These are the Central American migrants in Trump’s crosshairs

Roughly 1,000 migrants, mostly from Honduras, camped out at a sports complex in Matias Romero, a small town in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. Hundreds still waiting in long lines to procure their exit visas from migration agents sitting at fol


Some people reclined under palm trees, while others drew water from a cistern for makeshift baths. As the sun beat down, a group of skinny kids kicked soccer balls across a field of parched grass.

After days on the road, trudging northward on foot and by bus, many of the roughly 1,000 migrants, mostly from Honduras, were hot and exhausted Wednesday as they camped out at a sports complex in Matias Romero, a small town in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.

And many of them were surprised that in recent days they have attracted the intense attention of President Trump.


Beginning with a series of tweets Sunday, Trump has sought to stop the migrant caravan. On Wednesday he asked the governors of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to send National Guard units to the southwestern border. He has also threatened to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement unless Mexican authorities intervene.

Trump’s threats have sparked a political crisis in Mexico, with its leaders decrying what they see as an insult to Mexico’s sovereignty while at the same time scrambling to bring the migrants in line with Mexican immigration laws.

On Wednesday, the Mexican Senate issued a decree saying it “demands respect for the Mexican people from President Donald Trump,” and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto told reporters he wants an explanation for the plan for National Guard troops at the border.

For the exhausted, bedraggled travelers sleeping under the stars in the humid hamlet of Matias Romero, escalating bilateral tensions and Trump’s keen interest in their journey has at times provoked laughter, but more often fear.

“Because of him, I no longer want to go there,” said Ariyuri Garcia, an 18-year-old who fled Honduras this year after her father was killed in a botched robbery. “I’d rather find a job in Tijuana than go to the U.S. and be detained.”


Like many people traveling in this caravan, Garcia has family living north of the border. Her mother is a gardener in San Diego. After her father’s death six months ago, Garcia’s mother wired money so that Garcia, her sister, and her sister’s baby could make the journey north. They joined the caravan after hearing about it at a migrant shelter in Guatemala. It seemed safer than traveling alone.

Similar caravans have been organized other years around Easter by a group called Pueblos Sin Fronteras, or People Without Borders. The caravans are designed to bring awareness to the conditions that have prompted many people to flee Central America, as well as the dangers migrants face once they’re on the road.

Robberies, rapes and assaults — perpetrated by smugglers, cartel members and Mexican immigration agents — are common. In one incident in 2010, 72 kidnapped migrants were killed by a cartel in northern Mexico.

Garcia appreciates the protection of the group, which she said has begun to feel a little like a family.

“When they don’t have something to eat, we share with them,” she said of her fellow travelers. “And they share with us.”

On Wednesday, the group’s fourth day living at the sports complex with permission from local authorities, Garcia sat with her baby niece on a stained camping mattress near a rusty swing set. “Welcome to our house,” she said with a wry smile.

The baby, sick with a cough and a rash after more than a month on the road, squirmed and cried while Garcia read over an official document that Mexican immigration authorities had just handed her. The document gave Garcia 30 days to exit Mexico, a fate much better than deportation.

Her friend, Sophia Gomez, looked on longingly. Gomez, 37, who fled Honduras with her two sons after a local gang tried to recruit her 10-year-old, was still waiting for her transit document.

Mexican immigration agents swarmed the camp Monday after Trump started tweeting about the caravan. After negotiating with the group’s organizers, the agents decided to issue most participants “exit visas,” which the Mexican government has previously granted Central American caravans and other travelers seeking to reach the U.S.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Mexican government said the caravan’s organizers had decided to end their trek north.

That news was met with praise from Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who tweeted her thanks to Mexican leaders “for their partnership on this and other security issues.”

But the caravan had not dispersed Wednesday, and the group’s leaders said the Mexican government was mistaken.

Organizer Irineo Mujica said the caravan still plans to head to a planned stop in Puebla state, about 200 miles north, where migrants will have the chance to meet with volunteer lawyers from the U.S. who are expected to help them figure out whether they might qualify for asylum or other types of immigration relief in the United States.

“Our goal is for them to have the information so they can make their own decisions about the next steps,” said Mujica.

With hundreds of migrants still waiting in long lines to procure their exit visas from migration agents sitting at folding tables, many at the camp prepared themselves for another day or two of waiting. Adults huddled around the few electrical outlets, charging cellphones, while kids played with whatever they could — a few toy trucks if they were lucky, a pile of donated clothes if they were not.

Donations — food, money, shoes and baby formula — poured in all day, brought by the carload by residents. The residents, many of whom work as ranchers or in the nearby cement factory, are accustomed to foreigners. The dangerous train that many Central American migrants ride north, known as La Bestia, passes nearby.

This caravan consisted of an unusually large group, said Alejandro Rodriguez, 27.

A chef in New York City who was back in his hometown for an Easter visit, Rodriguez and a cousin were standing in the back of a pickup truck, loading up plastic plates with heaping portions of rice and veggie stew.

“We bought 88 pounds of tortillas,” Rodriguez said proudly.

“We’re humans,” he said. “We’re all vulnerable.”

He gestured to the line of hungry migrants. “Something could happen to any of us at any time that would leave us in their position.”

“Can we serve you a plate?” he asked Douglas Martinez, a thin, bearded man.

Martinez, who works as a first responder to emergencies in El Salvador, heard about the caravan a few days ago through social media. He was a few towns away at the time, on his own journey north, and decided to join it.

Martinez, 42, worked in the U.S. for years, and was deported twice. His 17-year-old son is still there, living with an aunt in Houston.

Martinez said he plans to cross into the U.S. again — illegally.

He said he didn’t plan on staying in the U.S., but he wants to attend his son’s high-school graduation this spring. It has been three years since they last saw each other. Martinez is proud his son has learned English, and is graduating, which Martinez never did.

“I have to be there,” he said.

Twitter: @katelinthicum