WHITE HOUSE - President Donald Trump says the United States "will now begin cutting off or substantially reducing" the amount of foreign aid given to three Central American countries, saying they were "not able to do the job" of stopping migrants from leaving their countries and "coming illegally" to the U.S.
"Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador — they're paid a lot of money," Trump told reporters Monday afternoon. "Every year, we give them foreign aid. And they did nothing for us. Nothing. They did nothing for us. So, we give them tremendous amounts of money. You know what it is, you cover it all the time — hundreds of millions of dollars. They, like a lot of others, do nothing for our country."
The president's comments came as a group of several thousand migrants, mostly from Honduras, spent Sunday night in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula as they continued their trek toward the United States and away from what they say is unbearable violence and poverty at home.
Trump, in a tweet earlier in the day, claimed "criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in" the caravan.
Reporters traveling with the caravan say they have spotted no people from the Middle East in the group.
Asked by a reporter on the White House south lawn what evidence he had of Middle Easterners in the caravan, Trump replied, "I had reports, and they have a lot of everybody in the group. It's a horrible thing, and it's a lot bigger than 5,000 people, and we got to stop 'em at the border. And unfortunately, you look at the countries, they have not done their job."
When pressed further about his assertion, Trump told journalists if they take their cameras into the caravan, "You're going to find MS-13. You're going to find Middle Eastern. You're going to find everything. And guess what, we're not allowing them in our country. We want safety."
Two weeks ahead of U.S. congressional elections, Trump, a Republican, again laid the blame for the latest mass migration toward the southern U.S. border on opposition Democrats.
The United Nations refugee agency said it has 32 workers in Mexico to provide humanitarian assistance to the migrants and legal advice, with its local partners offering asylum information to those who want to stay.
The International Organization for Migration announced on Monday that large numbers of migrants arrived in Mexico, with many likely to remain for an extended period.
IOM estimates that more than 7,200 people are in the caravan, with many of them planning to continue their march northward.
Authorities in southern Mexico largely left the migrants alone Sunday as they walked toward the day's destination in Chiapas state.
The Mexican government has pledged to process asylum requests for migrants who apply. The country's interior ministry reported that on Friday, Saturday and Sunday a total 1,028 people had requested refugee status.
Mexico's National Migration Institute said it reiterates its duty to safeguard the human rights of migrants who enter its territory.
Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an organization that helps the migrant caravans in Central America, said governments in the region have adopted "a policy of fear and racism imposed by the United States" and are not considering the reasons why people are seeking somewhere new to go.
"They are walking in mass exodus because they cannot live in their country anymore due to extreme violence, lack of opportunity, and the corruption and impunity that has expelled them from their homes," the group said in a statement Sunday.
Mexico's incoming president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told supporters at a rally Sunday in Chiapas he would be sending a letter to Trump proposing Mexico, the United States and Canada work together to invest in development in Central America to address poverty.
Lopez Obrador, who takes office December 1, said people who leave their home do so not because they want to, but out of necessity. He has pledged to offer migrants work visas, and said Sunday that Mexico has to guarantee human rights and that above all, the migrant families, women and children will have protection.
"Nothing bad will happen to the Central American migrants," Lopez Obrador said.
Aid group Save the Children expressed concern Sunday about children who were sleeping outside in Tapachula and Suchiate either because places were full, or the children feared they would be detained once inside.
The group estimates one in four members of the caravan are children.