Mexico City, November 6 (AP) — Thousands of Central American migrants traveling in a caravan arrived in the Mexican capital Monday and began to fill up a sports stadium, still hundreds of miles from their goal of reaching the U.S. a day before midterm elections in which President Donald Trump has made their journey a central campaign issue.
By afternoon 2,000 or more had arrived at the Jesus Martinez stadium, which has a capacity of about three times that, and eagerly began sifting through donations of clothes, gave themselves sponge baths, lunched on chicken and rice under the shade of tents and picked up thin mattresses to hunker down for the night.
The inflow of migrants continued into the night, and four large tents set up for sleeping had filled. Much in demand were blankets to ward of the chill, a big change after trudging for three weeks in tropical heat.
Several thousand more migrants were trudging along the highway between the city of Puebla and the capital, catching a lift from passing vehicles when possible.
Nashieli Ramirez, ombudsman for the city’s human rights commission, said the city was preparing to accommodate as many as 5,000 migrants from the lead caravan and several smaller ones hundreds of miles behind it, for as long as necessary.
“We have the space in terms of humanitarian help,” Ramirez said.
As U.S. election day neared, Trump has seized on the caravan and portrayed it as a major threat, even though such caravans have happened regularly over the years and largely passed unnoticed.
He ordered thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border when the migrants were still hundreds of miles to the south, threatened to detain asylum seekers in tents cities and has insinuated without proof that there are criminals or even terrorists in the group.
In dozens of interviews since the caravan set out from Honduras more than three weeks ago, migrants have said they are fleeing rampant poverty and violence. Those are not the legal criteria to make them political refugees.
The 178-mile trek (286 kilometers) Monday from the Gulf state of Veracruz to Mexico City was the longest single-day journey for the group of about 4,000 migrants.
But there were obstacles on this latest stretch.
Truck after truck denied the migrants rides as they trudged along the highway into the relatively colder November temperatures of central highland Mexico.
At a toll booth near Fortin, Veracruz, Rafael Leyva, an unemployed cobbler from Honduras, stood with a few hundred others for more than 45 minutes without finding a ride.
“People help more in Chiapas and Oaxaca,” Leyva said, referring to the southern Mexican states the group had already traversed and where pickup trucks frequently stopped to offer rides.
Migrants converged on tractor trailers, forcing the big rigs to stop so they could climb aboard. Such impromptu hitchhiking is precarious with dozens scrambling onto vehicles at a time.
Mexico City is more than 600 miles from the nearest U.S. border crossing at McAllen, Texas, and a previous caravan in the spring opted for a much longer route to Tijuana in the far northwest, across from San Diego. That caravan steadily dwindled to only about 200 people by the time it reached the border.
Many said they remain convinced that traveling together is their best hope for reaching the U.S.
Mexico faces the unprecedented situation of having at least three migrant caravans stretched over 300 miles (500 kilometers) of highway in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz. The largest group has been followed by about 1,000 who crossed over from Guatemala last week and a second group of about the same size that waded over the Suchiate River on Friday.
Mexico’s Interior Ministry estimated over the weekend that there are more than 5,000 migrants in total currently moving through Mexico. The ministry said 2,793 migrants have applied for refugee status in Mexico in recent weeks and around 500 have asked for assistance to return to their home countries.
The presidents of Guatemala and Honduras, which have been under intense pressure from the Trump administration, called Monday for an investigation to identify the organizers of the caravan.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said that “thousands” of his countrymen have returned to Honduras. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales went further, calling for an investigation of people who “promote or participate” in the caravan, saying they “should be judged based on international laws.”