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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

'Caravan' migrants caught between a rock and a hard place weigh staying in Mexico or risking US expulsion

About 400 travellers from Central America weigh staying in Mexico, or risk US expulsion

Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, join their hands during a demonstration against the Donald Trump's immigration policies in Mexico. Edgard Garrido / Reuters
Central American migrants, moving in a caravan through Mexico, join their hands during a demonstration against the Donald Trump's immigration policies in Mexico. Edgard Garrido / Reuters

Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans who drew the wrath of President Donald Trump in a month-long caravan to the US border will make hard decisions on Sunday whether to risk being deported all the way home by trying to cross, or to build a life in Mexico.

After angry tweets from Trump, US border authorities said some people associated with the caravan had been caught trying to slip through the fence, and encouraged the rest to hand themselves in to authorities.

"We are a very welcoming country but just like your own house, we expect everyone to enter through our front door, and answer questions honestly," San Diego Chief Patrol Agent Rodney S. Scott said in a statement.

Most of the group of about 400 travellers who arrived in border city Tijuana on buses over the past couple of days said they intended to legally seek asylum in San Diego later on Sunday, but lawyers advising the group gave them stark advice - not everyone will be successful.

After the grueling journey, a somber mood took hold as the reality sank in that many of them would be separated from their families. Lovers and parents with slightly older sons and daughters could be forced to split up.

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At venues around the city, US immigration lawyers working on a pro bono basis on Saturday listened to harrowing tales of life in the immigrants' home countries.

Death threats from local gangs, the murder of family members, retaliatory rape, and political persecution back home prompted them to flee, the migrants and lawyers say.

Many of the immigrants who spoke at length with Reuters at various points during their trip through Mexico had been short on knowledge of their legal rights, but at least 24 recounted detailed stories of facing death threats.

As poor migrants from Central America on a perilous route through Mexico, they feared they could be robbed, raped, arrested and assaulted, so traveling by caravan offered their only protection, they said.

The lawyers advised which cases had higher chances of passing the "credible fear" test required to enter the long and often difficult US asylum process, said immigrant rights organisation Al Otro Lado, Spanish for On the Other Side.

"A lot will depend on how well they can articulate their case," said one of the pro bono lawyers, who preferred to remain anonymous.

The rest were advised to stay put in Mexico, which would remove the risk that US authorities fly them the more than 3,600 km back home.

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"We'll wait and see," said Bryan Garcia, from Honduras, seated beside a four-year-old Nicole, who was eating a strawberry biscuit as they waited for her mother to come out of a meeting with a lawyer.

Nicole and her mother are from El Salvador. They befriended Mr Garcia along the caravan's journey and the adults had fallen for each other.

But Mr Garcia would not be asking for asylum - he would stay in Tijuana, having already been deported once from the US.

"We'll just have to try to stay connected," he said.

Mr Trump has been pressuring Mexico to stop the migrants before they reached the border, linking the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to Mexican efforts to stem the flow of Central Americans.

The friction has coincided with high intensity efforts by US, Canadian and Mexican teams to renegotiate NAFTA on Mr Trump's bidding, with officials saying a deal could be just a few weeks away after months of talks.

Mexico deports tens of thousands of Central Americans every year back across its southern border with Guatemala.