Migrant caravan members reject offer to stay in Mexico

ARRIAGA, Mexico (AP) — Several thousand Central American migrants turned down a Mexican offer of benefits if they applied for refugee status and stayed in the country’s two southernmost states, vowing to set out before dawn Saturday to continue their long trek toward the U.S. border.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto announced what he called the “You are at home” plan, offering shelter, medical attention, schooling and jobs to Central Americans in Chiapas and Oaxaca states if they applied, calling it a first step toward permanent refugee status. Authorities said more than 1,700 had already applied for refugee status.

But after one of the caravan’s longest days of walking and hanging from passing trucks, the bulk of the migrants were boisterous Friday evening in their refusal to accept anything less than safe passage to the U.S. border.

“Thank you!” they yelled as they voted to reject the offer in a show of hands in the town of Arriaga. They then added: “No, we’re heading north!”

Sitting at the edge of the edge of the town square, 58-year-old Oscar Sosa of San Pedro Sula, Honduras concurred.

“Our goal is not to remain in Mexico,” Sosa said. “Our goal is to make it to the (U.S). We want passage, that’s all.”

Still 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from the nearest U.S. border crossing at McAllen, Texas, the journey could be twice as long if the group heads for the Tijuana-San Diego frontier, as another caravan did earlier this year. Only about 200 in that group made it to the border.

While such migrant caravans have taken place regularly over the years, passing largely unnoticed, they have received widespread attention this year after fierce opposition from U.S. President Donald Trump.

On Friday, the Pentagon approved a request for additional troops at the southern border, likely to total several hundred, to help the U.S. Border Patrol as Trump seeks to transform concerns about immigration and the caravan into electoral gains in the Nov. 6 midterms.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signed off on the request for help from the Department of Homeland Security and authorized the military staff to work out details such as the size, composition and estimated cost of the deployments, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning that has not yet been publicly announced.

Stoking fears about the caravan and illegal immigration to rally his Republican base, the president has insinuated that gang members and “Middle Easterners” are mixed in the group, though he later acknowledged there was no proof of that.

At a church in Arriaga that opened its grounds to women and children Friday, Ana Griselda Hernandez, 44, of Mapala, Honduras said she and two friends traveling with children had decided to pay for a bus ride from Pijijiapan, because the 4-year-old and 5-year-old would have never covered the 60-mile distance.

“It’s difficult because they walk very slowly,” she said. She pointed out scabbed over blisters on her own feet, a testament to the fact they had walked or hitched rides the rest of the way since leaving their country.

A coordinator of the caravan said they would strike out again before dawn for Tapanatepec, about 29 miles (46 kilometers) away across the Oaxaca state line.

Mexico’s government has allowed the migrants to make their way on foot, but has not provided them with food, shelter or bathrooms, reserving any aid for those who turn themselves in.

Police have also been ejecting paid migrant passengers off buses, enforcing an obscure road insurance regulation to make it tougher for them to travel that way.

Authorities were also cracking down on smaller groups trying to catch up with the main caravan, detaining about 300 Hondurans and Guatemalans as they walked along a highway after crossing the Mexico border illegally, said an official with the national immigration authority.

Migrants, who enter Mexico illegally every day, usually ride in smugglers’ trucks or buses, or walk at night to avoid detection. The fact that this group was walking in broad daylight suggests they were adopting the tactics of the caravan, which is large enough to be out in the open without fear of mass detentions.

However, it now appears such smaller groups will be picked off by immigration authorities, keeping them from swelling the caravan’s ranks.

On Friday evening, Irineo Mujica, whose organization People without Borders is supporting the caravan, accused Mexican immigration agents of harassing migrants in an effort to stop the group’s advance. He urged them to travel closely together.

“They are terrorizing us,” he said.

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