TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – A further 49 Central Americans crossed into the United States to seek asylum on Wednesday, part of a high-profile migrant caravan that prompted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to beef up legal resources on the Mexican border.
The 49 migrants, including women, children and transgender people who had been waiting at the U.S. gate for about 15 hours, were let through by midday, according to the group’s organizers, raising the total number who have crossed to 74.
Since Monday, border officials have allowed through only a trickle at a time, saying that the busy San Ysidro crossing to San Diego is saturated and the rest must wait their turn.
In response, the Justice Department was sending 35 additional assistant U.S. attorneys and 18 immigration judges to the border, Sessions said, linking the decision to the caravan.
“We are sending a message worldwide: Don’t come illegally. Make your claim to enter America in the lawful way and wait your turn,” he said, adding that he would not let the country be “overwhelmed.”
Despite unusual attention on the annual, awareness-raising caravan after President Donald Trump personally took issue with it last month, the most recent data through December does not show a dramatic change in the number of Central Americans seeking asylum.
Apprehensions of people crossing to the United States illegally from Mexico were at the highest level in March since December 2016, before Trump took office.
More than 100 members of the caravan, most from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, have been camped in a square near the entrance of the San Ysidro pedestrian bridge that leads from Mexico to the United States, waiting for their turn to enter the border checkpoint.
At least 28 migrants who made it into the United States on Wednesday had anxiously filed through the walkway to the U.S. gate the night before. Two by two, they walked up to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer standing in the gate to ask if they might pass through.
First to try was a man and his small nephew, a football under his arm; then a mother and child; then a woman with her grandsons.
Turned away on Tuesday night, they bedded down in a small space pressed up against metal bars separating them from the United States, bundled against the cold under blankets and sheets of tarpaulin tenting.
Among them was Reina Isabel Rodriguez, who had fled Honduras with her grandsons. Throughout the caravan’s 2,000-mile (3,220-km) odyssey from southern Mexico, the possibility that U.S. officials might reject her plea for asylum, and of being separated from the boys for not being their biological parent, had never seemed so real.
“I’m scared, I’m so scared, I don’t want to be sent home,” she said, tears streaming down her face. Christopher, 11, watched her with anguish, and Anderson, 7, sat at her feet, his head drooping, a toy robot in his lap.
Rodriguez was among the many migrants of the caravan who told Reuters they were forced from their homes by Central America’s brutal Mara street gangs, along with other life-threatening situations.
Trump’s administration cites a more than tenfold rise in asylum claims compared with 2011 and growing numbers of families and children – who are more likely to be allowed to remain while their cases await hearing – as signs that people are fraudulently taking advantage of the system.
Trump wants to tighten U.S. law to make it harder for people to claim asylum. For now, though, despite his orders to keep such migrant caravans out of the country, international and U.S. law obliges the government to listen to people’s stories and decide whether they deserve shelter.
The U.S. Department of Justice said on Monday it had launched prosecutions against 11 “suspected” caravan members on charges of crossing the border illegally.
Nicole Ramos, an attorney advising caravan members in Mexico, said she did not believe the individuals facing U.S. criminal charges were part of the caravan group.
“Quite a few people have claimed to be part of the caravan, including a sizable contingent of Guatemalan men who were never part,” Ramos said.
Reporting by Delphine Schrank, additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien