TIJUANA, Mexico — A long, arduous journey gave way to what could be a long, uncertain asylum process Sunday as a caravan of immigrants finally reached the border between the United States and Mexico, setting up a dramatic moment and a test of President Trump’s anti-immigrant politics.
More than 150 migrants, part of a caravan that once numbered 1,200 and headed north in March from Mexico’s border with Guatemala, were prepared to seek US asylum.
But the migrants were told Sunday that immigration officials could not process their claims, and they would have to spend the night on the Mexican side of the border.
It was only the latest twist in a drama that has played out in relative obscurity in recent years. During Easter season, immigrants have headed north together as a form of protection against kidnappers, muggers, and rapists who stalk the migrant trail, and to draw attention to their plight. But this year it has become a volatile flashpoint in the immigration debate ignited by Trump.
For the migrants, it was a fraught, deeply personal moment.
Mario Quintanillo, 30, and Cecilia Sarai Carillo, 23, from El Salvador, were among four couples who wed at the beach Sunday morning, in the company of their 2-year-old daughter, Daryeline Ariana.
They planned to apply for asylum at the US border but knew there was a good chance they would be split up during the process — possibly for months.
“But I’m going with the feeling that it’s going to be worth the effort,” Quintanillo said. He said his family was fleeing a gang that had attacked him and killed a close relative. “In the name of God, everything is possible,” he said.
Overlaying the personal struggles was a dense tangle of politics and policy — the acrimony between Trump and Governor Jerry Brown of California over immigration; the politics of sanctuary cities; the ill will between Trump and Mexico that began the day he announced his candidacy; and the political logjam in Congress over funding Trump’s proposed border wall.
It all plays out in the context of Trump’s goal of making immigration a galvanizing issue in the midterm elections, with Republicans worried about losing control of the House and perhaps the Senate.
Heather Cronk, a director of Showing Up for Racial Justice, one of several US advocacy groups that have been helping the caravan and its participants, traveled to Tijuana to support the migrants in the final stretch.
“For us, this is all about who we are as a country,” she said. She added: “This is an existential moment. This is a spiritual moment. I want it to be true that when we say, ‘Liberty and justice for all,’ we mean it.”
It is a debate Trump apparently relishes.
Trump, in a tweet last week, ratcheted up his rhetoric, vowing “not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country.”
Trump repeatedly came back to immigration issues at a rally in Michigan Saturday night, saying at one point: “If we don’t get border security, we’ll close down the country,” apparently referring to a government shutdown when a funding deadline is reached in September.
Other administration officials have also been vocal.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the caravan “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.”
In a statement Saturday, Rodney S. Scott, the San Diego chief patrol agent for Customs and Border Protection, said that groups of people associated with the caravan had illegally entered the United States by climbing over a metal fence. He said people who entered the country illegally would be referred for prosecution.
“To anyone that is associated with this caravan, think before you act,” the statement read. “If anyone has encouraged you to illegally enter the United States, or make any false statements to US government officials, they are giving you bad advice and they are placing you and your family at risk.”
Joined by supporters and dozens of members of the media, the migrants gathered in a park on the Pacific Ocean about 10 a.m. local time and then later in front of a community center in downtown Tijuana. Scores of supporters, some of whom had walked from as far as Los Angeles, rallied Sunday morning just north of the fence separating the United States and Mexico.
Those eligible for asylum had planned to apply later in the afternoon.
Customs and Border Protection, whose officers are stationed at ports of entry, said late Sunday that it had exhausted its capacity to handle people traveling without documents.
“Depending upon port circumstances at the time of arrival, those individuals may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities,” the agency’s commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, said in a statement. He said the agency would communicate with Mexican authorities.
For all the high political stakes, the human stakes for the individual migrants planning to seek asylum Sunday were at least as high.
Byron Claros, a Salvadoran immigrant, joined the caravan with his 18-year-old brother, Luis Alexander Rodriguez, and their stepfather, Andres Rodríguez.
Claros and Luis Alexander Rodriguez planned to petition for asylum Sunday afternoon; their stepfather, after consultation with volunteer lawyers in Tijuana, decided that his case for sanctuary was not strong enough and that he would remain behind in Mexico.
“The hour I’ve waited for my entire life has finally arrived,” Claros said early Sunday afternoon as he, hundreds of migrants, scores of their supporters, reporters and cameramen gathered in and in front of a community center and cafe in the Centro district of Tijuana, blocks from the border crossing.
Rodriguez said he was nervous, “because the United States can support our rights but can also deny us our rights.”
Still, he said, there was only one way to push: north.
“We’ve fought too much to get here,” he said. “And we’re here.”