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Migrant caravan assailed by Trump arrives in Tijuana on asylum quest to U.S.

Migrant caravan assailed by Trump arrives in Tijuana on asylum quest to U.S.
Migrants staying at a shelter in Tijuana's Zona Norte gather for lunch on Friday. (Alejandro Tamayo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

About 345 people traveling in a migrant caravan sharply criticized by President Trump has arrived in Tijuana, the group's final destination in Mexico before approaching the U.S. border to ask for asylum.

On Sunday, no more than 200 of the group will go to the Tijuana-San Diego crossing and request U.S. protection, according to Gina Garibo, project coordinator with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the organization behind the caravan, which is made up of mostly Central Americans who say they had to flee their countries because they are too dangerous.

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Caravan members interested in requesting asylum were spending Friday and Saturday in legal orientation sessions to understand their rights and what to expect after they reach the U.S. port of entry.

A group of supporters on the U.S. side began marching on Sunday from Los Angeles to Friendship Park in San Diego to welcome the caravan at the border.

Caravans have been a fairly common tactic for advocacy groups to bring attention to asylum seekers and the latest group is quite small compared with previous border surges, but it gained huge visibility after Trump unleashed strong criticism from the moment it began March 25 in the Mexican city of Tapachula, near the Guatemala border.

The caravan drew more than 1,000 people as it crossed Mexico. Trump and top aides portrayed them as a significant threat and evidence of a porous border control system.

Trump cited the caravan as justification for the border wall he wants to build even though the asylum-seekers plan to turn themselves in to border officials at a port of entry and are legally entitled to seek protection. He said he ordered the Homeland Security Department to "stop the caravan" but that more needs to be done.

"We need a strong, impenetrable WALL that will end this problem once and for all," he wrote to campaign supporters.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said late Wednesday that any person trying to cross into the U.S. who makes false claims to immigration authorities will be subject to criminal prosecution. She said prosecution was also possible for any people who might assist or coach immigrants to make false claims in bids to enter the U.S.

Nielsen's threat is consistent with the administration's narrative of widespread asylum fraud and claims that asylum seekers are coached on what to tell U.S. authorities. The secretary also said asylum seekers in the caravan should seek protection in the first safe country they reach, including Mexico.

The U.S. government is marshaling resources to ensure that cases are promptly decided, Nielsen said. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions has said he may assign additional immigration judges to handle cases involving members of the caravan.

As Sunday's showdown at the busy Tijuana-San Diego border crossing neared, an Amnesty International billboard promoting the right to asylum in the U.S. was mounted on a truck in Tijuana that drove around the city.

Guatemalan Ignacio Villatoro, 41, said Trump's rhetoric about the caravan saddened him because he felt it might lessen chances of getting asylum for himself, his wife and four children. He still plans to attempt on Sunday.

"God is just and powerful," he told the Associated Press, lingering outside his tent. "A miracle is going to touch the hearts of immigration agents and the president."

The Villatoros fled a town near the Mexican border for reasons Ignacio declined to discuss because he said he feared for his family's safety.

They hope to join relatives in Los Angeles, where he said his children could learn English, go to school, play in parks and buy toys — luxuries that are out of reach to them in Guatemala.

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