TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - U.S. border officials processed a trickle of asylum applications on Tuesday from a caravan of Central American migrants camped at the U.S.-Mexico border, despite criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump of their attempt to enter the country.
Border agents slowly admitted 17 migrants, mostly women and children, on Tuesday, according to organizers with the Pueblo Sin Fronteras immigrant rights group. Eight from the caravan were allowed in on Monday night.
That left about 115 people who made the 2,000-mile (3,220-km) trek from Central America waiting anxiously in a makeshift camp outside the border post in the Mexican city of Tijuana.
“I’m scared, I’m so scared. I don’t want to return to my country,” said Reina Isabel Rodriguez, who fled Honduras with two grandsons, as tears streamed down her face.
Eleven-year-old Christopher looked up at his grandmother in anguish, while 7-year-old Anderson sat at her feet, his head drooping sadly and a red toy robot in his lap.
Rodriquez said she feared being separated from her grandsons, whom she has cared for since her daughter abandoned the eldest, the child of a gang rape perpetrated by members of the MS-13 gang.
MS-13, which started in Los Angeles in the 1980s, has since grown into a cross-border criminal organisation with leadership in El Salvador.
Rodriquez was among the couple dozen more migrants who rushed to gather their belongings and eat what they could on Tuesday afternoon before heading into the border facility’s walkway for what could be another 24-hour wait to be let through.
The camp of weary migrants showed no signs of breaking up as a third consecutive cold night in the open approached.
The U.S. Department of Justice said on Monday it launched prosecutions against 11 “suspected” caravan members on charges of crossing the border illegally.
About half of them are represented by the federal public defender in San Diego, according to the office’s chief trial attorney Shereen Charlick.
She said some of the mothers apprehended are no longer with their children, and that lawyers in the office are trying to figure out how they were separated.
Other migrants walked up to the gate to ask officers if they could pass only to be turned away and told to wait.
“Here’s hoping,” said 20-year-old Honduran Bryan Claros, on the possibility of being next to be processed.
The caravan set off from southern Mexico in late March on a trek to the California border, gathering people along the way. It swelled to 1,500 migrants at one point but has since dwindled.
Similar, albeit smaller, caravans have passed through Mexico for years, but this one made headlines after Trump demanded its members be denied entry and that stronger immigration laws be enacted.
Trump’s hard line against illegal immigration is a centrepiece of his presidency as he pursues an “America First” agenda that includes a proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying it was needed to stem the flow of immigrants and drug trafficking.
However on asylum applications, the Trump administration’s hands are tied by international and U.S. laws obliging the United States to give a fair chance to migrants who say they fear returning home. If migrants do so, they must by law be entered into the asylum process.
The full process, however, can take months to years and includes a “credible fear” interview.
Most in the caravan said they were fleeing death threats, extortion and violence from street gangs.
The majority of asylum claims by Central Americans are ultimately unsuccessful, resulting in detention and deportation. Asylum seekers must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution at home, most often from a state entity.
Crawling under her narrow tarpaulin tent, Yolanda Hieron Meraz from Honduras hurriedly packed a few clothes and a pillow to enter the port of entry with her 15-year-old son, a huge smile on her face.
But it was a conflicted moment for her as she left behind her common-law partner, Jose Cristobal, 48, who waited soberly beside their tent. Cristobal, who tried to hold back his tears, knew he could not follow because his case for asylum was not as strong.
Reporting by Delphine Schrank in Tijuana; Additional reporting by Edgard Garrido in Tijuana, Dan Levine in San Francisco, Sarah Lynch and Roberta Rampton in Washington and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Will Dunham and Peter Cooney