MEXICO CITY -As thousands of Central American migrants inched closer to Mexico’s southern border, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with top officials here, hoping to avert the caravan before it reaches the United States.
By Friday morning, at least a thousand migrants had arrived in the city of Tecun Uman, in northern Guatemala, and said they were preparing to cross into southern Mexico, even as Mexican authorities deployed additional police and Guatemalan officials appeared to shut a major border crossing.
“We are quickly reaching a point which appears to be a moment of crisis” with the flow of Central American migrants, Pompeo said in a joint appearance with Mexico’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray.
Mexican authorities, in search of a way both to satisfy President Donald Trump’s demand that they deter the migrants and to avoid violating international law, have asked the United Nations to set up a migrant processing center near their southern border. Pompeo said in a statement that he welcomed that plan.
During the joint appearance Friday, he added: “The way you will handle this is your sovereign decision.”
But as Trump said at a rally on Thursday that the midterm elections would hinge in part on the caravan, it was clear that U.S. pressure on Mexico would continue.
The members of the caravan appeared unlikely to wait for the United Nations. On Friday, many migrants approached border crossings where Guatemalan police officers appeared prepared to block their passage. Others stood along the slim river that separates Guatemala from Mexico and told reporters that they planned to swim or take rafts across.
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Mexican police wearing anti-riot gear were waiting on the Mexican side. In response to their deployment, Trump tweeted, “Thank you Mexico,” on Thursday, just hours after threatening to deploy the U.S. military and “close our southern border” — potentially upending a recent trade deal with Mexico and Canada.
His threats have kept pace with the migrants’ journey. As they were passing though Guatemala, he threatened to withdraw aid from Central American nations if they didn’t stop the migrants. Paradoxically, much of that aid is used in programs aimed at deterring migration.
Speaking at the joint news conference, Videgaray said the Mexican government would enforce the country’s immigration laws, “in a humanitarian form, thinking first of the interest of the migrant.”
Videgaray also emphasized the need for the United States to promote anti-poverty programs in Central America, calling a lack of economic development among the “major reasons for migration.”
Even with additional border security personnel, it is unlikely that Mexico could detain the thousands of migrants who appear likely to cross into the country in the coming days. Typically, migrants use rafts to float across informal border crossings.
Mexican officials will have to decide how to handle the migrants who continue traveling by foot and in vehicles toward the southern border, a journey that could take weeks. Earlier this year, during a previous migrant caravan, Mexico ultimately registered the migrants and gave them permits of up to 30 days to leave the country or apply for asylum.
Immigration advocates and experts on international refugee law say that providing transit documents to those in search of protection would be the reasonable and humane response. But that would probably enrage Trump, who appears to see it as Mexico’s responsibility to stop the migrants from reaching the U.S. border by any means.
Pompeo’s trip to Mexico was planned before the caravan, but on Friday he referred to it as “the largest issue that we face today,” now that the trade deal with Mexico has been hammered out.
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Some immigrant advocates said they were pleased by Mexico’s call to involve the United Nations in the processing of asylum-seekers.
“It tells me that Mexico recognizes the protection dimension here as well as its own incapacity to process” members of the caravan, said Bill Frelick, director of the refugee rights program at Human Rights Watch.
But Mexican officials have not said what role they would like the United Nations to play.
“Specific information on the support provided by the UNHCR regarding the processing of refugee applications and support for the applicants during their stay in Mexico will be made public as soon as a formal response is received,” Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a Thursday statement.