By MARÍA VERZA and SONIA PÉREZ D., Associated Press
CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (AP) — Hundreds of Central American migrants began wading across the Suchiate River into southern Mexico Monday in a new test of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Central America strategy to keep them away from the U.S. border.
The migrants moved off the border bridge and toward the river after Mexican officials told them they would not be granted passage through the country.
Amid shouts and even some fireworks they began wading across the shallow river.
On the Mexican side, migrants ran from side to side along the river bank, kicking up dust and looking for an opening in the ranks of National Guard troops sent to meet them.
Guardsmen scrambled too, trying to head off groups and detaining people where they could. There was pushing and shoving. Some guardsmen carried plastic riot shields hit with rocks tossed by migrants and they occasionally zipped a rock back into the crowd. Others jogged to get into position with long staffs. Still others carried assault rifles.
Many of migrants moved back to the river’s edge and a smaller number crossed back to Guatemala.
The migrants want free passage across Mexico to the U.S. border and Mexico’s government on Monday rejected that.
While the government says the migrants are free to enter —and could compete for jobs if they want to stay and work— in practice, it has restricted such migrants to the southernmost states while their cases are processed by a sluggish bureaucracy. Those who do not request asylum or some protective status would likely be detained and deported.
A letter relayed to the migrants on Monday by an official of Mexico’s immigration agency restated the Mexican government’s position that the migrants would be allowed to enter in orderly fashion, while rejecting free passage.
Edwin Chávez, a 19-year-old from Tegucigalpa, said, “By river, that’s the way it will be.”
“There’s no fear,” Chávez said. “We’re already used to repression. In your country they repress you, they hit you. It’s always like that.”
Earlier, a migrant who refused to give his name stood near the shuttered gates on the bridge over the Suchiate River and read an open letter from the group to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
“We have come peacefully to try to start a dialogue with the government, in order to reach an agreement in which all the members of the caravan will be allowed permission to freely pass through Mexican territory,” he read.
Trump has forced asylum seekers to remain in Mexico, or apply in Central American countries, effectively removing one of the escape valves for previous caravans. Under threats of trade or other sanctions from the Trump administration, Mexico has stopped an earlier practice of allowing migrants to cross its territory unimpeded.
Denis Contreras, a pint-sized Honduran leading Monday’s charge, said he won’t give up. He was already denied political asylum and deported from San Diego, California. But if he returns to Honduras, he said, criminal gangs will kill him or his family.
Around him on Sunday, hundreds of migrants chanted: “Here we are, and we’re not going anywhere, and if you throw us out, we’ll return!”
After two caravans successfully reached the U.S. border in 2018 and early 2019, Mexico began cracking down, and by April 2019 raided the last attempt at a caravan, rounding up migrants as they walked down a highway.
As this week’s caravan approached, Mexico sent soldiers to patrol its southern border and monitored the area with drones. Migrants sometimes travel via caravan because it provides safety in numbers and offers a chance for migrants too poor to pay smugglers.
Prior caravans have persuaded Mexican authorities to let them cross the southern border, either for humanitarian reasons or via brute force.
The Mexican government declared its efforts over the weekend a success, saying late Sunday that the migrants’ attempts to enter the country in a “disorderly fashion” were “fruitless.”
Mexican officials extended a different welcome mat, of sorts, over the weekend, promising the migrants work and a chance to stay in the country—though the details were slim and many migrants feared they would instead be deported.
The offer of employment, and not just legal status or asylum, represented a new twist in Mexico’s efforts to find humane solutions to the mostly Central American migrants who are fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries.
More than 1,000 migrants opted to give Mexico a try, and were transported by van to immigration centers for further processing.
Claudia León, coordinator of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the town of Tapachula, described the roundups backed by vague promises of employment as “de facto detention” that could trample the rights of refugees.
It was unclear what sort of work Mexico had in mind for the migrants, considering that half the Mexican population is poor and millions are unemployed.
Late Sunday, the Mexican government issued a statement saying that “in the majority of the cases,” the hundreds of migrants it had received in recent days would be returned to their countries of origin “should the situation merit it.”