Thursday, April 26, 2018 | 4:12 p.m.
MEXICALI, Mexico — About 175 people in a caravan of Central American asylum-seekers rested up Thursday ahead of the final leg of their monthlong journey to seek asylum in the United States, with the Trump administration warning they could be prosecuted, detained and quickly deported.
The migrants — many of them women, children and transsexuals — were set to board buses in the border city of Mexicali for a two-hour drive to Tijuana to join up with about 175 others who already arrived.
Lawyers planned free workshops on the U.S. immigration system on Friday and Saturday as many planned to seek asylum starting Sunday at San Diego's San Ysidro border crossing, the nation's busiest.
Migrant shelters in Tijuana's Zona Norte neighborhood, home to the many of the city's seedy bars and bordellos, were full. That forced organizers to look elsewhere for temporary housing, said Leonard Olsen of Pueblos Sin Fronteras, a group leading the effort.
Migrants who stayed overnight at a shelter in Mexicali were tired from the long journey and nervous about the possibility of being detained in the U.S. but also knowledgeable about their rights to seek protection from persecution in their home countries, Olsen said. Many Central American asylum seekers say they face death threats by criminal gangs in their homelands.
"This is a moment that will change their lives," Olsen said in Mexicali, as he waited for three buses to arrive as Mexican federal police officers watched nearby.
Caravans have been a fairly common tactic for advocacy groups to bring attention to asylum-seekers and the latest group pales in size compared to previous border surges, but it gained huge visibility after President Donald Trump unleashed strong criticism from the moment it began March 25 in the Mexican city of Tapachula, near the Guatemala border.
The caravan drew as many as 1,000 people as it crossed Mexico as Trump and top aides portrayed them as a significant threat and evidence of a dysfunctional border. On Monday, Trump cited the caravan as additional justification for the border wall he wants to build, even though the asylum-seekers plan to turn themselves in to border inspectors.
Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said late Wednesday that any person trying to cross into the U.S. who makes false claims to immigration authorities will subject to criminal prosecution. She said prosecution was also possible for any people who might assist or coach immigrants to make false claims in bids to enter the U.S.
Nielsen's threat is consistent with the administration's narrative of widespread asylum fraud and claims that asylum-seekers are coached on what to tell U.S. authorities. The secretary also said asylum seekers in the caravan should seek protection in the first safe country they reach, including Mexico.
The U.S. government is marshaling resources to ensure that cases are promptly decided, Nielsen said. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he may assign additional immigration judges to handle cases involving members of the caravan.
As Sunday's showdown at the busy Tijuana-San Diego border crossing neared, Amnesty International hoisted a billboard promoting the right to asylum in the U.S. on a truck in Tijuana that drove around the city.
Four locations in Tijuana were being set up for lawyers to tell the migrants what they should expect when they turn themselves in to U.S. custody for questioning by immigration officers.
The Juventud 2000 migrant shelter, on the edge of Tijuana's red-light district, was filled with colorful dome-shaped tents to accommodate more than 200 members of the caravan.
Guatemalan Ignacio Villatoro, 41, said Trump's rhetoric about the caravan saddened him because he felt it might lessen chances of getting asylum for himself, his wife and four children. He still plans to attempt on Sunday.
"God is just and powerful," he said, lingering outside his tent. "A miracle is going to touch the hearts of immigration agents and the president."
The Villatoros fled a town near the Mexican border for reasons Ignacio declined to discuss because he said he feared for his family's safety.
They hope to join relatives in Los Angeles, where he said his children could learn English, go to school, play in parks and buy toys — luxuries that are out of reach to them in Guatemala.
Spagat reported from Tijuana, Mexico.