By Delphine Schrank and Sofia Menchu
A group of over a thousand Central Americans in Guatemala headed toward the Mexican border on Tuesday, as a larger caravan of migrants that has angered U.S. President Donald Trump paused in southern Mexico on its planned journey toward the U.S. border.
Trump has vowed to begin cutting millions of dollars in aid to Central America and called the caravan in Mexico a national emergency as he seeks to boost his Republican Party's chances in the Nov. 6 congressional elections.
The caravan, mostly Honduran migrants fleeing violence and poverty at home, is currently in the town of Huixtla in Chiapas state, around 31 miles (50 km) north of the Guatemalan border and a distant 1,100 miles (1,800 km) from the United States.
Mexico's government said in a statement on Tuesday that it had received 1,699 requests for refugee status, including children. The government estimates there are around 4,500 people in the group.
Hundreds of migrants rested in Huixtla on Tuesday. Religious groups and companies donated clothes, and local authorities provided vaccines, food and drink.
"When we heard the caravan was coming (we joined) ... people in Guatemala are also suffering from poverty. So this is an opportunity to improve my family's life," said Elsa Romero, a Guatemalan mother of four in Huixtla.
Migrant Alexander Fernandez said the column planned to move again early on Wednesday.
In neighboring Guatemala, a separate group of least 1,000 migrants, also mostly Hondurans, headed out slowly on foot from the eastern town of Chiquimula, a Reuters witness said. Some local media put the number in the column above 2,000.
"We know this won't end in a few days, and will be a long progress of migration," said Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter in Guatemala City.
He said that the shelter had attended to more than 11,000 migrants in the past week.
Other caravans are expected to set out from Central America in coming days, encouraged by reports that it is a safer way for migrants to undertake the perilous journey north.
Trump and fellow Republicans have sought to make the caravan and immigration issues in the mid-term election, which will determine whether their party keeps control of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.
MIDDLE EAST RUMOR
Trump and some conservative activists in Washington have asserted in recent days that "criminals and unknown Middle Easterners" were mixed in with the caravan in Mexico, but have produced no evidence.
Those claims have not been corroborated, a U.S. counter-terrorism official told Reuters on Tuesday.
The official, who asked not to be identified, said U.S. authorities were looking for any signs that militants had attempted to infiltrate the group but had found nothing so far.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, posted on Twitter on Tuesday that there was a "need to look at political motives behind the caravan."
"Honduran politicians allied with Venezuelan & Cuban socialist dictators are encouraging the caravan to undermine US-friendly gov't of (President Juan Orlando) Hernandez," said Haley, who visited Honduras and Guatemala this year.
Vice President Mike Pence said in comments to reporters in Washington that Hernandez had told him that the caravan "was organized by leftist organizations and financed by Venezuela."
Neither Haley nor Pence provided evidence.
Honduran authorities say that at least two men have died so far on roads during the advance of the migrant columns. One of the men fell off a truck in Mexico, and the other died trying to get onto a truck in Guatemala, authorities said.
Mexico, which has refused Trump's demands that it pay for a border wall between the countries, tries to walk a fine line between showing solidarity with the Central American migrants and responding to Washington's demands to control its borders.
Mexico hopes to disperse the convoy long before it can reach the border, telling migrants to register with authorities in order to submit applications for asylum in Mexico.
That process can last weeks, and migrants are supposed to stay where they register while applications are processed. If they violate those rules, they face deportation.
(Reporting by Delphine Schrank and Sofia Menchu; Additional reporting by Orfa Mejia in Tegucigalpa, Luis Echeverria in Chiquimula, Jeff Mason and Mark Hosenball in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Dave Graham and Daina Beth Solomon; editing by Grant McCool and Rosalba O'Brien)