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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Maligned by Trump, earthquake-hit Mexican town receives migrant caravan with open arms

Uncertainty and troops await weary Central Americans at US border

As night falls on Mexico's southern Juchitan and city lights begin to flicker, thousands of Central American migrants spread out across a brand new bus station, transforming the grounds into an impromptu refugee camp.

The men, women and children are members of the 4,000-strong caravan travelling through Mexico toward the country's capital city, in a desperate bid to reach the United States and leave behind a life of economic woes and violence.

Weary after days of marching in 32 degrees Celsius, the migrants found comfort in Oaxaca's city of 90,000.

They were greeted by dozens of Juchitan residents, who took it upon themselves to serve food, clean up trash and help the thousands of caravan members.

But Juchitan is no stranger to humanitarian emergencies. Just one year ago, on September 7, an 8.2 magnitude quake struck nearby. In Juchitan, 45 people were killed and hundreds of buildings damaged.

Today, even as they continue rebuilding the city, residents went out of their way to welcome the caravan in a show of support that has proven vital to the migrants.

“The community is very sensitive due to the earthquake last year,” Juchitan’s municipal secretary Oscar Cruz Lopez told The National. “Even if we don't have an abundance of resources, what little we have, we are sharing with the migrants.”

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Central Americans en route to the United States have passed through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec for years. Juchitan falls along the Pacific route that migrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala follow north.

Most are fleeing violence and poverty in Central America’s Northern Triangle, which has some of the highest murder rates in the world outside of active war zones. The migrant caravan represents a growing trend of Central Americans banding together for safety on their journey through Mexico. So far, despite harsh words from US President Donald Trump, the caravan has found its way through Mexico safely.

The began as a smaller group in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on October 12. When the caravan entered Mexico on October 21, it had swelled to 7,000 people.

Immigration agents and federal police attempted to block them at the Guatemala-Mexico border and again at the crossing from Chiapas to Oaxaca. Since then, Mexican authorities have allowed its members to continue north. Though some on Saturday lambasted Mexican officials for directing them northward through the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, calling it "the route of death."

While the governor of Veracruz briefly offered buses to transport people to Mexico City, he quickly rescinded the offer, and thousands continued on foot or hitching rides.

But some have turned back, or asked Mexican authorities to help them return to their home countries. Mr Cruz Lopez estimated that 6,000 people arrived in Juchitan on October 30.

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto announced a programme called “Estás en tu casa” - You are at home - which aims to give migrants legal status in Mexico and access to jobs and education. The majority of caravan members rejected the offer because it would see them forced to stay in Chiapas or Oaxaca. The caravan has set its sights on Mexico City.

On Sunday the first of the caravans arrived in Mexico City, taking up temporary shelter at the sports stadium. More than 1,000 Central Americans, many fleeing gang violence and financial hardship in their home countries, bedded down at the stadium where the city government set up medical aid and food kitchens.

Migrants -mostly Hondurans- taking part in a caravan heading to the US, line up to enter a shelter as arriving to Puebla, Puebla state, Mexico. AFP
Migrants -mostly Hondurans- taking part in a caravan heading to the US, line up to enter a shelter as arriving to Puebla, Puebla state, Mexico. AFP

City officials have already launched a humanitarian bridge to provide health services and legal aid to the migrants. Meanwhile in Washington, President Trump readies himself for midterms on Tuesday by drawing on his 2016 campaign and hammering the immigration message in an attempt to raise fear of the caravan.

On Monday former president Barack Obama called Mr Trump's reaction to the migrants a "political stunt". Without invoking his name, Mr Obama accused the US president of lying and "fear-mongering". "They're telling us the single most grave threat to America is a bunch of poor, impoverished, broke, hungry refugees a thousand miles away,' he said during a rally for Democratic senator Joe Donnelly.

Mr Trump announced on November 1 that he is seeking to modify asylum laws on the border to prevent caravan members from entering the US, while also deploying some 15,000 active duty troops to Texas, Arizona and California.

But in southern Oaxaca, 1,400 kilometers from the border, American hostility was but a distant worry as people came out in support of the caravan.

Juchitan is a majority-Zapotec indigenous city and the hub of numerous indigenous-led social movements. As the caravan arrived midday last week, almost all members of the municipal government were sent to the bus station to make themselves available for cleaning or security responsibilities.

At the bus station, a stage was set up for the nightly assembly, where the caravan decides the plans for the following day.

Members of a teachers union, a community radio station, the Catholic diocese and the municipal government took to the stage to welcome the thousands of Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans suddenly in their midst.

The community radio station, Radio Totopo, began planning their relief effort a week earlier, as the caravan edged toward Oaxaca. At the radio’s headquarters in the Pescadores neighbourhood of Juchitan, they collected donations of food, clothing and medical supplies.

Migrants, part of a caravan travelling from Central America en route to the United States. Reuters 
Migrants, part of a caravan travelling from Central America en route to the United States. Reuters 

On the day of the caravan’s arrival, over a dozen volunteers prepared meals at the radio station. They loaded pots of hot food into a flat-bed truck and drove to the bus station.

As the truck pulled up, Josue Badillo, 35, tried to lull his six-year-old son to sleep on a blanket spread out on the pavement. Mr Badillo farms coffee, beans and corn in Olanchito, Honduras. When he heard about the caravan over social media, he decided to join.

“In Honduras, we’re used to eating just two times a day,” he said. He hopes to reach the United States and then bring his wife and two other children north.

“Our government in Honduras is killing people, instead of protecting them,” said Mr Badillo. “If the American government went to Honduras to see the situation, they would understand why we leave.”

“This is a democratic municipality,” municipal secretary Oscar Cruz Lopez told The National. “We have the conviction that we should give aid to immigrants who come displaced by violence and poverty in their countries.”

Early on Thursday morning the caravan set off once again by foot from Juchitan to Matias Romero, Oaxaca, 64 kilometers north.

Juchitan's warm reception eased the gruelling journey, if only temporarily - but over a thousand kilometers still separate the caravan from the US border. And for those who do cross, the American dream under the Trump administration may not be what they had hoped for.

Back at the bus station, amid crowds of worn-out families, Radio Totopo’s flat-bed truck pulled up to offer them food. Within seconds a crowd hard formed around the vehicle.

“People don’t run like that unless they’ve known hunger,” Mr Badillo said, watching the commotion.