The Central American caravan headed north toward the United States through Mexico may have attracted the attention of President Donald Trump and others for good reason — it's one of the largest since the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras began staging its annual pilgrimage through Mexico a decade ago.
The president is accusing the Mexican government of doing far too little to stem the flow of people coming through the country's southern border on their way to the U.S. as they flee violence and poverty back home.
Starting Easter morning and continuing through Monday, the U.S. president fired off a series of angry tweets that criticized Mexico for allowing caravans to cross their country and demanded tougher U.S.immigration laws. He declared "DACA is dead," referring to negotiations to allow young unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children to remain in the country.
"Mexico has the absolute power not to let these large 'Caravans' of people enter their country," the president tweeted Monday. "They must stop them at their northern border."
The president's focus on the issue came on the heels of a report on the website Buzzfeed, which has been following the progress of the Pueblo Sin Fronteras group. Their pilgrimage then caught the attention of Fox News commentators, as well as the president's.
It remains uncertain how many of the caravan's participants will ultimately reach the border, as some are expected to remain in Mexico. Close to 80 percent of the caravan's members are from Honduras, where citizens have been suffering through gang violence and a deadly military crackdown on political protests following last year's presidential election.
The large group that has drawn so much attention looked like it would soon be dispersed following a meeting late Monday between caravan leaders and Mexican immigration authorities. Alex Mensing, a cavaran spokesman, said Mexican authorities agreed to give participants humanitarian visas or exit visas — a permit that allows foreigners to remain for about 10 days.
"It's very challenging to travel in a group that big, this way people can travel in a more regular manner," Mensing said. "People are going to be able to travel to the places they need to go without having to worry about being detained by Mexican immigration."
One of the major aims of the larger Pueblo Sin Fronteras caravan, along with other smaller groups that make such journeys, is to provide participants with protection from gangs and corrupt law enforcement officials as they cross Mexico. While some may make it to the U.S. border, others are expected to seek asylum in Mexico, said Irineo Mujica, one of the caravan's organizers.
"Our intention is that these people be able to lead a life with dignity outside their countries," Mujica said. "Mexico has increasingly become a key destination."
The caravan has come as Mexico has seen an increase in asylum requests, said Maureen Meyer of the Washington, D.C.-based think thank Washington Office on Latin America. Requests have risen from 3,424 in 2015 to 14,596 last year.
"Mexico is seen more and more as a destination, but other individuals and families certainly continued to see the United States as an option," Meyer said.
The Pueblo Sin Fronteras caravan has drawn members of entire families, but also unaccompanied adolescents, single women and fathers with children. Mujica said the numbers included 300 children and 400 women. Though 1,500 launched from Tapachula in southern Mexico on March 25, they have not all remained with the caravan, which was down to 1,050 on Monday.
The next major stop will be Puebla, where caravan members are expecting to gather with Mexican government authorities and demand improvements to its asylum process. As in recent years, the final destination is Tijuana, where a small number of caravan members is expected to apply for U.S. asylum.
If anyone gets to the border, it will be specific cases, which have been reviewed by attorneys," Mujica said. "Nobody is planning to arrive with a crowd of people and push across."
In a similar but smaller caravan last year, 108 participants came to the San Diego border and petitioned for asylum. The outcome of the cases could not be immediately verified on Monday.
Though the Pueblo Sin Fronteras caravan has been staged for years, it drew relatively little attention until Trump began tweeting.
"Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S.," the president tweeted on Easter morning. "They laugh at our dumb immigration laws. They must stop the big drug and people flows, or I will stop their cash cow, NAFTA. NEED WALL!"
In another tweet, the president threatened to end he program that allows young unauthorized immigrants to work and study in the United States: "NO MORE DACA DEAL."
President Trump said that "these big flows of people are all trying to take advantage of DACA. They want in on the act!"
In fact, the people in the caravan would not qualify for DACA, or deferred action for childhood arrivals. Mujica said that caravan participants "don't have any idea about DACA."
While authorities in Mexico had not sought to detain the caravan as of Monday, Mexican government statistics show that authorities deport large numbers of Central Americans from the country. Last year's total was 76,433, according to statistics from Mexico's Ministry of Interior; of those, 35,133 came from Guatemala, while 29,002 came from Honduras.
In January and February, Mexico deported nearly 16,000 Central Americans, statistics showed, with the highest numbers from Guatemala and Honduras.
While the caravan has been moving northward, "it would be foolish to say that this is a signal that Mexico is doing nothing to stop Central Americans or others from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border," said Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America.
The caravan participants, "are not a security risk to the United States," Meyer said. "This should be treated more as a humanitarian situation and not some threat to the U.S. Families are hoping that the United States will protect them from their own countries."
The caravan has been has been taking place for several years, "but this is the first time that Donald Trump has made an issue of it," said Eric Olson, deputy director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. "The way the Trump administration wants to spin this is that this is about Mexicans letting Central Americans into the United States, but that is not what is going on."
Caravan members "are coming more as a protest and protection mechanism from abuse in Mexico than anything else," Olson said. "Both from police and other officials but also from criminal groups that want to exploit them."
Olson said he had been in contact with Mexican authorities, "and they said 'We are well aware of what is going on, this is not the first time we've faced this. We're dealing with this in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy.'"
Pueblo Sin Fronteras runs two migrant shelters on the U.S. border, in the towns of Sonoita and Caborca in the state of Sonora. It is not a formal organization in the United States, but operates more as a collective, Mujica said.
In announcing the group's March 25 departure, Pueblo Sin Fronteras sent a statement saying it is a "group of people from different nations, religions, genders, gender expressions and sexual orientations migrating and seeking refuge."
The statement calls for a series of measures, including an end to political corruption, to violence against members of the LGBT community, to "murder with impunity and gang recruitment of youth."
It demands that the U.S. government continued Temporary Protected Status — a program for people from nations affected by wars or disasters. It asks that the "U.S. government stop massive funding for the Mexican government to detain Central American migrants and refugees and to deport them."