(AP) – Humanitarian aid converged around a stadium in Mexico City where thousands of Central American migrants winding their way toward the United States were resting Tuesday after an arduous trek that has taken them through three countries in three weeks.
Mexico City Mayor Jose Ramon Amieva said 4,500 migrants have arrived at the Jesus Martinez stadium since Sunday, and city officials are bracing to attend as many as 5,500 at the site by Wednesday. Hundreds of city employees and even more volunteers were on hand to sort donations and direct migrants toward food, water, diapers and other basics.
Migrants searched through piles of donated clothes, grabbed boxes of milk for children and lined up to make quick calls home at a stand set up by the Red Cross as U.S. voters went to the polls for midterm elections in which President Donald Trump has made the migrant caravan a central issue.
Employees from the capital’s human rights commission registered new arrivals with biographical data– such as age and country of origin– and placed yellow bracelets on wrists to keep count.
Rina Valenzuela wore one of the yellow bracelets as she sat attentively listening to aid workers from the nonprofit Institute for Women in Migration explain the difficulties of applying for and securing asylum in the U.S. Valenzuela, who is from El Salvador, decided she’s better off applying for refuge in Mexico.
“Why go fight there, with as much effort and as much suffering as we have gone through, just for them to turn me back? Well, no,” she said.
The aid workers explained that the asylum process in the U.S. could take years, with no guarantee of approval.
Honduran Antonio Perez listened to the warnings but said he remains determined to continue north.
“This is interesting but tough news,” he reflected. “But neither this nor Donald Trump is going to stop me.”
The atmosphere at the stadium was more institutional and organized than what migrants encountered on the road, where townspeople pushed bags of drinking water, tacos and fruit into their hands as they passed through tiny hamlets in southern Mexico.
But there were signs Tuesday that the stadium was already nearing its capacity to hold 6,000 people.
Maria Yesenia Perez, 41, said there was no space in the stadium when she and her 8-year-old daughter arrived during the night, so the two from Honduras slept on the grass outside. Migrants pitched tents in the parking lot and constructed makeshift shelters from plywood covered with blankets and tarps. Forty portable toilets were scattered across the grass.
The stadium’s enclosed space and government intervention makes it difficult for aid workers to reach the migrants, said Nancy Rojas, an Oxfam charity worker who has accompanied the migrants for weeks.
Four big tents have been set up for women and children to sleep under with thin mattresses and blankets, while men were relegated Monday night to concrete bleachers. Temperatures dropped below 52 degrees Fahrenheit (11 Celsius) during the night in a city some 7,300 feet (2,240 meters) above sea level and still hundreds of miles from the U.S. border.
Several smaller groups were trailing hundreds of miles to the south. Mexico City Mayor Amieva said the city needs to “reinforce” to meet the needs of the migrants, especially vulnerable children and pregnant women.
Mexico City’s central market supplied 3.5 tons of bananas and guavas to refuel the crowd, plus 600 bottles of water. The human rights commission said it planned to set up more tents and eating areas.
Many of the migrants sought treatment for blistered and aching feet, respiratory infections, diarrhea and other maladies. City officials administered vaccines for tetanus and influenza.
Trump has seized on the caravan as an election issue and portrayed it as a major threat, though such caravans have sprung up regularly over the years and largely passed unnoticed.
He ordered thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, vowed to detain asylum seekers in tents cities and insinuated without proof that there are criminals or even terrorists in the group.
In dozens of interviews since the initial caravan set out from Honduras more than three weeks ago, migrants have said they are escaping poverty and rampant violence. Many are families traveling with small children.
Some say they left because they were threatened by gang members or had lost relatives to gang violence. Others say they hope to work, secure a good education for their children and send money to support relatives back home.
Walkiria Viamney, 19, said she and her husband have relatives in Tijuana and California who have promised to help them cross into the United States.
The pair from Honduras hoped to soon advance northward, although they relished the opportunity to rest and wash clothes in the stadium.
Not far from Viamney, men played cards and chess while children ran between inflatable games. Others gave themselves sponge baths or lounged in the shade of improvised tents.
“I’ve been here for three days already, and I’m already rested. I want to move on,” said Francisco Redondo, 40, a Honduran who said he worked construction for 12 years in California.
Organizers are urging members of the caravan already in Mexico City to await the arrival of stragglers and perhaps even the other caravans further back. The idea is to find strength in numbers. The outpouring of support for the caravan that first set out from Honduras on Oct. 13 has inspired thousands of others to march north from Central America.
Mexico City is more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from the nearest U.S. border crossing at McAllen, Texas. A caravan last 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.
Edgar Corzo, an official with the National Human Rights Commission, said that based on experiences with previous migrant caravans, the group probably will begin to break up now that it is in the capital.
“Each one goes to the place that he considers best,” mainly wherever is closest to where they have relatives or friends already in the United States, he said.