A small faction of the larger group of 6,219 Central American migrants in Tijuana slowly and peacefully pushed within 500 feet of the U.S. border Thursday while armed Mexican federal police held a barrier near the pedestrian crossing.
Asking for more humane conditions in the overflowing Benito Juarez shelter and trying to present themselves to United States immigration authorities for asylum, the group carried white flags as they marched from the migrant camp to the foot of the U.S. pedestrian bridge, a distance of about five city blocks.
The migrants have been camped out in muddy and cramped conditions at an open-air sports arena turned into a makeshift shelter. They said they awoke Thanksgiving Day hungry, as rain worsened the already unsanitary conditions in the packed shelter.
“There are sick children here, and we are cold and hungry,” said Carlos Lopez, a Honduran who was leading the group. Lopez added it was inappropriate to shelter the women and children outside. “The whole world is watching what is happening here.”
Tijuana municipal authorities have said they are unequipped to handle the growing numbers in the caravan.
The latest counts from Mexican authorities put 6,219 migrants in Tijuana with an additional 1,669 migrants trekking toward Baja California from the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa.
President Donald Trump
threatened on Thursday to completely shut down the border, and the $1.6 billion daily trading relationship with Mexico. He authorized military forces to use lethal force “if necessary” to defend border agents from migrants attempting to cross into the U.S.
Using a bullhorn, Lopez galvanized a group of about 150 migrants before they left by foot for the border.
“Today is a good day to present ourselves to the United States,” Lopez said in Spanish. “It’s Thanksgiving Day. In the United States, today is a vacation day.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection made it clear they weren’t taking a day off by briefly shutting down vehicle traffic at the San Ysidro Port of Entry for a “large-scale operational readiness exercise.” They are increasing enforcement presence with helicopters, additional Border Patrol agents and U.S. military troops.
A convoy of military and Border Patrol vehicles moved into place shortly before 2 p.m., and troops marched toward the vehicle inspection area. Several large Department of Homeland and CBP helicopters circled overhead during the drill, which lasted about 10 minutes.
The drill took place about three hours after the migrant caravan made their way to the pedestrian crossing on the other side of the freeway.
During the march toward the border, Mexican federal police and Edgar Corzo Sosa, the director of the National Human Rights Commission, tried convincing the migrants to turn around when they came over Puente Tijuana, a bridge connecting the Zona Norte neighborhood where many shelters are to border infrastructure.
They urged the group to apply for workers visas in Mexico, claiming thousands of jobs were available in Tijuana.
The U.S. government only processes 100 applications for asylum a day, a process that has slowed in recent months, leaving thousands on the waiting list. The applications are processed at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, not the pedestrian bridge where the migrants said they planned to cross to ask for asylum.
Carrying a white flag that said “La paz y Dios con nosotros,” or “Peace and God are with us,” a Honduran named Joseph, who declined to give his last name, marched toward the border ahead of the larger group early Thursday morning.
Any time tensions heated between the group marching toward the border and Mexican police, Joseph waved the large white flag as a reminder for the migrants to remain calm and peaceful.
When asked why he was carrying the flag, he answered: “Because my heart is at peace.”
Angel Mejia, 27, said he left behind his wife and son in Honduras to seek a better life and earn money for his family.
“We don’t have a life in Honduras,” Mejia said. “If we work, we can eat, and I don’t need much more than that. Just my friends and my family and a job so we can eat.”
Mejia admitted he is among those U.S. and Mexican authorities are highlighting as having a criminal past, but he said he was involved, decades ago, in petty crimes like shoplifting that shouldn’t amount to a death sentence in Honduras, where he said gangs won’t leave him alone.
“When I was young, 15-years-old or so, I made mistakes like a lot of kids. But, I’ve turned my life around and given it to God,” he said showing tattoos of crosses on his arms. “I just want to live my life in peace.”
A Department of Homeland Security official said Monday there are an estimated 500 criminals traveling in the caravan. Local authorities in Baja California have detained 57 migrants of which 47 are Hondurans. They were taken into custody on suspicion of public disorderly conduct. Of those detained by local police, 42 of those migrants are now in deportation proceedings in Mexico, according to local police.
Some in the caravan said they felt unwelcome in Tijuana with poor conditions inside the shelter and some outspoken critics of their efforts to migrate.
Paloma Zuniga, a dual Mexican-American citizen who has more than 32,000 followers on a Facebook page called “Paloma for Trump” said she is worried about public safety in Tijuana because some in the group are traveling without ID’s.
“We have no idea who they are,” Zuniga said. “Also, we have a lot of poverty here in Mexico already. We’ve been working hard, fighting every day to have a better life, to have a better quality of life, to have more jobs … and we don’t feel it’s fair that our government is allowing these people to come in and giving them benefits we don’t even have as Mexicans.”
A Honduran man wearing a shirt with the words “Yo quiero un pais sin hambre” or “I want a country without hunger” said people who think the caravan is full of criminals are wrong.
Antonio Lopez said many have left Central America because of both violence and poverty.
“The truth is it’s all together,” he said. “The two go hand-in-hand. If you have no jobs and no way to get food, that’s when people turn to drugs and cartels.”
Late in the afternoon Thursday, women and children joined the group of mostly men who had marched to the border. They hunkered down in a plaza to rest.
Mexican federal police, dressed in riot gear, formed a perimeter around the caravan, preventing them from inching any closer to a border gate that separates Mexico from a U.S. turnabout for taxis outside Las Americas outlet mall.
A few children were allowed on the other side of the barricade, playing at the feet of federal police, who appeared entertained by their games.