By Delphine Schrank
TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - U.S. immigration officials began processing a trickle of asylum applications on Tuesday from a caravan of Central American migrants camped at the U.S.-Mexico border, despite criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump of their attempt to enter the country.
Border agents slowly admitted 17 migrants, mostly women and children, on Tuesday to begin the process, according to organizers with the Pueblo Sin Fronteras immigrant rights group.
Eight other migrants from the caravan were allowed in on Monday night.
That left about 115 migrants who had made the 2,000-mile trek from Central America waiting anxiously in a makeshift camp outside the border post in the Mexican city of Tijuana.
"I'm scared, I'm so scared. I don't want to return to my country," said Reina Isabel Rodriguez, who fled Honduras with two grandsons, tears streaming down her face.
Eleven-year-old Christopher looked up at his grandmother in anguish, while 7-year-old Anderson sat at her feet, his head drooping sadly and a red toy robot in his lap.
By Tuesday afternoon, a couple dozen more migrants rushed to gather their belongings and eat what they could before heading into the border facility's walkway for what could be another 24-hour wait.
The camp of weary migrants - who have already spent two nights at the border - showed no signs of breaking up as another cold night approached.
The U.S. Department of Justice said on Monday night that it had launched prosecutions against 11 "suspected" caravan members on charges of crossing the border illegally.
News that more migrants were allowed into the port of entry on Tuesday to begin the arduous process of seeking asylum protection meant those next on the list inched a little closer.
"Here's hoping," said 20-year-old Honduran Bryan Claros, on the possibility of being next to be processed.
The caravan set off more than a month ago from southern Mexico on a trek to the California border, gathering people along the way. It swelled to 1,500 migrants at one point but has since dwindled.
"We crossed the whole of Mexico," said Angel Caceres, who said he fled Honduras with his 5-year-old son after his brother and nephew were murdered and his mother beaten and raped.
Caceres said he and his fellow migrants planned to wait "as long as it takes" to have their asylum cases processed.
The caravan's progress has drawn attention from the U.S. news media after Trump demanded such groups be denied entry and that stronger immigration laws be enacted.
Trump's hard line against illegal immigration has been a centerpiece of his presidency, as he pursues an "America First" agenda that includes a proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that he has said is needed to stem the flow of immigrants and drug trafficking.
But on asylum applications, the Trump administration's hands are tied by international and U.S. laws obliging the United States to give a fair chance to migrants who say they fear returning home. If migrants do so, they must by law be entered into the asylum process.
The full process, however, can take months to years and includes a "credible fear" interview.
Most in the caravan said they were fleeing death threats, extortion and violence from street gangs.
The majority of asylum claims by Central Americans are ultimately unsuccessful, resulting in detention and deportation. Asylum seekers must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution at home, most often from a state entity.
Central Americans fare badly in such claims because the state is rarely seen as directly responsible for the life-threatening situations they leave behind.
Crawling under her narrow tarpaulin tent, Yolanda Hieron Meraz from Honduras hurriedly packed a few clothes and a pillow to enter the port of entry with her 15-year-old son, a huge smile on her face.
But it was a conflicted moment for her as she left behind her common-law partner, Jose Cristobal, 48, who waited soberly beside their tent. Cristobal, who tried to hold back his tears, knew he could not follow because his claim for asylum was probably not as strong.
(Reporting by Delphine Schrank in Tijuana; Additional reporting by Edgard Garrido in Tijuana, Dan Levine in San Francisco, Sarah Lynch and Roberta Rampton in Washington and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)