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A throng of Central American migrants continues their trek toward the U.S. border in southern Mexico. They’ve grown to at least 5,000 people on Sunday.
USA TODAY

HUIXTLA, Mexico – The Central American migrants moving their way through Mexico as part of a controversial caravan – one President Donald Trump is pushing hard as a midterms election issue – is forging ahead in its long journey to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Waves of migrants – who U.N. officials estimate may be as high as 7,200 and growing – have arrived in the small southern Mexican town of Huixtla, where many camped out on Tuesday. Many staked out grassy spots in the town square to sleep outdoors overnight before continuing their grueling trip north. They were at least 1,100 miles from McAllen, Texas, the nearest U.S.-Mexico border entry.

The center of Huixtla, a small town of about 30,000 people in southern Mexico, was teeming with migrants, who sought shelter from the sun under tarps and shaded sidewalks. Church groups served food and drink to migrants, while locals sold them everything from single cigarettes to coconut treats smothered in hot sauce.

Among the migrants: Kevin Maldonado. The 20-year-old from Honduras said he had walked six hours from Tapachula to Huixtla under a scorching sun, passing through a Mexican immigration checkpoint just prior to entering Huixtla.

“We’re tired,” he said from the shade of the sidewalk outside a camera store, where he slept the night before. “But the caravan is going to continue.”

Maldonado said he had been picking coffee in western Honduras – where U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show an outflow of large numbers of migrants. But, he said, a plunge in coffee prices prompted him to consider taking the treacherous trip to the United States.

He said he is not discouraged or dissuaded by Trump’s remarks and threats that the caravan would be stopped by soldiers, if necessary, and remains optimistic he can get to the U.S.

“Maybe he’ll have a change of heart and give us a chance,” he said of Trump.

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Maldonado says he wasn’t sure how he’d travel to the U.S., which would require transiting Mexico, where crimes against migrants include kidnapping for ransom, extortion and rape.

But he saw a story on a Honduran news channel about the caravan being organized and thought it was his chance to flee the poverty rampant in his homeland.

Danilo Ruiz, 26, said, he too joined the caravan after seeing a news report on television.

“We were going to leave for the United States in January,” he said while resting in Huixtla with three friends – who all identified as LGBTQ and cited “discrimination and violence” for leaving.

“We saw the news about this caravan, immediately packed our bags and left the next day.”

The caravan began Oct. 13 when a group of mostly Honduran migrants embarked on the trip north, fleeing government corruption, extreme poverty and rampant violence. The caravan has already trekked through Guatemala and is passing through southern Mexico with migrants from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. It was organized by Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a human rights group that provides aid and legal assistance to migrants. It’s the second organized caravan this year, but this one is considerably larger and has garnered more media attention than one last spring.

One man reportedly died late Monday when he fell from the back of a truck and died. Marchers set up a simple memorial to the man overnight, setting out a dozen small candles arranged in the shape of a cross that were kept lit through the darkness.

Irineo Mujica, who is helping the migrants as part of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, had said the caravan would pause and rest on Tuesday in honor of the man who died, but many people throughout the exodus split away on their own and continued their trek northward.

Trump has railed about the latest migrant caravan since last week, taking to Twitter to rip the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for failing to deal with the migration crisis, and threatening to reduce U.S. aid even more to these countries. He’s also faulted Mexico, though its government has sent federal police and teamed up with more than 30 U.N. officials to review asylum applications of migrants before they can get to the U.S.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Tuesday that the caravan is violating Mexico’s laws and the U.S. will not allow it to violate U.S. laws. 

Some will say this is a “hard-hearted stance,” he said, but the United States is “a historically generous” when it comes to welcoming immigrants.

His message to those in the caravan: “Come here legally.”

“From a security standing, there is no proper accounting of who these individuals are. He said it poses an “unacceptable risk” to the U.S.

Trump told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview aboard Air Force One Monday that he would send as many troops as necessary to the U.S.-Mexican border to block the caravan, calling their trek “an assault on our country.”

He later slammed Democrats over immigration during a raucous rally in Houston, telling a packed arena that the migrant caravan would be a defining issue in the November midterms.

Speaking at a rally to support incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz’s re-election campaign, Trump ramped up his effort to tie the thousands-strong group of immigrants to the Democrats hours after he claimed that the caravan included “unknown Middle Easterners.”

“The Democrats have launched an assault on the sovereignty of our country,” Trump told thousands gathered in the Houston Toyota Center. “The crisis on our border right now as we speak is the sole result of Democrat laws and activist, Democrat judges.”

More: President Trump blasts Democrats over immigration, caravan during rally for Ted Cruz

Trump repeated a claim that “the Democrats had something to do” with the caravan of Central Americans working its way toward the United States. Neither the president nor the White House has provided evidence of that claim, which Democrats have denied.

The identity of the actual organizers of the migrant caravan remains an unanswered question. Also not known is the caravan’s destination – if and when it reaches the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The organizer of this caravan is number one hunger, two death,” said Rodrigo Abeja, who is with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the organization most identified by media outlets as leaders of the caravan. The group says it is not the caravan organizer.

Abeja said he was concerned about the timing of the caravan’s arrival to the U.S. border at about the same time as its midterm elections.

“It’s more important to accompany the caravan … than worry about white voters, sitting in front of their TV’s drinking beer,” he told USA TODAY.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., an outspoken critic of Trump who represents a border state, took issue with the president’s rhetoric, telling CNN in an interview that it’s “a fear tactic.”

“With a border that large, you’re going to have people come across that are coming from other countries and some, obviously, with nefarious motives,” he said. “But to make it sound like this is in order to put people in here who would do us harm and to emphasize the – the criminals among them – I just don’t think that it’s the right way to approach it.”

“These (migrants), for the most part, overwhelmingly are people who are either fleeing violence or looking for a better life and we have programs for some of them, asylum programs. And others, obviously we can’t accept everyone.”

Flake underscored that the U.S. needs to have border security, “but it needs to be done in a thoughtful manner.”

More: Caravan migrants flood southern Mexico, tugging suitcases and hopes of reaching U.S.-Mexico border

Mexican and U.N. officials, according to the latest figures provided publicly by the Mexican government, have sent 640 migrants to the National Institute of Migration because they were interested in “seeking refuge” in Mexico. About 500 were assisted in voluntarily returning to Honduras and Guatemala. Another 1,000 are being repatriated to Guatemala. About 900 migrants who tried to illegally enter Mexico will also be deported to their home countries. 

Contributing: USA Today’s Sergio Bustos and Deirdre Shesgreen; The Associated Press

 

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