TIJUANA, Mexico — The group that organized a monthlong caravan of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States wanted to draw attention to the plight of people fleeing violence. If headlines are any measure, it has been a smashing success.
President Donald Trump and Cabinet members have called the caravan a deliberate attempt to overwhelm U.S. authorities and proof that more must be done to secure the border with Mexico, including construction of a wall. The rhetoric from the White House and its allies has also fueled an outpouring of support from Mexicans and Americans, with food and other staples, financial contributions, free legal advice and offers of a place to live in the U.S.
Roberto Corona, founder of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, considers the intense spotlight a mixed blessing. It has raised public awareness of the toll of violence in Central America, but he said it may sharpen a crackdown by the U.S. government.
"We want to show the humanity of this, not the politics," Corona said. "It's not about the wall."
Caravan organizers have been pilloried by the Trump administration. Vice President Mike Pence said during a California border tour Monday that the asylum seekers were being "exploited by open-border political activists and an agenda-driven media." U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Wednesday he was sending more prosecutors and immigration judges to the border.
Trump has used the caravan to try to build support for his wall — even though the asylum seekers generally turn themselves in to border inspectors — and to call for an end to so-called "catch-and-release" laws and court rulings that allow some asylum seekers to remain free while their cases wind through immigration court, which can take several years.
The latest caravan marks an evolution of Easter-season migrant protests that started around 2008, usually sponsored by Catholic priests who ran shelters. For the first few years, they seldom did more than advance through the southern Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, often dressing in Biblical garb and carrying crosses in processions meant to echo Jesus' walk to his crucifixion and to protest the violence they suffered themselves.
They drew little attention, partly because thousands of Central Americans were openly streaming north through Mexico aboard freight trains every day, headed for the U.S. border.
When Mexico cracked down on its southern border and migrants riding trains in 2014, the processions became higher profile. They were a way to defy the government "blockade" of the trains and the highway checkpoints where buses were searched. The 2014 caravan was effectively broken up by Mexican police in the southern state of Tabasco.
Even after the government began to take a more hands-off approach, the caravans seldom got as far as Mexico City, though some smaller groups made it to the U.S. border.
Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which Corona created at Southern Methodist University in 2008 to ensure Latino day laborers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area got fair treatment from employers, participated in the 2014 caravan but didn't organize its own until last year. The loose-knit group has established two shelters in northern Mexico near the Arizona border but still has no office or paid employees, said Corona, who now lives in San Diego.
The group's first caravan of Central Americans traversed Mexico last April and May, reaching about 600 people at one point and dwindling to about 100 by the time it reached Tijuana, organizers said. Most sought asylum. Few noticed.
Its second caravan in November attracted about 700 people when arrived in central Mexico but dropped to about 200 in Tijuana, including about 80 who sought asylum, Corona said.
Its third caravan has grabbed the most attention by far, departing March 25 from Tapachula, a city of 300,000 in a major coffee-growing region where Pueblo Sin Fronteras had posted flyers in migrant shelters and held meetings in a city park. Central Americans walked for days on roads and train tracks, at one point reaching more than 1,000 people.
During the first week of April, organizer Irineo Mujica said Trump's attacks brought more attention and made the effort more difficult to manage. "We do not believe in, nor do we want, a caravan of this size," he said.
But the conspicuousness came with advantages, too, namely in the form of assistance from the Mexican authorities who had once targeted such travelers.
Valmore Ramirez Cortez, a 32-year-old Salvadoran government worker, had battled coughing and fever while hopping trains whose surfaces were scorching hot by and cold at night. His outlook improved in the southern state of Oaxaca when he, his 18-year-old nephew and two teenage sons got 20-day permits to stay in Mexico. There were police and Red Cross escorts along the way.
On Sunday, after two days of legal orientation arranged by Pueblo Sin Fronteras, nearly 200 asylum seekers marched through Tijuana to a U.S. border inspection facility only to be told it had reached its capacity to process asylum claims for the day. By the following afternoon, the first few caravan members had been allowed inside to begin making their cases to be allowed to live in the U.S.
As the caravan neared the border, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said people fleeing violence should seek protection in the first safe country they enter, meaning Mexico. But Ramirez, who fled his country Jan. 31 after a gang killed two of his brothers and promised that he and his nephew would be next if they didn't join, said he won't feel comfortable until reaching the United States for good. He hopes to join a cousin in Maryland.
"I don't come for money or work, I come out of necessity," Ramirez said while reading a Christian-inspired book under a tarp at the Tijuana border crossing, waiting his turn. "There is nothing more beautiful than living in the country where you were born."