TIJUANA, Mexico—María Luisa Cáceres went to the El Chaparral border area in Tijuana on Nov. 25 to check the status of her asylum number. It was there, at a makeshift registration tent a week earlier, that she was given number 1,537.
The group organizing the asylum numbers is Pueblo Sin Fronteras (“People Without Borders”), an open-borders group that has supported several caravans of Central American migrants attempting to gain asylum in the United States.
The group writes the names of asylum-seekers in its book—each number is assigned 10 names—and when a number is called, that’s the day those people enter the pedestrian crossing into the United States and claim asylum. They have recorded more than 11,000 names since March. U.S. Customs and Border Protection processes around 100 asylum claims per day at El Chaparral.
It seems to be a well-oiled asylum machine, with NGOs such as Los Angeles-based Al Otro Lado (“To the other side”) going into the camp to advise migrants on the process and how to deal with certain questions.
The organization’s litigation director, Erika Pinheiro, was giving advice over a loudspeaker at the migrant camp at the Benito Juarez sports complex on Nov. 19.
She told the migrants to make sure they submitted an asylum application within a year of getting into the United States, otherwise they would only be eligible for “withholding of removal,” which has far fewer benefits.
“It’s important to be eligible for asylum,” Pinheiro said. “[Withholding of removal] is not a road towards residency and citizenship. That is, you’ll only have a work permit; you’ll never be able to leave the United States; you can’t apply for your family members; you can’t vote in the United States. Basically, you won’t be deported but it doesn’t have many benefits.”
But, she said, even criminals and previous deportees can obtain withholding of removal status.
‘We Are Forced To’
When Cáceres took her 15-year-old special-needs son to check their asylum number on Nov. 25, she was told it would be another three weeks before her number was called.
But that was also the day that organizers called the thousands of migrants to march to the border. Cáceres said she didn’t plan to join the protest, “but as we are with the caravan, we are forced to.”
“The truth is that we were told that if we didn’t go to the caravan, then we were not with them, and you know, since we departed from Honduras, we came in a caravan,” she said.
Cáceres and her son got caught up in the melee, and she said her face was still feeling the effects of the tear gas used by U.S. Border Patrol to repel the migrants tearing through the first layer of fence.
“What I did yesterday was very risky, I wish it won’t happen again,” she said, and blamed the large number of male migrants who rushed past Mexican riot police to storm the border. “There are people who only think about themselves, they don’t think about the mothers with kids, they think about nothing.”
Cáceres was at Benito Juarez when The Epoch Times spoke to her. She had just been given a tent to sleep in, which has “Abolich ICE” painted on the sides. Before that, she had been sleeping out in the open, enduring the cold and a rainstorm that whipped through several nights earlier.
She joined the caravan in Honduras because she thought she could get into the United States and get help, especially for her special-needs child. She declined the offer of asylum in Mexico, “because if we stay here, it’s like staying in Honduras.”
She left four other children at home, aged 11 through 25.
Arlen Cruz and her husband were urged to take their 2-year-old daughter, Nayli Rosario, to the protest on Nov. 25.
“I was told it would be a peaceful, normal demonstration, just to join it. But then everything went wrong,” she said at the camp Nov. 26. “Nobody said we would cross, they just said it was a demonstration to the bridge and then we would come back.”
Cruz said her family didn’t rush to the border with the approximately 1,000 migrants on Nov. 25, but instead returned to the camp. She said her husband has four brothers in the United States already.
“I want to stay for a while in Mexico, and then, God-willing, to cross,” she said.
‘A Political, Staged Play’
Caravan organizers are trying to weaken the Trump administration and the United States, according to Col. Fred Peterson, former chief public affairs officer of Joint Task Force North, the Defense Department’s counter-drug and anti-terrorist operation.
“This is a very well-funded operation,” he told The Epoch Times. “It’s not spontaneous at all.”
The migrants themselves are being exploited for political purposes, he said. “They’re just props in a political, staged play.”
He anticipated that the organizers would intentionally put the migrants in dangerous situations to create an incident that could be weaponized against the United States.
“I would expect them to stage an event where innocents are intentionally killed,” he said.
