Uneasy crossroads faces migrant caravan en route to U.S. border

As a caravan of some 4,000 migrants rests in Juchitan, a town 700 kilometres southeast of Mexico City and still many weeks' walk from the U.S., its members are starting to question what happens if they don't make it across the border.

As hard line rhetoric permeates group, concerns grow over what happens if it can't cross into U.S.

A migrant family, part of a caravan of thousands travelling from Central America en route to the United States, settles in for the night at a makeshift camp in Juchitan, Mexico, on Tuesday. (Mia Sheldon/CBC News)

As a caravan of some 4,000 Central American migrants rests in Juchitan, a town 700 kilometres southeast of Mexico City and still many weeks' walk from the U.S. border, its members face an uneasy crossroads.

There was no onward journey today, while the group received medical treatment and food from locals hastily gathered to hand out biscuits and sandwiches — a humanitarian effort that has been replicated from town to town as the caravan crawls north.

But as they recover from the road fatigue and prepare for the steep, mountainous climb that now lies ahead, concerns have begun to fester over a flurry of increasingly hard line rhetoric stoking fears about the caravan as it draws closer to the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday tweeted that the caravan, composed of many families and young children, fought "viciously" against Mexican soldiers and was "made up of some very bad thugs and gang members."

Trump later stated he may send as many as 15,000 soldiers to the U.S. border with Mexico, up from the more than 7,000 troops the Pentagon said were currently being sent to support Customs and Border Protection agents.

"They're hearing it and they're starting to think about what happens if they don't get across the U.S. border," said The National's Susan Ormiston, who is in Juchitan with the migrant caravan as it winds its way north.

"They don't want to go back. But they are hearing that the messaging from the United States is getting more and more harsh," she said.

Watch The National's Susan Ormiston explain the uncertain future facing migrants:

The National's Susan Ormiston explains how hard line rhetoric about the caravan is forcing some migrants to question their journey north. 1:40

Caravan baby 

Wednesday evening, Mexican authorities said a woman travelling with the largest caravan had given birth to the first known caravan baby. 

The National Human Rights Commission says the girl was delivered at a hospital in Juchitan.

The commission says it arranged medical attention for the Guatemalan woman. Her husband was present for the birth and the newborn is reported to be healthy.

Another smaller group of migrants are about two days behind those resting in Juchitan and will soon add about 1,000 new members to their number.

Behind them, a third group of migrants from El Salvador had already made it to Guatemala, and on Wednesday a fourth group of about 700 Salvadorans set out from the capital, San Salvador, with plans to walk to the U.S. border, 2,400 kilometres away.

But thousands of other migrants have already dropped out of the main caravan, applying for refugee status in Mexico or taking the Mexican government up on free bus rides back home. The group is likely to dwindle even more during the arduous journey ahead. 

A group of migrants look at a map of Mexico and the southern United States. Oaxaco state, where the caravan is currently located, is in red. (Mia Sheldon)

With hundreds of kilometres of steep, uphill terrain still separating them from their immediate target — Mexico City — the group may need humanitarian agencies and political activists to help organize transportation in order to continue their trek.

Red Cross personnel on Wednesday bandaged the swollen feet of Honduran farmer Omar Lopez, who had been pounding the hot asphalt every day for the past two weeks and spending nights on concrete sidewalks with just a thin sheet of plastic for cover.

"We are waiting to see if they are going to help us out with buses to continue the trip," said Lopez, 27.

Migrants crowd atop a tanker while others walk or wait for rides in Niltepec, Mexico, on Tuesday. The caravan of thousands of migrants rested on Wednesday in Juchitan, a city 700 kilometres southeast of Mexico City. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

Many people in the caravan are also economic migrants who left home for a better future in the United States. But given the group is mainly made up of economic migrants, they may not qualify for asylum status to legally enter the U.S.

Even so, many in the caravan remain hopeful they will make it and have been monitoring their actions to dispel any false rumours they are violent or threatening.

"They know that any sense of violence in this group is bad for their cause, bad for their image, so they self-regulate," said Ormiston. "That's how it's operating here."

Despite the heightened rhetoric, the number of immigrants apprehended at the U.S. border is dramatically lower than past years.

Border Patrol agents this year made only a quarter of the arrests they made in 2000 at the height of illegal immigration, when the agency had half of the staffing it does today. Migrants' demographics have also drastically changed, from mostly Mexican men travelling alone to Central American families with children.

A new caravan of migrants left from El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, en route to the United States on Wednesday. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

Should the caravan make it to the border, it will face a sizeable U.S. military presence — more than double the 2,000 who are in Syria fighting ISIS — whose mission will be largely a support role.

That's because the military is bound by the Posse Comitatus Act, a 19th-century federal law that restricts participation in law enforcement activities. Unless Congress specifically authorizes it, military personnel can't have direct contact with civilians, including immigrants, said Scott Anderson of the Brookings Institution.

It remains unclear why the Trump administration has chosen to send active-duty troops given that they will be limited to performing the support functions the Guard already is doing.

With files from CBC's Susan Ormiston and The Associated Press