CORDOBA, Mexico -- Thousands of weary Central American migrants set their sights on Mexico City on Sunday after making a grueling journey through a part of Mexico that has been particularly treacherous for migrants seeking to get to the United States.
An estimated 4,000 migrants are in the Gulf state of Veracruz, where hundreds of migrants have disappeared in recent years, falling prey to kidnappers looking for ransom payments. The day's 124-mile trek was one of the longest yet, as the exhausted migrants tried to make progress walking and hitching rides toward the U.S. border still hundreds of miles away.
The migrants now aim to regroup in the Mexican capital, seeking medical care and rest while they await stragglers. The caravan has found strength in numbers as it meanders north, with townspeople pouring out to offer food, water, fresh clothes and replacement footwear.
In a thundering voice vote Sunday night, about 1,000 migrants at the gymnasium in Cordoba voted to try to make it to Mexico City today, which would be their longest single-day journey since the caravan began -- 178 miles by the shortest route.
On Sunday, others who set out on their own began arriving in Puebla and Mexico City after the group was beset by divisions between migrants and caravan organizers.
Some were disappointed after organizers unsuccessfully pleaded for buses after three weeks on the road. Others were angry for being directed northward through the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, calling it the "route of death."
A trek via the sugar fields and fruit groves of Veracruz takes the majority through a state where hundreds of migrants have disappeared in recent years.
Authorities in Veracruz said in September that they had discovered remains from at least 174 people buried in clandestine graves, raising questions about whether the bodies belonged to migrants.
But even with the group somewhat more scattered, the migrants trekking through Veracruz on Sunday were convinced that traveling as a large mass was their best hope for leaving their old lives behind and reaching the U.S. The vast majority of migrants are fleeing rampant poverty, gang violence and political instability primarily in the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
"We think that it is better to continue together with the caravan. We are going to stay with it and respect the organizers," said Luis Euseda, a 32-year-old from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who is traveling with his wife Jessica Fugon. "Others went ahead, maybe they have no goal, but we do have a goal and it is to arrive."
Mynor Chavez, a 19-year-old from Copan, Honduras, was determined to continue.
"I have no prospects [in Honduras]. I graduated as a computer technician and not even with a degree have I been able to find work," he said of life in his home country.
Along the way, Mexicans were lending a hand.
Catalina Munoz said she bought tortillas on credit to assemble tacos of beans, cheese and rice when she heard the caravan would pass through her tiny town of 3,000 people in the southern state of Oaxaca en route to Veracruz.
Manuel Calderon, 43, a migrant from El Salvador, said he felt blessed when he saw the townsfolk waiting with food and water.
Mexico now faces the unprecedented situation of having three caravans stretched over 300 miles of highway in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz.
Mexico's Interior Ministry says 2,793 migrants have applied for refuge in Mexico in recent weeks and that around 500 have asked for assistance to return to their countries of origin.
President Donald Trump has ordered U.S. troops to the Mexican border in response to the caravans. More than 7,000 active duty troops have been told to deploy to Texas, Arizona and California ahead of the midterm elections.
He plans to sign an order this week that could lead to the large-scale detention of migrants crossing the southern border and bar anyone caught crossing illegally from claiming asylum.
Humberto Alvarez Gonzalez and about two dozen other people were waiting in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, because U.S. customs officers say there's no space to process them. They sleep on cots near the bridge and rely on donors who bring them food and clothing. Some have waited for two weeks.
Now, Alvarez, a 32-year-old from Cuba, is worried that large waves of migrants in a caravan still more than 800 miles away from the border might provoke the U.S. government to reject them altogether.
"Our idea is to enter before the caravan," he said. "We are afraid that the group of migrants will reach us and that they will judge us together with them."
Javier Mederos Mendez, a 44-year-old from Havana, said he was fleeing political repression because he disagreed with the ruling Castro family. He said he had flown from Cuba to South America, then crossed through Central America and Mexico to reach the bridge.
Asked what he thought of Trump's announcements about asylum, Mederos said, "It would be unfair of me to decide what is good or bad for a country."
But, he said, "I will wait as long as necessary until they receive me."
U.S. government officials say the bridges remain open to asylum seekers. But in South Texas, the busiest corridor for unauthorized border crossings, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers stand at the center of bridges to check documents and stop most asylum seekers.
"It's not turning people away, it's asking them to wait," Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said recently. "We are taking people in as we have capacity to do so."
At the bridge where Alvarez and dozens of others wait, security guards on the Mexican side hold back asylum seekers until U.S. border inspectors tell them how many people they will accept. Some days, five or 10 people are allowed. On other days, the asylum seekers said, no one is.
The U.S. fielded nearly 332,000 asylum claims in 2017, nearly double that of two years earlier and the highest of any country in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And many asylum seekers wait for years to have their claims adjudicated, a delay criticized by administration officials and immigration lawyers alike.
At the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, hundreds of Central American parents and children camp out each night, waiting for the chance to apply for asylum at the port of entry. Hundreds more families cross between ports, requesting asylum after being apprehended.
"This is the third surge [of migrants] that we've seen over the past three years. Clearly it is the highest, the largest surge that we've seen," said Ruben Garcia, the founder and executive director of Annunciation House, an El Paso nonprofit that has cared for migrants for 40 years.
The migrant families are initially detained in holding cells at the bridge or at border patrol stations. Built to house people for a few hours for processing, the holding cells have been used in recent weeks to house 20 or more people at a time for up to three days. Some families have reported being moved from one cell to another, sometimes spending a week or more in detention before being released.
Roger Maier, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman in El Paso, said: "[Customs and Border Protection] facilities are temporary holding facilities where people are not held for more than 72 hours except in rare, extenuating circumstances. It is a priority of our agency to process and transfer all individuals in our custody to the appropriate longer-term detention agency as soon as possible."
In El Paso, Immigration and Customs Enforcement releases about 2,100 people per week to Annunciation House, which works with area churches to shelter and feed migrant families as they await transportation to join relatives elsewhere in the United States. That rate has tripled in the past month, leading Annunciation House to increase the number of churches it relies on to house migrant families.
Information for this article was contributed by Sonia Perez D., Mark Stevenson, Amy Guthrie, Nomaan Merchant and Elliot Spagat of The Associated Press; and by Robert Moore of The Washington Post.
A Section on 11/05/2018
Print Headline: Migrants head for Mexican capital; 4,000 in caravan trek to Veracruz