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ARRIAGA, Mexico – More than a hundred Mexican federal officers carrying plastic shields abandoned a blockade they had formed on a bridge Saturday, allowing a caravan of thousands of Central American migrants to advance toward the United States.
The officers ended the standoff after representatives from Mexico's National Human Rights Commission told police that a rural stretch of highway without shade, toilets or water was no place for migrants to entertain offers of asylum in Mexico. Police boarded buses and headed further down the highway, while migrants cheered and vowed to trek all the way to the U.S. border.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto launched a program on Friday dubbed "You are home," which promises shelter, medical attention, schooling and jobs to Central Americans who agree to stay in the southern Mexico states of Chiapas or Oaxaca.
Police commissioner Benjamin Grajeda said that authorities only blocked the highway Saturday to tell people about the government's offer. "Here in this truck right now you can get help," he said.
Thousands of migrants in the city of Arriaga rejected the plan Friday night, but said they could be willing to discuss it again once they reach Mexico City. Some fear they will be deported if they take advantage of the program.
The caravan is now trying to strike out for Tapanatepec, about 29 miles (46 kilometers) away after an arduous 60-mile (100 kilometer) journey to the city of Arriaga.
Orbelina Orellana, a migrant from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, said she and her husband left three children behind and had decided to continue north one way or another.
"Our destiny is to get to the border," Orellana said.
She was suspicious of the government's proposal and said that some Hondurans who had applied for legal status had already been sent back. Her claims could not be verified, but migrants' representatives in the talks asked the Mexican government to provide a list of those who had been forced to return.
Mexico's Interior Ministry said that temporary identity numbers have already been issued to 111 migrants under the "You are home" program. The IDs, called CURPs, authorize the migrants to stay and work in Mexico. The ministry said pregnant women, children and the elderly were among the migrants who had joined the program and are now being attended to at shelters.
The government appears to want to shrink the caravan by keeping smaller groups of migrants from joining, while simultaneously hoping that the grueling journey will make its offer of refuge more attractive.
Police have been ejecting migrant passengers off buses in recent days and cracking down on smaller groups trying to catch up with the main caravan. An official with the national immigration authority said Friday that 300 Hondurans and Guatemalans who crossed the Mexico border illegally had been detained.
Migrants, who enter Mexico illegally every day, usually ride in smugglers' trucks or buses, or walk at night to avoid detection. The fact that the group of about 300 stragglers Friday was walking in broad daylight suggests they were adopting the tactics of the main caravan, which is large enough to be out in the open without fear of mass detention.
They still must travel 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to reach the nearest U.S. border crossing at McAllen, Texas. The trip could be twice as long if the group of some 4,000 migrants heads for the Tijuana-San Diego frontier, as another caravan did earlier this year. Only about 200 in that group made it to the border.
While such migrant caravans have taken place regularly over the years, passing largely unnoticed, they have received widespread attention this year after fierce opposition from U.S. President Donald Trump.
On Friday, the Pentagon approved a request for additional troops at the southern border, likely to total several hundred, to help the U.S. Border Patrol as Trump seeks to transform concerns about immigration and the caravan into electoral gains in the Nov. 6 midterms.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signed off on the request for help from the Department of Homeland Security and authorized the military staff to work out details such as the size, composition and estimated cost of the deployments, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning that has not yet been publicly announced.
Stoking fears about the caravan and illegal immigration to rally his Republican base, the president insinuated that gang members and "Middle Easterners" are mixed in with the group, though he later acknowledged there was no proof of that.
Associated Press writers Mark Stevenson and Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.