TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Migrants camped in Tijuana after traveling in a caravan to reach the U.S were weighing their options Tuesday after a California court blocked President Donald Trump's asylum ban for illegal border crossers.
Many said they have no intention of breaking the law, but were feeling pressure after anti-migrant protests in this Mexican border city and claims by Trump and the Tijuana mayor that the caravan harbors gang members and criminals, something they strongly deny.
Keven Paul Mejia, a 27-year-old former security guard from the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, said there were some delinquents traveling with the group of several thousand who smoke marijuana and get drunk.
But, he said, most are like him, just hoping to land a job in the U.S. "There are more of us who are good, than bad," Mejia said.
Herson Cordonez, a 29-year-old Honduran, said the actions of a few migrants were tainting the image of the 4,000 to 6,000 in the caravan, not all of whom have yet reached Tijuana. "We are not criminals, we are migrant workers,"Cordonez said, adding that he was considering trying to get into Canada if the U.S. doesn't want him.
On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen visited a San Diego Pacific Coast beach examining up close the newly installed razor wire wrapped around a towering border wall that cuts across the sand. On the Tijuana side, dozens of onlookers gathered with cellphones to take pictures of her arrival through the fence.
"This is a border wall with row upon row of concertina wire," Nielsen said. "Make no mistake, we are very serious. You will not get into our country illegally."
She said there were as many as 500 criminals and gang member in the groups heading northward, though she refused to answer questions about how they were identified or what crimes they had committed. She added that caravan migrants had assaulted "border police in multiple countries," even using "incendiary devices," though she provided no evidence.
A day earlier, Tijuana officials said they had arrested 34 caravan members for drug possession, public intoxication, disturbing the peace and resisting police, and they would be deported to their home countries
Nielsen said there were 6,200 migrants already camped in Tijuana and another 3,000 in Mexicali, a few hours' drive to the east. She said most were young single men who have no legitimate claim to U.S. asylum, adding that wanting to get a job in the U.S. or be reunited with family were not reasons to be allowed in.
Less than an hour before Nielsen's arrival a man tried to swim into the U.S. but was quickly detained by border patrol agents. Five agents were on jet skis offshore along with two border patrol boats, while two drones on the Mexican side hovered just above the wall to get a view of the activity.
Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum has made a point of saying the city is not happy with the migrants who began arriving last week, and he compared the Central American group unfavorably with about 3,000 Haitians who ended up staying after their bid to reach the U.S. failed last year.
"The Haitians arrived with their papers, with a clear vision," Gastelum said in an interview posted on the city's Facebook page. They came "in an orderly way, they never asked us for food or shelter," renting apartments and making their own food. He said the Haitians found jobs and "inserted themselves in the city's economy" and had not been involved in any disturbances.
By contrast, Gastelum said, the caravan of Central Americans, "had arrived all of sudden, with a lot of people — not all ... but a lot — were aggressive and cocky."
The Mexican government gave the Haitians temporary transit permits, and after they failed in attempts to enter the United States, many have since applied for Mexican residency. The majority in the Central American caravan have refused Mexico's repeated offers of residency or asylum, and vowed to cross the border.
Haitian Chilo Semaco, 36, said Mexico has been "more or less" welcoming to the Haitian immigrants. Since arriving in Tijuana two years ago, Semaco has found work selling aprons to people crossing the border in their cars. "It's better than being in Haiti," he said.
Some local police and residents have expressed concern that portraying the caravan as criminals has tarred its innocent members and exposed them to reprisals.
Some of the largely Honduran migrants were frightened when about 500 people in an affluent district of Tijuana staged angry protests Sunday against the caravan. Dozens of the more radical protesters then marched to an outdoor sports complex near downtown where 2,500 migrants have been staying, sleeping on dirt fields and under bleachers.
Walter Matute said he has been deported from the U.S. twice and fears jumping the border would end his ability to get asylum. But he believes others will now take a chance in light of the court ruling blocking Trump's ban on asylum for illegal border crossers.
"Yes people are going to cross," the 36-year-old Honduran said. "There are a lot of women and children. A lot are going to be up for it now."
Sitting on a curb near the sports complex, a Honduran woman affirmed his assessment. The woman, who declined to give her name, said she was getting anxious and was considering crossing illegally to skip the long wait at the Mexican port of entry for asylum seekers.
U.S. border inspectors are processing only about 100 asylum claims a day at Tijuana's main crossing to San Diego, and there was already a waiting list of 3,000 when the new migrants arrived, so most will have to wait months to even be considered for asylum.
Gastelum, appealing for greater federal help to cope with what he called an "avalanche" of migrants, estimated they would be in Tijuana for at least six months while waiting to file asylum claims.
For most people in this city of 1.6 million, the arrival of thousands of Central Americans is not very noticeable. Most of the migrants stay within a three-block radius of the sports complex that faces the towering metal walls topped with barbed wire at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the United States has dramatically increased security at ports of entry in preparation for the caravan, placing cement barriers topped with razor wire that can be quickly moved to block passage if a mass of migrants to try to force their way into the country.
Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.