Activist group Pueblo Sin Fronteras is under fire for encouraging thousands of Central Americans to risk their lives to join the Migrant Caravan.
In October, the caravan was faced with a choice; continue to the U.S. southern border or stop and put down roots in Mexico, where the government offered to let them stay.
Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a group of 40 Mexican and US activists escorting the caravan, warned the migrants that the offer might be too good to be true and called a voice vote on whether to continue.
‘Let’s keep going!’ the crowd yelled amid applause.
And they kept going. Thousands are now in Tijuana on the U.S. border, where they are likely to be camped for months or longer with no easy way to get into the United States, creating what is fast becoming a humanitarian crisis in this overwhelmed city.
Activist group Pueblo Sin Fronteras is under fire for encouraging thousands of Central Americans to risk their lives to join the Migrant Caravan (migrant activist Irineo Mujica, center, of the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, holds a megaphone as a Central American migrant speak to reporters during a press conference in Tapachula, Mexico in October)
Many blame Pueblo Sin Fronteras, or People Without Borders.
Critics, including former allies and some of the migrants themselves, say Pueblo Sin Fronteras downplayed the dangers of such treks, especially for families and small children, and misled the participants about how long they would have to wait on the Mexican side to apply for asylum.
Adelaida Gonzalez, 37, of Guatemala City, who joined the caravan with her 15-year-old son and neighbor, said that now that she is in Tijuana, she wishes she had accepted Mexico’s offer to stay and work in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
‘We were never told along the way that it would be this hard,’ said Gonzalez, after seeing the border wall topped with razor wire and the long waiting list for asylum seekers.
A Pueblo Sin Fronteras leader, Irineo Mujica, emphatically rejected the criticism.
Irineo Mujica, activist with ‘Pueblo Sin Fronteras,’ (pictured December 11), is accompanied by an unidentified man as he enters the U.S. consulate during a demonstration by Central American migrants in Tijuana, Mexico
‘Our commitment first and foremost was protecting the lives of migrants and giving them as much information as possible,’ Mujica said. ‘To blame the people who are helping is crazy.’
Pueblo Sin Fronteras founder Roberto Corona said in the organization’s defense that attorneys along the way told the migrants they could be held in U.S. detention centers for months and possibly separated from their children. In the end, he said, the migrants – many of whom are fleeing poverty and violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – made their own decision.
‘They know the wall is very big, and they will not be very welcome in the U.S. by many people,’ Corona said, ‘but still they have hope of coming here, that at least their rights will be more protected, and they will be able to make a living.’
President Trump previously declared the caravans an ‘invasion,’ and sent several thousand troops to ‘harden’ the border, including with barbed wire
This is the fourth and biggest caravan of Central American asylum seekers that Pueblo Sin Fronteras has helped reach Tijuana, a trek that angered President Donald Trump and prompted him to send troops to the border. When the caravan crossed into Mexico, it numbered 7,000; about 5,500 made it to Tijuana.
Pueblo Sin Fronteras maintains it simply accompanies the migrants to protect their rights. But the organization clearly plays an essential role: It helped charter the route, arrange bus transportation and negotiate with Mexican officials to provide protection. It also raised more than $46,000 online for emergency housing and food.
As the caravan crossed Mexico, the organization held nightly assemblies to decide the next day’s destination. It alerted towns to prepare for migrants who camped in their squares.
For the Central Americans, there was a feeling of safety in numbers. For decades, migrants crossing Mexico have been robbed, kidnapped and killed by gangs and corrupt officials.
But traveling with the caravan was not without risks. One migrant was killed when he fell off a truck. Another was run over and killed on a highway. Two were stabbed and strangled after leaving a Tijuana shelter. Others have been attacked with rocks by local residents angry over the mass arrival.
Last month, a march by the migrants in Tijuana to demand the United States accelerate its asylum process degenerated into violence. Demonstrators threw rocks at U.S. border agents and tore down fencing, letting dozens rush through. U.S. authorities fired tear gas into Mexico, sending crowds that included children running and screaming.
‘There is no reason to make these inhumane journeys,’ Alejandro Solalinde, a Mexican priest recognized for his work with migrants, said of the caravans.
Sergio Tamai, whose organization operates migrant shelters in the Tijuana area, said he called Mujica to express concerns about the Tijuana march beforehand – ‘and we all saw what happened – a disaster.’
Migrants say they are grateful for all Pueblo Sin Fronteras has done, but they were not prepared for the long wait in Tijuana. Some 3,000 people were already in line to ask for asylum before the caravan arrived, and U.S. authorities are processing only about 100 claims per day at the crossing, resulting in overflowing shelters in Tijuana.
And the wait just got longer: The Trump administration announced Thursday that asylum seekers at the border will now be forced to wait in Mexico while their cases slowly wind their way through the clogged U.S. immigration courts. Previously, migrants were allowed into the U.S. while their claims were processed.
Maria Meza (2nd from R) runs away from tear gas with her daughters Jamie Mejia Meza, aged 12, and her five-year-old twin daughters Saira Mejia Meza and Cheili Mejia Meza (L-R) in front of the border wall between the US and Mexico on November 25, 2018. They were members of the caravan stuck in Tijuana
Esmeralda Siu, a Tijuana shelter manager, said many caravan members knew nothing about the difficulty in getting asylum.
‘They come in desperation and so they hear what they want to hear,’ she said. As for their escorts, ‘it seems like they are putting the migrants at great risk.’
Corona, Pueblo Sin Fronteras’ founder, said that the caravans served their purpose but that he doesn’t foresee the organization accompanying any more of them.
‘We need to find out how can we reach the hearts and minds of the American people and Mexican people and mostly the policymakers who can come up with a permanent solution,’ he said.
A system dubbed ‘metering’ limits how many can ask for asylum each day at US ports of entry, leading to months-long waits in Mexico for thousands of migrants fleeing violence in Central America.
Sometimes US border authorities allow individuals considered vulnerable, such as unaccompanied minors, be processed more rapidly.
President Trump previously declared the caravans an ‘invasion,’ and sent several thousand troops to ‘harden’ the border, including with barbed wire.
Activists say metering is intended to deter asylum applicants by making the process arduous, while US officials maintain the system only exists to manage overcapacity at ports of entry.
CBP said in response to questions that this year it had seen a more than 100 percent increase in asylum seekers processed at ports of entry and that it processed people as quickly as possible.
‘As we have done for several years, when our ports of entry reach capacity, we have to manage the queues and individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities.’
Lawyers from Al Otro Lado were also with the children.
The organization has accompanied vulnerable groups to the border in order to request asylum, bypassing the semi-formal list system that controls the numbers of migrants who try to enter each day.
Earlier this month, a single mother and her 9-year-old daughter were able to ask for asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry only after a congresswoman – who was touring the port at the time – stepped in and told CBP officers they were required to process them by law, according to Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center.
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