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TAPACHULA, Mexico—Thousands of Honduran migrants gathered in this southern Mexican city early Monday to decide when to embark on a grueling journey to the U.S. border, as President Trump threatened to end or cut foreign aid to Central American countries for failing to stop the caravan.
Some caravan leaders said the migrants, most of whom crossed the Mexican border illegally, would continue their trek north toward the southern state of Oaxaca state later Monday and rest for a few days while debating whether to break up into groups to continue on to the U.S. border.
The caravan’s 10-day march through Honduras and Guatamela and into Mexico has fueled a fresh political rift between their leaders and Mr. Trump just two weeks before U.S. midterm elections.
In a series of tweets Monday, Mr. Trump said he had alerted the U.S. Border Patrol and the military that the caravan was a national emergency. He criticized El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico for not stopping the group or otherwise curbing the flow of migrants, called for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws and exhorted his supporters: “Remember the Midterms!”
The caravan has swelled to roughly 5,000 since Oct. 12, when several hundred people decided to trek north. The numbers grew quickly after local media and social activists drew attention to the caravan. Leftist politicians gave them further visibility by using it to criticize the Honduran government for failing to provide economic opportunity at home. After a pilgrimage across Guatemala, the caravan got to Tecun Uman, on the Mexico-Guatemala border last Wednesday.
Over the weekend, Mexican border officials refused to let the caravan enter the country, saying they would only allow about 150 people in at a time to apply for asylum. The caravan then broke into groups. At least several hundred people returned by bus to Honduras, and another chunk said they would take up Mexico’s offer of asylum. But a third group, which appeared to be the largest, crossed the river illegally, using rafts manned by human smugglers.
Mexico appeared to be unable or unwilling to stop that last group.
By Monday, that group—numbering in the thousands—settled down in the central square of this coastal city, still close to the Guatemalan border. Many were children, some of them carried on shoulders. Many migrants were visibly exhausted and hungry after 10 days of relentless travel. The majority slept outdoors in the square, using their backpacks as pillows.
The group faces a difficult journey through some of the most violent areas of Mexico. There are several routes, including a 1,100-mile long journey to the border town of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, or a far longer 2,420-mile trek to Tijuana, across from San Diego.
“We can’t get to the northern border all together” said Irineo Mujica, the head of People without Borders, a U.S.-Mexico nonprofit that has been supporting the caravan since its arrival in Guatemala. “You can’t move a group so large across hundreds of miles. Impossible.”
He also said a huge caravan moving across Mexico just days before the U.S. midterms would embolden Mr. Trump. “If this full caravan arrives to the U.S. border, it would be like a declaration if war,” Mr. Mujica said.
Others remained confident the caravan could remain united and get to the U.S. border. “The plan is to get to Tijuana! The fight continues, we don’t give up,” said Denis Contreras, a Honduran migrant and social activist who is helping to organize the caravan, a loudspeaker in hand.
Most migrants say they want to get to the U.S., but generally don’t know what legal options they have ahead. Many said they were determined to abandon Honduras, which has among the world’s highest rates of violence. When they saw news on television that a caravan had left from San Pedro Sula heading north, many thought it was the right moment to leave.
“I was at my apartment near Tegucigalpa when I saw on [my news] channel that the caravan was leaving,” said Maria Rodriguez, 17, who said a criminal gang extorted her family business. “I said to myself: that’s my opportunity.”
She said the gang demanded a “war tax,” calling it that because if you don’t pay the gang destroys your business and kills you.
Mexican officials had repeatedly warned the migrants that anyone crossing the river illegally would be deported. But so far Mexico hasn’t moved against the caravan.
A spokeswoman for Mexico’s migration agency said the Mexico-Guatemala border is porous. “There are a lot of informal entry points” along the river, she said. “Those who entered the country illegally will be deported.”
On Sunday, Mr. Trump warned the migrants in a message on Twitter that if they didn’t accept Mexico’s offer of asylum, they would be denied entry to the U.S. On Monday, he also claimed, without evidence, that the caravan was carrying “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners.
Mr. Trump has seized on the caravan to rally Republican voters ahead of the Nov. 6 elections. Close Senate races are being fought in the U.S. border states of Arizona and Texas.
The White House didn’t say how the U.S. would begin changing the amount of aid it sends to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. For fiscal year 2019, the U.S. plans to send about $70 million in aid to Guatemala, $66 million to Honduras and $46 million to El Salvador, according to the State Department. Most of the funds go to violence prevention, justice and rule-of-law programs, along with funding for border and narcotics enforcement.
The immigrant caravan puts Mexico in a difficult position, said Jorge Chabat, an expert on U.S.-Mexican relations at the University of Guadalajara. Mexican officials have long said patrolling the entire border is difficult. Despite that, Mexico has deported growing numbers of Central Americans in recent years, partly under pressure from the U.S.
“There is the pressure from Trump to return the migrants, but how do you do that with the thousands that have crossed without having an incident where somebody could get killed?” said Mr. Chabat. “But if you let them all in, then tomorrow you will have four more caravans.”
Honduras has closed down one of the three main border crossings with Guatemala since Saturday after two trucks loaded with migrants burst through a line of Honduran police into Guatemala.
Moises Starkman, a political economy professor at the Universidad Tecnica de America Central in Honduras, said he believes that immigration from Honduras to the U.S. will continue unabated for the foreseeable future.
“The magnet of the American dream is very strong,” he said. “Many more people will leave depending on what happens to this caravan.”
—Rebecca Ballhaus in Washington contributed to this article.
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