Oaxaca, Mexico – After a series of fiery tweets by US President Donald Trump and heightened media attention, the Mexican government has announced it will disperse the Refugee Caravan of more than a thousand individuals fleeing violence and other harsh conditions in Central America, prompting many to vow to continue north.
“They cannot continue travelling illegally,” said JO Rodriguez, the federal representative in Oaxaca of Mexico’s National Migration Institute.
“You cannot negotiate with the law,” Rodriguez told Al Jazeera.
The government said it would issue one-year humanitarian visas to the most vulnerable, allow others to submit applications within the month to stay in Mexico, and request that the rest exit the country within 20 days.
Kevin, 16, from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said that a local gang, Barrio 18, had tried to forcibly recruit him, and that they had threatened to harm his entire family if he did not become a member. He plans to request asylum in the US.
“Young people who have experienced the same thing have been killed,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The president thinks we’re all delinquents,” he added. “But we’re going to continue with the caravan as far as it goes.”
‘Immigration decisions made in sovereign manner’
The decision by the Mexican government came after Trump sent out a series of tweets on Sunday and Monday, saying Congress should “use Nuclear Option if necessary, to stop the massive inflow of Drugs and People”.
He lamented what he considers to be lax border laws that allow people to enter the US and claimed that Mexico “has the absolute power to not let these large ‘Caravans’ of people enter their country”.
On Monday, the offices of the Mexican Secretary of Government and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs released a joint statement in which they said that, this year, the authorities would offer refugee status to select individuals from the caravan for the first time since similar movements started in 2010.
But it asserted that the Mexican government makes its immigration decisions in a sovereign manner, and it is not responsible for regulating the legal entry of people to other countries.
“It is not up to this government to make immigration decisions for the United States or any other nation,” the statement reads.
Mexico has received funding from the US for training and equipment for its southern border since 2014, and it collaborated with USAID on a six-month project in 2017 to discourage Central Americans from leaving their countries by improving forensics practices, trade-related transparency, and jobs training. Last year, it deported 80,000 people – the majority of whom were from Central America.
‘They should treat us like refugees’
The annual pilgrimage began at the start of pre-Easter Holy Week when participants rose before dawn each morning to walk north, held out cut-off Coke bottles to request change from passing cars, and prepared to board freight trains, many of them with the aim of reaching the US.
The storm around the Refugee Caravan, which for the past several years brought together people who are fleeing from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, occurred in part because of the scale of this year’s movement.
Many of the participants came from Honduras, where the disputed elections in November led to weeks of street protests and a government-imposed curfew. It was a tipping point for the country, which has been plagued by limited job opportunities and gangs who, since the 1990s, have maintained ruthless control over select neighbourhoods.
For the people on the ground, the series of disputes has led to uncertainty about their future destination.
Though about 300 members of the caravan boarded freight trains last week, the majority of the group has remained in a park in Matias Romero, Oaxaca.
They tied tarps to the fence to protect themselves from the sun and cooked with pots perched on top of concrete blocks, as they waited for an answer about where they should go.
“It’s going to be impossible for us to arrive to the border with 1,000 people,” said Irineo Mujica, the director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras.
“But since we’re refugees, they should treat us like refugees,” Mujica said to the crowd.
They intend to reach the state of Puebla for consultations with a group of Mexican and American lawyers at the end of the week.
For many of the people who have remained in the park, the dream has remained to go to the US.
Bessy, 37, who travelled with her eight-year-old daughter, Natalie, and son, Alejandro, 14, said that for the past 13 years, her family that owned a business selling chicken, were forced to pay a local gang 1,500 lempiras (about $63) every two weeks.
When the gang demanded that she pay 500 lempiras (about $21) extra, she could not come up with the money. She feared their retribution because they killed her brother three years ago, but she was unsure on Monday whether to request a Mexican permit.
“Trump is treating us as though we were terrorists,” said Jorge Luis, who is from Honduras.
He remained wary of the Mexican government’s immigration officials promise to give people papers immediately. “I hope that they comply with what they’re promising us, instead of leaving us like brides at the altar.”
JO Rodriguez, the INM official who was overseeing the lines of people formed to place their names on lists for each kind of permit, said that Mexico’s refugee office would not be able to absorb all of the people fleeing from threats, for which reason many of the single men would be asked to leave the country.
Christopher Gascon, the Mexico representative of the International Organization for Migration, confirmed that the exit permits, known as oficios de salida, do not stipulate from which border people must leave Mexico.
“The caravan is not over,” said Alex Mensing, a coordinator with Pueblo Sin Fronteras.
“There’s some people that will advance on their own, but the essence of the caravan – to seek refuge – will not change.”
Editor’s note: Al Jazeera has withheld the last names of those on the caravan to protect their identities.