TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — The migrant caravan that was seized upon by U.S. President Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2018 midterm election has quietly dwindled to a few hundred people, with many having gone home to Central America or put down roots in Mexico.
Despite the hard-line immigration rhetoric by the Trump administration, however, many others — nearly half, according to U.S. Border Patrol arrest records — have sought to enter the U.S. illegally.
About 6,000 Central Americans reached Tijuana in November amid conflict on both sides of the border over their presence in this Mexican city across from San Diego.
As of Monday, fewer than 700 migrants remained at a former outdoor concert venue in Tijuana that the Mexican government set up as a shelter to house the immigrants.
Where have they all gone?
The U.S. Border Patrol has made about 2,600 caravan-related arrests in its San Diego sector, said spokesman Theron Francisco, indicating that nearly half have crossed into the U.S. illegally. Families are typically released with a notice to appear in immigration court.
Mexican officials say about 1,300 caravan members have returned to Central America. Mexico has issued humanitarian visas to about 2,900 others, many of whom are now working legally there with visas.
Francis Lopez is among the migrants who have stayed in Mexico. The 26-year-old former clothing factory worker said he and his wife made a snap decision to leave their home in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula when the caravan left in October. He had hoped to join a relative in Florida but is having second thoughts about seeking asylum after an American attorney told him he had a weak case and may be detained until a judge orders him deported.
"It's a loss of time, a loss of time that you can never recover," Lopez said.
Javier Diaz of El Salvador, who is working as a taxi driver in Tijuana on a visa, said the caravan offered strength in numbers — enough safety to avoid paying a smuggler at least $8,000 to reach the United States.
Diaz, a 44-year-old former construction worker who fled for economic reasons and to escape violence, said he had hoped to reach the United States to make enough money to support his wife and five children in El Salvador but Mexico was better than going home.
"If Mexico deports me today, I will be in Mexico again tomorrow," Diaz said Monday amid sporadic rain at the shelter. "If I can go to the United States, better."
The diminished presence of the migrants in Tijuana came as hundreds of Hondurans left the violent city of San Pedro Sula this week in a new caravan hoping to reach the United States or Mexico.
News of this latest trek north came as Trump has been working to convince the American public that there is a "crisis" at the southern border to justify construction of his long-promised border wall. Trump's demand for billions of dollars to build the wall has resulted in a standoff with Congress that has forced a partial government shutdown.
"A big new Caravan is heading up to our Southern Border from Honduras. Tell Nancy and Chuck that a drone flying around will not stop them. Only a Wall will work," Trump tweeted Tuesday, referring to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer.
Caravans have taken place over the years though on a smaller scale, organized to draw attention to migrants' rights and usually not reaching the border. The ones that formed last year gained attention for their larger numbers and after Trump began seizing on them for political purposes.
In the lead-up to last fall's elections, Trump frequently referenced the caravans, warning that they posed a national security risk and deploying active-duty troops to the border in anticipation of their arrival. Opponents criticized the move as an abuse of presidential power.
The latest caravan began Monday night with many women and children boarding buses bound for the Guatemalan border. Others started walking and hitchhiking under a steady rain.
More followed Tuesday morning trying to catch up. Some pushed toddlers in strollers or walked holding older children's hands.
Honduran media reported that the country's authorities had reinforced the border with Guatemala to make sure everyone had proper documents. Children must carry passports and written parental authorization to leave the country, and parents could face up to three years in prison if found to be taking a child without the right documents, Security Minister Julian Pacheco was quoted as saying.
Migrants fleeing Central America's Northern Triangle region comprising Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala routinely cite poverty and rampant gang violence as their motivation for leaving.
Bartolo Fuentes, a migrant advocate accompanying the new caravan, said Tuesday that migration from Honduras will not stop until those chronic problems are resolved.
"People leave every day," he said. "Every day 300, 400 people go. The caravan has been like a constant river of people to Mexico, to the United States."
Among them is Honduran Angel Eduardo Cubas, who now sits in limbo in Tijuana, hoping to find work in Mexico.
The former school security guard left his family behind, hoping to reach Florida for a job that would allow him to send money home.
To others embarking on the journey, his advice was to "keep the faith and don't lose heart."
Cubas said he could tell others that the trip isn't worth it, because it hasn't turned out well for him, but they would come anyway.
"We don't all have the same luck," he said. "It's gone badly for me, but I met others along the way who are already (in the U.S.) and had better luck."
Martinez reported from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman and Maria Verza in Mexico City and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.