About 200 Central Americans who travelled in a caravan through Mexico to the border with San Diego have begun turning themselves in to US authorities to seek asylum.
The migrants, many travelling with children, decided to apply for protection at the nation’s busiest border crossing after many fled violence in their home countries, organisers said.
US President Donald Trump and members of his Cabinet have been tracking the caravan of migrants since it started on March 25 in the Mexican city of Tapachula, near the Guatemala border, calling it a threat to the US.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called the caravan “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system”, pledging to send more immigration judges to the border to resolve cases if necessary.
Trump administration officials have railed against what they call America’s “catch and release” policies that allow people requesting asylum to be released from custody into the US while their claims make their way through the courts, a process that can last a year.
The caravan’s arrival at San Diego’s San Ysidro border crossing marked the end of a month-long journey by foot, freight train and bus for the migrants, many of whom said they feared for their lives in their home countries.
Nefi Hernandez, 24, said a gang in his hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, threatened to kill him and his family if he did not sell drugs. He intended to seek asylum with his wife and baby daughter, who was born on the journey through Mexico.
Jose Cazares, 31, said he faced death threats in the Honduran city of Yoro because a gang member suspected of killing the mother of his children learned one of his sons had reported the crime to police.
But the travellers faced an uncertain future as they asked for asylum.
US immigration lawyers warned them that they faced possible separation from their children and detention for many months.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said asylum claims would be resolved “efficiently and expeditiously”. But she warned that any asylum seekers making false claims could be prosecuted, as could anyone who assists the migrants in doing so.
Administration officials and their allies claim that asylum fraud is growing and that many who seek it are coached on how to do so.
The San Ysidro crossing can hold about 300 people temporarily, Pete Flores, US Customs and Border Protection’s San Diego field office director, said earlier this month.
Asylum seekers are typically held for up to three days at the border and then turned over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If they pass an asylum officer’s initial screening, they may be detained or released into the US with ankle monitors.