Mexico City – Jairo Mauricio Ramirez did not have to say many goodbyes in Honduras. A 16-year-old orphan, he joined thousands of US-bound migrants and refugees last month when they came through Ocotepeque, his hometown.
Ramirez hopes to make it to the United States to find work and continue his schooling beyond the Grade 7 level he was able to complete. He would like to be a doctor or an engineer.
“I always liked studying, but I could not afford to continue,” Ramirez told Al Jazeera.
When Ramirez was eight years old, his father died in an accident. When he was 12, his mother died of a heart attack. He has no siblings.
Ramirez lived with an uncle, but his uncle left Honduras a few months ago to migrate to the US. Ramirez has not heard from him since. He had a job at a local hardware store for a while, but was let go.
“There is no work these days,” he said.
When Al Jazeera spoke with Ramirez, he was waiting in line for a donated blanket to stay warm during the cold Mexico City nights. He and several thousand other Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty were staying in a stadium that had been transformed into a makeshift refugee camp.
Managed by the Mexico City government and the city human rights commission, the camp was abuzz with activity all week, as groups large and small trickled into the capital city.
Migrants and refugees rested in the stadium bleachers, large tents in the field, and grassy areas outside the stadium. Others received medical attention, watched their kids being entertained by clowns, or waited in line for food, clothing and blankets. Little cheering circles formed around impromptu dance and song performances here and there on the sports complex grounds.
An estimated 5,000 Central Americans stayed at the stadium this week, and thousands more are slowly making their way up through southern Mexico in subsequent caravans from Honduras and El Salvador. Preparations for more caravans are in the works. Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and other Latin Americans have also joined the various waves of the ongoing exodus.
Ramirez made it through the first 1,650km through Guatemala and up to Mexico City. Like most of the thousands of migrants and refugees, he wants to make it through the next 2,700km to the US border.
At an assembly on Thursday evening, the migrants and refugees voted to choose a route to the Tijuana border crossing. It is more than 1,000km further away than the closest points of entry to the US, but it is a safer route. It avoids parts of northeastern Mexico with high rates of homicides and forced disappearances, including that of migrants and refugees.
The assembly chose to depart at 5am local time (11:00 GMT) on Friday, but plans changed overnight and the majority of migrants and refugees at the stadium chose to stay in the hopes of obtaining bus transport to the border.
Many people chose not to wait, however, and hundreds of people set out towards Queretaro on Friday morning, along the route to Tijuana. The remaining thousands plan to leave before dawn on Saturday, migrant and refugee caravan spokespeople said at a press conference on Friday.
‘Asylum not a loophole, it’s a lifeline’
The migrant and refugee caravans have not yet reached their halfway point to the US border, but the administration of US President Donald Trump has been reinforcing the border with concertina wire and a heavy military presence.
More than 5,000 active duty troops have been deployed to border areas in California, Arizona and Texas, and thousands more may be on the way in the near future. Last week, US President Donald Trump announced that any rocks thrown at troops along the border will be considered firearms.
Trump also announced plans to arrest and indefinitely hold asylum seekers in makeshift tent camps in the desert while their asylum claims are processed.
The administration went further on Thursday and announced plans to restrict asylum claims to official points of entry into the US. An Interim Final Rule granted Trump broad authority to block or restrict asylum claims “if he determines it is in the national interest to do so”, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said in a joint statement Thursday.
“Our asylum system is overwhelmed with too many meritless asylum claims from aliens who place a tremendous burden on our resources, preventing us from being able to expeditiously grant asylum to those who truly deserve it,” according to Nielsen and Whitaker.
Trump signed a presidential proclamation on Friday that puts those regulations into practice.
Migrant and human rights groups quickly condemned the measure as illegal. US legislation and international law state that any person can seek asylum whether or not they cross the border at an official point of entry, they pointed out.
“Asylum is not a loophole, it is a lifeline. This policy needlessly places the lives of thousands of people in danger,” Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kami Naidoo said Thursday in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit Friday to challenge the asylum restrictions.
“Neither the president nor his cabinet can override the clear commands of our law, but that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. We’ll see him in court,” the group tweeted.
BREAKING: We just filed a lawsuit to challenge the president’s new asylum ban.
Neither the president nor his cabinet can override the clear commands of our law, but that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. We’ll see him in court.
— ACLU (@ACLU) November 9, 2018
‘We were all threatened’
The drastic measures along the southern border of the US have not deterred the thousands of northbound migrants and refugees. Their plan all along has been to present themselves at official points of entry to claim asylum.
Fatima del Carmen was already on her way when she joined the caravan. Last month, del Carmen, her 20-year-old daughter and her 21-year-old son-in-law fled their home in La Libertad, a small city in southern El Salvador, on the Pacific coast.
After making their way through Guatemala, the trio crossed the Suchiate River into Mexico on a raft. They stayed in Tapachula, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, for a week, after a local man offered them a room.
There they joined the caravan after a relative alerted them to the thousands of Hondurans on their way.
Del Carmen and her relatives fled after receiving death threats from gang members. She and her daughter lived in a neighbourhood controlled by the Barrio 18 gang, but her son-in-law lived in another area of the city controlled by the MS-13 gang.
Both gangs originated in Los Angeles, California, and only also set down roots and spread in Central America following a wave of deportations of Salvadorans from the US.
The problems started after the family went to the beach to swim. Del Carmen’s son-in-law was from MS-13 controlled territory but that particular beachfront area is controlled by Barrio 18, and crossing the gang divide can have serious consequences even for unaffiliated residents, del Carmen said
In many neighbourhoods in cities around El Salvador, people are stuck in the territory of whichever gang controls where they live, said del Carmen. Her son-in-law was threatened with violence, and when del Carmen and her daughter stepped in to stand up for him, they all received death threats.
“They threatened all three of us,” said del Carmen.
The threats were the final straw, but the challenges and risks presented by violence and extortion in their neighbourhood were far from new.
Del Carmen made a living baking bread and selling it while walking through the city streets. Usually, gang members left street vendors alone, opting to target stationary businesses for extortion, but sometimes when they were drunk or high, they would also demand money from local street vendors, she said.
“I would have to give $10 or $20. I would always give it,” said del Carmen.
That is approximately the same range as her daily earnings from bread sales, but paying was preferable to losing all the bread and cash she carried at any given moment, said del Carmen.
Al Jazeera spoke with del Carmen and her relatives earlier this week while they rested at the Mexico City stadium, nestled together in a spot between sets of stairs halfway up the stadium bleachers. Having had a chance to rest between long stretches on foot and hitchhiking, the family was in good spirits.
Del Carmen’s original plan was to gradually head north up through Mexico, working along the way. But she and her daughter and son-in-law were relieved to be able to join the thousands of mainly Hondurans for safety and company.
Between the three of them, they have an uncle, an aunt, and some friends in the US, and making it across the border is their goal. Del Carmen had heard about some of Trump’s drastic border measures, such as sending troops, but still holds out a bit of hope the US president may alter his plans before the group makes it to Tijuana.
“Maybe he will have a change of heart,” said del Carmen.