Kids on the Frontlines
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended Border Patrol’s use of tear gas during the rush to the border fence on Nov. 25, and accused caravan organizers of pushing women and children onto the front lines.
“It appears in some cases that the limited number of women and children in the caravan are being used by the organizers as ‘human shields’ when they confront law enforcement,” Nielsen wrote in a Facebook post on Nov. 26.
“They are being put at risk by the caravan organizers, as we saw at the Mexico–Guatemala border. This is putting vulnerable people in harm’s way.”
Nielsen said there are 8,500 caravan members in Tijuana and Mexicali, Mexico, and also reports of additional caravans on their way.
A month ago, Vice President Mike Pence said intelligence from foreign partners pointed to leftist groups behind the caravans.
“What the president of Honduras told me is that the caravan was organized by leftist organizations, political activists within Honduras, and he said it was being funded by outside groups, and even from Venezuela,” Pence told Fox News on Oct. 26.
A video posted on the Netnoticias.mx Facebook page on Nov. 25, shows a Mexican police officer pleading with migrants not to listen to caravan leaders—who were telling them to put the kids on the front line.
“Don’t let them fool you! Don’t let them lie to you! These leaders; the only thing they’re doing is risking that something bad happens to your families. Because they say ‘go to the front,’” the officer is heard saying in Spanish. “Do not trust the leaders. They are brainwashing you.”
The officer continues to say it is “cowardly” to take children to the front lines.
“If you guys listen to them and take your children to the front, if something bad happens to the kids, you’re going to have to live with that. It’s not their fault. Don’t listen to this man and the other guy who’s over there.”
Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum said in a press conference on Nov. 27 that the migrant parents acted irresponsibly on Nov. 25.
“How is it possible that a father, a mother, can be so heartless and take their child to danger?” Gastélum said. “There are some horrendous photos there, where a mom is pulling, trying to save the children from the tear gas, but who brings them there? Those leaders, who are taking the caravan across the country, they expose them to danger throughout the entire country.”
Trevor Loudon, a recognized expert on communist groups and a contributor to The Epoch Times, said the migrants are being exploited by Pueblo Sin Fronteras and other socialist and communist groups that want to dismantle U.S. borders.
“The American public doesn’t understand how exploited these [migrants] are,” Loudon said. “They’ve put everything into this and made a massive trek and now, they’re basically going to be sitting there abandoned. And the only thing that’s going to happen is they’re going to be used for cannon fodder for violence or photo ops.”
Loudon said organizers know the United States can’t allow thousands of migrants to pour in unchecked—which would start an endless wave “and basically destroy the country.”
“How cruel to exploit people that way, knowing that the America couldn’t let them in,” he said. “Either way, these people are just pawns.”
He said Pueblo Sin Fronteras is run by Emma Lozano, who comes from a very well-known communist party family in Chicago.
“I know they played a very active role in encouraging the caravan right from the very beginning,” Loudon said.
At the migrant camp in Tijuana, where more than 5,150 migrants are crammed into a dusty sports complex, communist propaganda fliers are being distributed.
One flier, of which the Spanish version was handed out to migrants on the night of the failed border-rush attempt, says “Open it up or we’ll shut it down! Everyone must be let in!”
The flier was printed by BAMN, a communist organization based in California that describes itself as a “Coalition to defend affirmative action, integration & immigrant rights and fight for equality by any means necessary.”
The flier is a rallying cry for the migrants to stick together until their goals are achieved, including the message, “Trump must go or be removed BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.”
A second flier written by the Communist Party of Mexico in Baja California, was handed out the following evening. The single sheet, with a hammer and sickle in the top-right corner, rallies the migrants to: “Let’s organize active solidarity and defense against any nationalist or government attack.”
It goes on to say, “Your struggle is our struggle. … It’s not enough to just leave the country, but to also organize ourselves to fight in a revolutionary way to transform our place of residence.”
The flier also says the migrants are fleeing “from the society ruled by capitalists,” and blames the United States for the conditions in Central America.
Loudon said the groups behind the fliers are trying to unite the migrants by giving them a sense of grievance.
“That this is a civil-rights issue and President Trump is being a tyrant for trying to deny these people access,” he said. “And that they deserve to go to America because America has basically created horrible conditions in their own countries.”
