The person in power decides things,” said Plutarco Libni Vásquez, 29, who traveled from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with his partner, Orfa Marín, and her three children. “We are just simple workers who want to get ahead.”
The family members said they were fleeing violence in their homeland, their lives having been touched by extortion and a gang’s threats of rape and murder, among other traumas.
But they guarded the details of their wounds. Lawyers who met with members of the group in the city of Puebla earlier in their migration counseled them not to publicly discuss their cases so as not to inadvertently contradict themselves when they spoke with American border authorities.
More than 300 people were expected to have arrived in Tijuana by the end of Thursday. Another 300 or so were in the northern city of Hermosillo, organizers said, and many of them planned to seek protection in Mexico.
In Tijuana, the migrants have squeezed into two shelters in a scrappy neighborhood wedged between the city’s red-light district and the United States border.
With only a few possessions stuffed in battered knapsacks and plastic bags, they have bedded down on blankets on the tile floors of one shelter, and in tents pitched on a cement floor of another. The nights have been cold, and flulike illness has circulated for weeks. State health authorities in Sonora diagnosed four people with tuberculosis, according to officials here in Baja California.
The location of the Tijuana shelters has made the migrants’ yearning even more intense. From the sidewalk in front of one shelter, the migrants can see the steel border fence and the United States beyond.
Organizers say they never expected this many caravan participants to make it so far together. They had predicted that the vast majority would drop out along the way, and even announced at one point that the caravan would officially dissolve in Mexico City. But Mr. Trump’s efforts to break it up may actually have created the opposite outcome.
Organizers expect that many, if not most, of the remaining caravan participants would apply for asylum. And over the next two days, organizers plan to hold know-your-rights workshops and schedule one-on-one conferences between migrants and volunteer lawyers and paralegals from the United States.
Gaining asylum in the United States has never been easy. Applicants must prove they have been persecuted or fear persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership in a particular group.
By law, people who request protection at a United States entry point must first be referred for a screening, known as a credible-fear interview, with an asylum officer. If the officer finds that an applicant has a chance of proving fear of persecution back home, the person can apply for asylum before a judge.
In recent years, judges have approved fewer than half of all asylum requests. Among Central American petitioners, the approval rate is substantially lower.
This month, the Trump administration announced a new push for legislation that would make it more difficult to obtain refuge. Mr. Trump has said that overly permissive laws have drawn a flood of migrants to the nation’s borders.
The president’s aggressive approach to the caravan appears to have worn down the resolve of some members.
Several people in Tijuana, even after having traveled so far, wondered aloud about the wisdom of applying for asylum, considering the possibility that they could be detained and separated from their children for a prolonged period while their cases were pending.
Fathers were considering letting their families go on without them in the belief that the American authorities might look more kindly on women and children than on men.
“I’m so scared,” said Daisy Guardado, 40, who fled Honduras with her three daughters after a gang attacked one and killed her brother. Her three sons remain in Honduras, in hiding.
Lawyers have told her she has a solid case for protection in the United States, yet Mr. Trump’s statements have rattled her. “I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Still, most planned to press on with their asylum cases.
Ignacio Villatoro, José Villatoro’s father, said he thought his family had a persuasive case. Facing a gang’s extortion threats, the family had closed their bakery in Coatepeque, Guatemala, and fled.
“If Trump allows his heart to open,” Mr. Villatoro said, “my wife and kids will have a chance to cross.”
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