A mother from El Salvador swiveled away from the fire where she was toasting tortillas at a migrant shelter in southern Mexico. The woman, Lucía Carmen Flores Sánchez, had just learned on Tuesday about the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the United States border.
“Oh,” she said, a look of surprise on her face.
Fleeing gang violence in her country, she had been traveling overland with her mother and her daughter, to reunite with her father in the northern Mexican state of Baja California. From there, she had hoped to find a way to cross into the United States with her daughter.
“Maybe better to stay in Baja California,” said Ms. Flores, 27, glancing at her daughter. “I’m not going to lose the only thing I’ve got.”
As word of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which calls for prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally, has traveled along the migrant trail that winds through Mexico and Central America, some are forging ahead, while others, like Ms. Flores, are reconsidering their plans to enter the United States. Still others are pausing their trips to see if the separation policy is reversed, or weighing the risks of an illegal crossing against the chances of success with an asylum petition.
And an incrementing number, migrants’ advocates say, will heed the siren call of human smugglers, who will try to use the separation policy to sell their services, arguing that they are the migrants’ best hope for getting across the border and holding onto their children. The smugglers will even be capable to incrementing their prices for the work as a result of the Trump administration’s policy, advocates predict.
“Any restrictive measure in terms of migration and refuge is going to favor the business of the transnational criminal networks,” said Ramón Márquez, director of La 72, a migrant shelter in Tenosique, Mexico.
The policy has stirred controversy in the United States, with lawmakers from both parties calling for its end in the face of defiance from the Trump administration. On Tuesday evening, Republican senators in Washington moved to try to defuse the crisis and find a way to end the policy.
Among the migrants bound for the United States, the policy has sowed confusion, as they struggled to make sense of what it means for the rest of their journeys.
The Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, enacted last month amid a sharp increase in seizures along the southwestern border of the United States, has resulted in the separation of about 2,000 children from their parents in the past six weeks.
The policy has set off a growing wave of outrage around the world, including at the United Nations.
Administration officials said the policy was intended to dissuade migrants — specifically families — from trying to cross the border unlawfully.
Until the announcement of the zero tolerance policy, and under previous administrations, adults traveling with their minor children were generally exempted from criminal prosecutions.
This was a well-known policy throughout Mexico and Central America, and was often part of the calculus for migrants: Those traveling with children knew that if they were detained and put into deportation proceedings, they would most likely be released rapidly, sometimes with an ankle monitor, to await their day in court.
That was what Ms. Flores understood, until she learned Tuesday evening of the new approach. She had made it only as far as the Jesús El Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante Shelter in Tapachula, just a few miles from Mexico’s border with Guatemala.
“I had thought that if a mother like me had gone to the border with a child, I’d be permitted to leave detention,” she said, still trying to get her head around the news she had just received.
“That was the mentality,” she said. “But hearing this, better not.”
Yolanda López, 21, was standing nearby. She, too, was hearing about the separations for the first time.
She said she had fled El Salvador with her two young children after their father, a gang member, violently threatened to take them away from her. L ike Ms. Flores, she was hoping to figure out how to cross into the United States.
But she found herself reconsidering.
“Maybe it’s best not to,” she said as she thought about her new circumstances. “What bad luck.”
Some Trump administration officials have said that the new policy is meant to deter people from entering the United States, while other administration figures have denied it vehemently. The administration has also said the policy was intended, in part, to stop criminals masquerading as parents from getting into the country more easily, even though only a tiny fraction of the total number of families apprehended at the southwestern border involve fraud.
Though the policy most directly affects families trying to cross the border unlawfully, it also appears to be having an impact on the broader population of migrants by contributing to what is for many a confusing swirl of recent immigration-related declarations and decisions by the Trump administration.
“They have implemented fear,” said Luis Rey García Villagrán, a migrants’ advocate in Tapachula, speaking about the Trump administration. “The situation has gotten worse.”
On Tuesday, Mr. García accompanied a group of Central American families to apply for letters of safe passage from the Mexican immigration authorities, which would enable them to travel freely to the northern border. There, the families planned to petition for asylum at an official port of entry.
But they were unsure whether the Trump administration’s border policy would apply to them, too.
One man spoke of a friend who had applied for asylum for herself and her daughter at a border crossing in Tijuana on Saturday, and they were permitted to remain together. But he also knew of a neighbor from El Salvador who was separated at an official border crossing from her two grandchildren; the children’s mother had been murdered by a gang.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, said this week that the authorities were not separating families “legitimately seeking asylum” at a port of entry.
To one man traveling with his young son, it seemed like different border crossings had different rules.
“These things make me think,” said the man, who only gave his last name, Hernández, out of fear of being located by the criminal gang in Honduras that had forced them to flee. “I’m not the kind of father who’s going to leave his kids.”
Among the confusing signals migrant families had recently picked up from the Trump administration was the decision last week by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that generally barred domestic and gang violence as grounds for asylum.
All the families gathered outside the immigration office with Mr. García, the migrants’ advocate, said they were fleeing gang violence, which has been a common basis for asylum petitions by Central Americans in recent years.
One of the men said that he, his wife and four children had fled Honduras because of violent extortion threats by a gang. They had heard about ruling by Mr. Sessions after arriving in Mexico. It was a dispiriting blow to their hope for American sanctuary, but it was not going to deter them, said the man, who gave only his first name, Alexander, out of fear the gang would track him down.
Going back was not an option, he said, and remaining in Mexico was not much better. That left the United States, Alexander said, even if nobody seemed to know what would happen to them at the border.
“I’m always going to try,” he said.