In reality, Loudon said, most of the countries in Latin America have Marxist, socialist, ex-guerrilla governments that have allowed gangs and drug cartels to take over.
“So most of the problems in Latin America don’t come from America, they come from Marxism, criminality, and interference by the Chinese and the Soviets and the Cubans over a very long period of time, to create basic chaos and poverty in most countries south of the border—and then they blame it on America, as they always do.”
Pueblo Sin Fronteras hasn’t responded to several requests for comment.
Several migrants that The Epoch Times spoke to expressed disillusionment and said they may as well be back in Honduras.
Abel Noe Ratcliff-Ponce said he thought he’d be able to enter the United States because he has a sick baby at home in Honduras. He said he came with his 17-year-old nephew, who has already been taken by caravan organizers to the United States port of entry as an unaccompanied minor.
“Why stay here? It’s better if I go back to my country,” Ratcliff-Ponce said. ”It’s the same here as in Honduras. Why stay here without my family? I might as well go back to my country—my family is there.”
Guatemalan Luis Conde, 48, has been in Tijuana for about two weeks. He said he doesn’t intend to apply for asylum in the United States, because “they’re not going to give it to me.”
“If they don’t give papers, well to hell, I’m going to jump—there’s no doubt about that,” he said on Nov. 26. “If one is an opportunist, you have to grab the chances that come, and when they come and when you see that it’s not dangerous, bam, you’re there.”
Nielsen said that 90 percent of the caravan members won’t fit the criteria for asylum. Only 9 percent of Central Americans who enter the United States and seek asylum are granted such protections by a federal immigration judge.
“Most of these migrants are seeking jobs or to join family who are already in the United States,” Nielsen said. “They have all refused multiple opportunities to seek protection in Mexico or with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Seeking employment or family reunification are not grounds for asylum under our laws, or any international obligation.”
Many of the men in the caravan have said they will not enter the United States legally and apply for asylum.
“It’s a waste of time. It’s a process that takes months and years—it’s a long time,” said Honduran Marco Gómez, 26.
Gómez told The Epoch Times on Nov. 24 that the plan is to wait until an expected 20,000 migrants arrive in Tijuana and then enter the United States en masse.
“We’ll stay together and be strong, and then move on to the U.S.,” he said. “Peacefully, like people going from one country to another. Marching.”
Frank Martinez, who is traveling with his father, said they will cross illegally.
“I personally, and I know many people will attempt to do the same thing—it’s to cross illegally. I will enter illegally,” he said. “Because we want a better life, and I’m in a hurry.”
He said Mexico has offered him asylum, but he won’t take it.
“It’s not my intention to stay here, in this country. My intention is the United States.”
At a press conference outside the migrant camp on Nov. 27, a representative remained vague about future plans, but said he wants the world to see “that we exist in Tijuana, that we live in Tijuana, in squalor.”
“And if it happens again, we can’t make decisions if our partners in the back don’t make that decision. If they decide to have another peaceful demonstration, then it will happen again. If not, then we will continue fighting for asylum,” the leader said.
Loudon said that with most of the communist groups in California actively involved in the caravan now, expect more incidents to occur. “To keep the issue in front of the media … expect some people to go through the border and actively stir up trouble.”
But resolution of the issue is largely dependent on Mexico’s response, which has been mixed so far.
“You just don’t come into Mexico when you feel like it, so the Mexicans let this happen,” Loudon said, referring to the caravan being able to cross into Mexico and travel virtually unimpeded to Tijuana.
“Mexico thinks it has the right to export its problems into [the United States] and to basically declare war on America by allowing these people to cross its territory, knowing full well what their intention was,” he said.
Loudon said that incoming Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a pro-Cuban socialist, so “I can’t see any real cooperation coming out of him unless he’s absolutely forced to.”
“I think he’s pretending to collaborate with President Trump right now because Trump has really put the hard word on him and is actively closing the border. I think [Obrador] will try and subvert that by any means necessary,” Loudon said.
Loudon said he thinks Trump will follow through on his threats to close the border—which will stun Mexico economically—and eventually, the migrants will disperse.
“But it’s still providing a big propaganda thing for the left around the world—telling everybody how heartless the American president is—because they’re only getting half the story,” he said.
With translations by Ileana Alescio.