WASHINGTON/GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – President Donald Trump threatened to deploy the military and close the southern U.S. border on Thursday as Hondurans and Salvadorans joined thousands of migrants in Guatemala hoping to travel north.
“I must, in the strongest of terms, ask Mexico to stop this onslaught – and if unable to do so I will call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Several thousand Honduran migrants moved this week through Guatemala, and some were trying to cross to Mexico on Thursday, according to local media. Some hope to eventually enter the United States to escape violence and poverty in Central America.
Central American migrants hiked from Honduras through muddy jungle and residential streets, some toting babies along with backpacks, Reuters images show.
In Guatemala City, where migrant shelters filled with people, waves of people departed at daybreak on roads leading to Mexico. The nearest border is about 110 miles (177 km) away.
“If we don’t get across, we’re going to try the same thing again,” said Gustavo Perez, a builder from Honduras, speaking at a shelter in Guatemala City.
“We hope that in this big caravan group, they let us in,” he added, referring to the United States.
Mexico’s peso weakened more than 1.5 percent against the dollar on Thursday, partly driven by Trump’s comments, analysts said.
Trump, who has sought to curtail immigration and build a border wall on the Mexican border, this week threatened to halt aid if Central American governments did not act.
Trump ran for president in 2016 on promises to toughen U.S. immigration policies and build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
Illegal immigration is likely to be a top issue in Nov. 6 U.S. congressional elections. Republicans seeking to retain control of the House of Representatives will likely present the migrant caravan as evidence of what they say is a need to further tighten the U.S.-Mexico border.
Frustrated by Congress’ failure to fully fund his proposed wall at the border with Mexico, Trump in April ordered National Guard personnel to help secure the border in four southwestern U.S. states.
In a string of tweets on Thursday, Trump also said the border issue was more important to him than the new trade deal with Mexico to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement pact.
“The assault on our country at our Southern Border, including the Criminal elements and DRUGS pouring in, is far more important to me, as President, than Trade or the USMCA. Hopefully Mexico will stop this onslaught at their Northern Border,” Trump wrote. He was referring to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which is awaiting ratification.
U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said U.S. border security was a key election issue.
“We have to secure that border once and for all,” McCaul told Fox News in an interview, adding that he hoped Congress could tackle the issue of Trump’s planned wall after the Nov. 6 election.
The caravan has been growing steadily since it left the violent Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on Saturday. There are no official estimates of the size of the group.
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales said on Wednesday his government dismissed threatened constraints placed on foreign aid.
He said he had spoken with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez about ensuring the migrants who want to return home can do so safely.
Mexico’s incoming foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, told local radio that he was not surprised by Trump’s comments, and said it was political.
“It was predictable, and it’s also very close to the election. He’s making a political calculation,” Ebrard said, adding that migrants arriving to Mexico without a visa would need to apply for refugee status.
Mexico’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to meet with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico City on Friday.
Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Sofia Menchu, Edgard Garrido and Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Alistair Bell