The Current

Migrant caravan headed towards U.S. sparks heated debate ahead of midterm elections

U.S. President Donald Trump has warned that a thousands-strong caravan of migrants heading towards the U.S. border is teeming with criminals. But New York Times reporter Annie Correal, who has been travelling with the caravan, says the people bear little resemblance to the president's account.

NYT reporter travelling with caravan says migrants bear no resemblance to Trump's claim they're gang members

Honduran migrants, walking and sitting aboard trucks, head in a caravan to the United States. They are pictured in Huixtla, Mexico, on their way to Mapastepec in Chiapas state on Wednesday. (Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images)

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U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly warned that a thousands-strong caravan of migrants heading through Mexico towards the U.S. border is teeming with criminals and dangerous individuals.

But Annie Correal, a reporter with the New York Times who has been travelling with the caravan, says the people who make up the caravan bear little resemblance to the president's account.

"Let me put it this way: we haven't seen any Arab taco stands," she wryly told The Current's guest host David Common.

Let me put it this way: we haven't seen any Arab taco stands.- Annie  Correal , New York Times reporter

"It's mostly people from Honduras. There are people from Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador sprinkled through the caravan, but the vast majority are people from Honduras."

A migrant woman rests roadside with her child while travelling with the caravan on Wednesday. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Trump has claimed that MS-13 gang members and unknown "Middle Easterners" were hiding among the migrants.

He later acknowledged there was "no proof" of the claim Middle Easterners were in the crowd, but tweeted Wednesday that the United States "will never accept people coming into our Country illegally!"

Correal said most of the migrants are young men who want to work and earn money for their family. But she also described seeing mothers with young children, the elderly, a small number of disabled people and an LGBT contingent.

"The demographics are, I think, far more diverse than what you might see in a typical caravan," she said.

As U.S. President Donald Trump speaks a supporter holds up a sign during a rally Wednesday in Mosinee, Wis. (Mike Roemer/Associated Press)

The reported numbers of the caravan have fluctuated, ranging from 4,000 to 7,000.

Mexican officials told The Associated Press that nearly 1,700 have dropped out of the caravan to apply for asylum in Mexico, and a few hundred have accepted government offers to bus them back to their home countries.

A report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimated that 500,000 people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala flee into Mexico every year from the three violence-plagued countries, where rates of murder, kidnapping and sexual violence are comparable to those in war zones.

A 'hidden refugee crisis'

Correal spoke to migrants who listed a wide variety of reasons for travelling. Some have left extreme drought conditions that Reuters reports have left two million people hungry across Central America.

Others are looking for better jobs and a better life, partly due to unemployment and disappointment with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Madeleine Penman, Amnesty International's researcher on Mexico, said the migrants aren't chasing "the classic American Dream," but rather make up a "hidden refugee crisis" with many Hondurans trying to escape gang violence and organized crime.

"Many of these people are refugees. That means they're fleeing to protect their lives," she said.

Central American migrants gather to hitchhike on a trailer truck to continue their journey to the Mexican border in Zacapa, Guatemala. (Luis Echeverria/Reuters)

Honduras has a homicide rate of about 43 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the world for any country not in open war.

Republican campaign strategist Beau Philips refuted Penman's characterization of the migrants' plight.

"The great, vast, overwhelming majority of people in this caravan are obviously people unrelated to anything like that, and are simply people seeking economic opportunity and nothing more," he told The Current.

"That is not a legitimate reason to seek asylum. It's not a reason to acquire refugee status."

A child remains in an area affected by a drought on Earth Day in the southern outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in 2016. (Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

Last June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions came under fire for ordering judges to stop granting asylum to most victims of gang violence.

"There are a shrinking number of ways that you can get in through the eye of the needle that is asylum, but at the same time, U.S. authorities have to let people apply for asylum if they feel they have a legitimate claim," said Correal.

Reports over the past year of migrant families being separated at the U.S. border, with children being detained in camps, worry Penman in particular.

"Whatever recent decisions have been made in the U.S. to try and narrow the interpretation of what a refugee is … the reality is that the United States has obligations under international law. It has obligations under its own domestic law," she said.

Caravan controversy 'a gift' for Trump

According to Correal, most of the migrants she's spoken to know little to nothing of the political firestorm their caravan is currently whipping up in the U.S. Most of them have no idea the country's midterm elections are in less than two weeks.

"They know that Trump doesn't want them. That's the phrase I keep hearing: Trump no nos quieres. But they aren't aware of the debate or how the caravan has started to be sort of a pawn in the political and cultural wars," she said.

Philips said this story has become "kind of a gift" to Trump.

Trump has claimed that MS-13 gang members and unknown 'Middle Easterners' were hiding among the migrants. He later acknowledged there was 'no proof' of his claim. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

"There are few things more politically convenient for Trump and the Republican Party than the images of hundreds or thousands of migrants "sluicing across the southern border into the United States," he said.

"That's an idea that is discomfiting to a lot of Americans —frankly, even Americans who are not hardcore right-wing, anti-immigration, Republican, pro-Trump voters."

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News and The Associated Press. Segment produced by John Chipman, Caro Rolando and Danielle Carr.