By Delphine Schrank
TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Central American migrants from a caravan through Mexico languished in shelters in the border city of Tijuana on Thursday, waiting for promised legal advice ahead of a planned crossing together to the United States to seek asylum.
A few minutes walk from the U.S. border, dirt-smeared children in a packed migrant shelter carved out spaces to play amid bundles of clothes. Men took turns shaving with a single electric razor while women lay pressed against walls.
Many were exhausted by a month-long journey through Mexico that drew the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump, who pressured Mexico to stop the migrants before they reached the border.
Marbel Llaneh, 33, leaned against a friend laying on the floor and wondered when her life would return to some kind of normality. The pair had fled Honduras, escaping abusive partners. Life had become so untenable, said Llaneh, that the alternative was “life on the streets.”
“I really miss working,” she said. “I miss cooking.”
But what she missed most, she said with eyes watering, was her second child, a 15-year-old she regretted leaving behind in Honduras. She brought her youngest, a bony 8-year-old, to try to find a safer life away from his violent, alcoholic father.
Several more buses of migrants were due to arrive in Tijuana on Thursday and organizers expected a total of around 400 would make it there this week.
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said on Wednesday her agency was watching the caravan closely and would prosecute anyone who illegally entered the United States or made “a false immigration claim.”
Nielsen’s statement echoed previous comments from Trump that suggested agencies were pouring more officials and immigration judges into the area to handle any surge from the migrant caravan.
Dana Marks, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Immigration Judges, said her organization had not heard about any new plan “despite what is implied in the press.”
“I assume they are just referring to business as usual and our ability to handle whatever work we are assigned,” she said.
U.S.-based advocacy group Pueblos Sin Fronteras, which organized the caravan, is bringing in immigration lawyers this weekend to speak with migrants before a planned crossing together into the United States on Sunday to ask for asylum.
Human rights groups and lawyers have warned that the Trump administration has been violating both U.S. and international law by increasingly charging asylum seekers with illegal entry.
For many in the group, the hardships of forging a new life in Mexico was not worth the insecurity they would face, even with the same language and similar culture to their home countries.
As poor migrants from Central America, they feared they could be robbed, raped and assaulted. The caravan offered their only protection, they said.
After Trump first pressured Mexico to break up the caravan in early April, Mexican immigration officials offered short-term visas to the group that would allow them to legally cross Mexico. Those 20-day passes have now expired, which makes them vulnerable to arrest on the streets of Tijuana.
Andres Rodriguez blinked back the sun with a bloodshot eye as he smoked a cigarette. He figured he was better off trying his luck crossing to the United States than staying in Mexico.
Back in El Salvador, his son had received repeated death threats from criminal gangs and he was convinced that he had to get to the United States to give the studious teenager a chance to go to university.
Rodriguez said he would enroll his son “on day one.”
(Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Writing by Michael O’Boyle; Editing by Paul Tait)