Central Americans from ‘caravan’ stuck at US border, Pence says to be processed

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TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Up to 50 Central American asylum seekers from a “caravan” looked set to spend a second night trapped at a check point between the United States and Mexico on Monday, even though Vice President Mike Pence vowed they would be processed.

Mexican officials on Sunday allowed the group of women, children and transgender people onto a pedestrian crossing, but U.S. officials barred them from setting foot on American soil. The group fled El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in hope of asylum.

Organizers said the people were among the “most vulnerable” of the caravan. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said the San Ysidro port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego was “saturated” and the migrants would have to wait for it to clear out.

A larger group of about 150 people was denied passage onto the pedestrian crossing. Many slept in an open plaza on the Mexican side hoping to be let through to make their case.

The standoff with the bedraggled and exhausted migrants who trekked 2,000 miles across Mexico was the culmination of weeks in the spotlight after President Donald Trump began tweeting about the caravan.

Trump said on Monday he was still closely watching the caravan, while Pence promised the asylum seekers would be processed according to U.S law, adding that laws needed to be changed to remove “incentives” for migrants.

“These families, often women with small children, are victims, they are victims of open border advocates,” Pence said during an inspection of new border fencing a few hours drive from San Diego.

“Make no mistake about it, the 150 individuals not far from here will be completely reviewed by our customs officials under our asylum laws,” he said.

In the square, someone read aloud Pence’s statement in Spanish. The group cheered upon hearing they would be processed but disagreed with his claim that they had been manipulated.

Only two of the dozens of people in the caravan who spoke to Reuters over the past month said they were aware of it before they left home. Those two said the caravan’s existence did not influence their decisions to flee what they described as appalling conditions.

Despite Pence’s assurances, by late afternoon in Tijuana, the group remained in limbo between the Mexican and U.S. gates. If they are allowed through, U.S. Customs and Border agents will ask if they fear going back to their homelands, initiating a complicated legal process ending in deportation or asylum.

Members of a caravan of migrants from Central America sleep near the San Ysidro checkpoint after a small group of fellow migrants entered the United States border and customs facility, where they are expected to apply for asylum, in Tijuana, Mexico April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By saying the station was full, officials were “skirting the law,” said attorney Laura Gault of Human Rights First, a legal monitoring group, after spending five hours with the migrants inside. Refusing them outright or turning back any who claim asylum would put them in clear violation of U.S. law, she said.

‘KEEP UP THE STRUGGLE’

A few women and children temporarily left their position at the U.S. gate as energy waned and they wearied of being held in austere conditions. With no bathroom access initially, others resorted to relieving themselves using empty bottles.

“Enter and keep up the struggle, said Yolanda Hieron Meras, smiling as she described what she hoped for next. Hieron Meras fled Honduras with her family after her son was twice threatened by the powerful Barrio 18 gang.

She spent hours in a pen, pressed up against the U.S. fence with her 15-year-old son, after U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Officials said the facility currently had no more capacity to process undocumented immigrants.

By late morning, organizers had negotiated with Mexican authorities to allow migrants inside the walkway to use a bathroom, accompanied by a guard. On the square where the larger group camped outside, donors had set up a few tents and arrived with food as migrants hunkered in for a long wait.

In the square they were joined by almost 100 Mexicans who had fled brutality in the states of Michoacán and Guerrero, some with broken arms and back injuries, carrying X-rays, news clippings and photos of beatings inflicted, they said, by criminal cartels.

On Monday, Trump railed against a system that means some asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are released until their cases are resolved because a shortage of beds at detention centers and rules that limit how long women with children can be held.

“Catch and release is ridiculous. If they touch our property, if they touch our country, essentially you catch them and you release them into our country. That’s not acceptable to anybody, so we need a change in the law,” he said.

Slideshow (10 Images)

In early April, the caravan comprised 1,500 migrants. Trump ordered officials to be zealous in enforcing rules to stop unlawful entry by its members.

U.S. border authorities say some people associated with the caravan were caught trying to slip through the border fence.

Reporting by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Cynthia Osterman

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