Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed on Monday that a caravan of around 1,500 Central American immigrants nearing the southern U.S. border had ignored Mexico’s generous offer to let them stay in the country, instead continuing their journey to seek asylum in the United States.
“Pockets of the original, so-called ‘migrant caravan,’ which press reports indicate consists mostly of Honduran nationals, have begun to arrive at our southern border with the intent of claiming asylum,” Sessions said. “These individuals — and their smugglers — ignored the willingness of the Mexican government to allow them to stay in Mexico.”
Claiming that the United States was home to “the most generous immigration system in the world,” Sessions added that any attempt to “undermine” that system would be met with prosecution.
“Smugglers and traffickers and those who lie or commit fraud will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
Sessions’ suggestion that Mexican authorities have generously offered to host the immigrants is an exaggeration: earlier in April, Mexican authorities reportedly “stopped” the group in Matias Romero, a town in Oaxaca, in southwest Mexico, claiming they would offer temporary travel passes to those looking to continue their journey to the U.S. southern border. The passes are good for 30 days, and prevent Mexican immigration officials from detaining any of the travelers as they make their way to the United States. Only those in “vulnerable” groups — pregnant women and those with health conditions or disabilities — were afforded the right to apply for humanitarian visas allowing them to remain in Mexico.
Mexican authorities subsequently claimed that they had begun deporting hundreds who didn’t fall under either of those categories.
“Under no circumstances does the Mexican government promote illegal migration,” officials from the Mexico Foreign Ministry said in a statement. They added that immigration authorities had “proceeded to offer refuge” in a limited number of cases, as well as certain “necessary protective measures.”
The attorney general’s statement also comes less than three weeks after President Trump claimed, without proof, that women traveling through Mexico to the U.S. border were being raped “at levels that nobody has ever seen before.”
“Remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I [kicked off my presidential campaign]?” Trump said on April 5, speaking to his initial campaign announcement speech, in which he claimed that Mexicans were “rapists” and drug dealers. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, he was so tough.’ And I used the word ‘rape.’ And yesterday it came out where, this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don’t want to mention that.”
It was not immediately clear to what Trump was referring. At the time, many speculated that the president may have been confusing earlier reports by Fusion in 2014 and Amnesty International in 2010, which revealed that around 60-80 percent of women and girls crossing into Mexico were being raped on their way to the southern U.S. border, or a Los Angeles Times report from earlier that week which stated “robberies, rapes and assaults — perpetrated by smugglers, cartel members and Mexican immigration agents — [were] common.”
The White House declined to clarify the president’s comments, only telling Fox News that the president was citing “a stat.”
As of this week, around 50 of the 1,500 immigrants in the caravan — most of them Honduran, traveling to the United States as part of an annual pilgrimage meant to draw attention to the dangers of migration — had reached the southern U.S. border. However, according to Pueblo Sin Fronteras, the immigrant rights group that’s been leading the annual migration pilgrimage to the U.S. border for the past 15 years, many were illegally turned away when they went to seek asylum.
Under current international law, all asylum seekers must be granted temporary protection until their applications can be processed and their background checks carried out.
“They’re supposed to honor your right to seek asylum. They’re supposed to put you into the process to see if your claim is valid,” Human Rights Watch senior researcher Clara Long told ThinkProgress. She added that asylum seekers were not “a security issue,” and that it was a “normal function of border authorities to facilitate that right.”
According to BuzzFeed News, the remainder of the caravan are expected to make their way to the southern border on Tuesday night, after a bus ride from Hermosillo, in Sonora. Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, stated this week that those who decide to enter the United States illegally will be “referred for prosecution for illegal entry in accordance with existing law,” while all others would be “detained while their claims are adjudicated efficiently and expeditiously.”
“Those found not to have a claim will be promptly removed from the United States,” she said.