Mexican federal police in riot gear block the highway to keep a thousands-strong caravan of Central American migrants from advancing on their way to the U.S. border, outside Arriaga, Mexico, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. Hundreds of Mexican federal officers carrying plastic shields briefly blocked the caravan of Central American migrants from continuing toward the United States, after several thousand of the migrants turned down the chance to apply for refugee status and obtain a Mexican offer of benefits. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Migrants nix offer to stay in Mexico, continue trek to US

October 27, 2018 - 4:27 pm

ARRIAGA, Mexico (AP) — More than a hundred Mexican federal officers carrying plastic shields abandoned a blockade they had formed on a bridge Saturday, allowing a caravan of thousands of Central American migrants to advance toward the United States.

The officers ended the standoff after representatives from Mexico's National Human Rights Commission told police that a rural stretch of highway without shade, toilets or water was no place for migrants to entertain a government offer of asylum in Mexico, which is why police said they set up the blockade.

Police boarded buses and headed further down the highway, while migrants cheered and vowed to trek all the way to the U.S. border despite fierce opposition from President Donald Trump.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto launched a program on Friday dubbed "You are home," which promises shelter, medical attention, schooling and jobs to Central Americans who agree to stay in the southern Mexico states of Chiapas or Oaxaca.

Police commissioner Benjamin Grajeda said that authorities only blocked the highway Saturday to tell people about the offer. "Here in this truck right now you can get help," he said.

Thousands of migrants in the city of Arriaga rejected the plan Friday night, but said they could be willing to discuss it again once they reach Mexico City. Some fear they will be deported if they take advantage of the program.

The caravan is now trying to strike out for Tapanatepec, about 29 miles (46 kilometers) up the road. Many members have been travelling for more than two weeks.

Orbelina Orellana, a migrant from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, said she and her husband left three children behind and had decided to continue north one way or another.

"Our destiny is to get to the border," she said.

She was suspicious of the government's proposal and said that some Hondurans who had applied for legal status had already been sent back. Her claims could not be verified, but migrants' representatives in the talks asked the Mexican government to provide a list of those who had been forced to return.

Mexican officials appear to be taking a discordant approach to the group by greeting travelers with a mixture of hospitality and hostility.

Mexico's Interior Ministry said that temporary identity numbers have been issued to 111 migrants under the "You are home" program. The IDs, called CURPs, authorize the migrants to stay and work in Mexico, and the ministry said pregnant women, children and the elderly were among those who had joined the program and were now being attended at shelters.

Several mayors have rolled out the welcome mat for migrants who reached their towns — arranging for food and camp sites.

On Saturday, government officials were helping migrants move along the route. Martin Rojas, an agent from Mexico's migrant protection agency Grupo Beta, said officials have begun handing out water and giving rides to stragglers in the agency's pickup trucks.

"There are people fainting, there are wounded," said Rojas, who spoke to The Associated Press after dropping off a group of women and children in Tapantapec, where the caravan planned to spend the night in the town square. Rojas transported the group to their destination after spotting them on a highway trudging through temperatures approaching 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius).

At other times, police have ejected migrant passengers off buses by enforcing an obscure road insurance regulation. Some officials appear to want to shrink the caravan by keeping smaller groups of migrants from joining, while hoping that their grueling journey will make Mexico's offer of refuge more attractive.

An official with the national immigration authority said Friday that 300 Hondurans and Guatemalans who crossed the Mexico border illegally had been detained. The group was walking in broad daylight, but far from the main caravan.

The caravan still must travel 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to reach the nearest U.S. border crossing at McAllen, Texas, and the trip could be twice as long if the group of some 4,000 migrants heads for the Tijuana-San Diego frontier, as another caravan did earlier this year. Only about 200 in that group made it to the border.

While such migrant caravans have taken place regularly over the years, passing largely unnoticed, they have received widespread attention this year with Trump's rhetoric.

On Friday, the Pentagon approved a request for additional troops at the southern border, likely to total several hundred, to help the U.S. Border Patrol as the president seeks to transform concerns about immigration and the caravan into electoral gains in the Nov. 6 midterms.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signed off on the request for help from the Department of Homeland Security and authorized the military staff to work out details such as the size, composition and estimated cost of the deployments, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning that has not yet been publicly announced.

Stoking fears about the caravan and illegal immigration to rally his Republican base, Trump insinuated that gang members and "Middle Easterners" are mixed in with the group, though he later acknowledged there was no proof of that.

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Associated Press writers Julie Watson and Amy Guthrie contributed to this report.

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