WASHINGTON – Tensions have mounted after President Donald Trump renewed threats to push back thousands of Central American migrants who have gathered at a town on the southern side of the US-Mexico border for a bridge crossing to the United States, according to media reports.
The increased tension over the presence of the growing migrant caravan came as Trump marked Thanksgiving Day — an American national holiday — by threatening to close the border if he thinks Mexico has lost control of it.
With few belongings, and many of them with children in tow, the migrants set out for the crossing from the baseball field in the Mexican border city of Tijuana where they have been camped out, the reports said. Around 6,000 migrants who have trekked across Mexico in a caravan in recent weeks are now crammed into the field.
Trump has made his hard-line stance on immigration an integral part of his presidency and a key issue during the midterm congressional elections this month.
As US helicopters hovered overhead, a group made up mostly of men headed from the shelter where they were staying since last week to the El Chaparral bridge around 1km away in Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego in California, telling reporters that they would wait there until they could request asylum, in spite of growing U.S. measures to tighten the border.
President Trump threatened to close the border altogether, having previously deployed nearly 6,000 troops to erect concrete barriers and barbed wire fences to deter what he has called an “invasion.”
Speaking to reporters, he said: “If we find that it gets to a level where we are going to lose control or where people are going to start getting hurt, we will close entry into the country for a period of time until we can get it under control.”
In a warning to Mexico Trump added: “The whole border. I mean the whole border. Mexico will not be able to sell their cars into the United States.”
Trump also said he had authorized the use of lethal force by troops on the border if necessary.
Tensions rose when a local official and a human rights activist tried to convince the migrants both of the benefits of remaining in Mexico, and to submit their US asylum requests through official channels. But the migrants ignored the request and marched on to the bridge.
Authorities in Tijuana set up a job fair in an attempt to recruit skilled workers among the migrants for the benefit of local companies, while Mexico’s migration agency has offered them temporary residency papers.
Some have taken advantage of the offers but others are determined to reach the US, according to the reports.
Since setting out more than a month ago, mostly from Honduras, thousands of migrants, including many women and children, have covered about 4,400km, either walking or hitchhiking, before the first groups began reaching Tijuana at the end of last week.
But there have been tensions since they started arriving at the border town, particularly in the shelter housing around 4,500 Central Americans.
The migrants are mostly fleeing poverty and unrest in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where gang violence has fuelled some of the highest murder rates in the world.