By Lizbeth Diaz
TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - Demonized by U.S. President Donald Trump and exhausted after a harrowing journey, migrants from Central America in a caravan now face a new threat: open hostility from some Mexicans.
A small group of residents in an upscale Tijuana neighborhood near the Mexican border confronted caravan migrants late on Wednesday, throwing stones and telling them to go back to their home countries.
"Get out of here," around 20 people shouted at a camp of Hondurans near the border. "We want you to return to your country. You are not welcome."
Migrants shouted back and dozens of police officers had to intervene to keep peace in a city known for welcoming both American tourists and thousands of immigrants every year.
A caravan of thousands of mostly Honduran migrants who are fleeing violence and poverty at home set off for the United States in mid-October, with the bulk of them still to arrive at the border. Other large bands of mostly Salvadorans have followed.
Trump has declared the caravans an "invasion," and has sent some 5,800 troops to "harden" the border, including with barbed wire.
With some exceptions, Mexico has welcomed the Central Americans, offering food and lodging in towns during their journey. The migrants said they were stunned by the hostile attitude in Tijuana.
"We are not criminals. Why do (they) treat us like this if everywhere we have traveled in Mexico they treated us well?" migrants shouted back. "Think about the children who are here, please."
Recent polls show a sizeable minority of Mexicans opposed to aiding the migrants as they head northward to the United States.
An Oct. 26-28 survey of 1,000 Mexicans by polling firm Consulta Mitofsky showed that 51.4 percent were in favor of helping or protecting the migrants, while 33.8 percent took the opposite view, believing that they should return home. The remaining respondents expressed no opinion.
Mexican Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete said job fairs would be held around the country from Thursday to lay out opportunities for Central Americans, reiterating earlier government offers of work. This time though, he emphasized that there was also work for Mexicans seeking jobs.
At a news conference that included Juan Pablo Castanon, head of the CCE business lobby, Navarrete said the private sector had told the government there were enough jobs available for all the Central Americans who entered Mexico during October.
Since Oct. 19, a total of 3,800 migrants had sought asylum in Mexico, Navarrete said, though some later dropped their applications and returned home. As of now, 2,600 asylum requests were being processed, the minister added.
Mexico's low-paying factories at times struggle to find workers, and the border area is suffering chronic labor shortages.
Tensions began brewing in Tijuana a few days ago when residents complained about a group of 80 or so LGBT migrants who broke away from the caravan and arrived in an upscale part of the Playas de Tijuana neighborhood, near where the stones were thrown.
A popular party town for U.S. tourists, Tijuana has a history of absorbing visitors, including Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. It has a large American population and some 3,000 Haitians settled in the city, just south of San Diego, in 2016 after failing to cross the U.S. border.
But the arrival of hundreds of members of the caravans has stretched to the limit migrant shelters that were already overflowing with people. While Tijuana's traditional generosity was also on display, with the government setting up a new shelter and citizens offering food and clothing, a harder attitude also emerged.
Reuters gained access to a WhatsApp chat group called "Citizen Blockade" where some 250 members using strong language discussed strategies to harass the migrants or block their arrival.
Tijuana's city government opened a shelter for 360 people of an estimated 810 that arrived this week, and officials warned there was little room to house more than 2,000 more who are expected to arrive this week.
Irineo Mujica, representative of the organization Pueblos Sin Fronteras, which is advising the migrants in the caravan, said the migrants wanted to seek asylum in the United States.
Their arrival adds to already long lines of people who have been waiting their turn at the Tijuana crossing. Last week, Trump suspended the granting of asylum to migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
"We are looking for solutions, not confrontations," Mujica said following the clash with Mexicans as a helicopter hovered above, surveying the scene from the American side.
(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)