SAN PEDRO TAPANATEPEC, Mexico — The migrants, nearly asleep on their feet, waited in the predawn darkness for the trucks that would take them to the next stop in their long, unpredictable migration to the United States.
Hundreds of them were clogging the streets around the central plaza of San Pedro Tapanatepec, where they had spent two torrid days and two sleepless nights. At about 3:45 a.m., the trucks, on loan to the Catholic Church, finally appeared.
The crowd surged toward the hulking flatbeds, jostling with baby strollers and backpacks, the trucks’ taillights casting a reddish glow on faces loaded with exhaustion and worry.
Ani Alvarado, her two young sons trailing close behind like pilot fish, sliced nimbly through the crowd. But she was too late. The trucks were full.
Ms. Alvarado, 29, and her sons, Christian Jared, 9, and Wilman Dubier, 5, turned to their traveling companions — her cousin Sindy Jiménez, 18, and Ms. Jiménez’s 3-year-old son, Osmin Yadiel; and Ms. Jiménez’s aunt, Hilda Rosa Banegas, 42, and her son, Elmer Jesús Mendoza Banegas, 16.
Hoisting their knapsacks on their shoulders, the seven stepped into the stream of migrants and started walking north — a quiet procession that already stretched for miles into the dark Mexican countryside.
The migrant caravan began on Oct. 12 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with several hundred participants and quickly grew by several thousand as it crossed the border into Guatemala and wound north into Mexico.
It became the largest and most dramatic iteration of a yearslong tradition that had largely passed unnoticed: Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence in their homelands, traveling en masse toward the United States, the size of their groups providing security from the criminals who prey on migrants during the journey.
The caravan, which arrived in Mexico City this week, captured the attention of President Trump soon after it began. During the run-up to the midterm elections, Mr. Trump used the caravan to fire up anti-immigrant sentiments and rally his base. He also used it to justify the deployment of thousands of troops at the southwest border.
And on Thursday, the Trump administration enacted new rules giving the president authority to deny asylum to almost any migrant who crosses the border illegally — a significant overhaul of longstanding laws that have allowed people fleeing persecution to ask for sanctuary.
Even from the early days of their trip, many migrants in the caravan knew Mr. Trump had cast them as an invading horde looking to game the system and steal jobs from United States citizens. But to many, his declarations have been little more than a distant rumble on the horizon, a problem for later.
Driven by a deep faith rooted in Christianity, many have clung to a belief that everything would work out in the end, that Mr. Trump’s heart would be touched and he would allow them into the United States to work.
Even Ms. Alvarado subscribed to this hopeful philosophy.
“Well, I can’t think the opposite way,” she shrugged.
While most migrants in the caravan are young men, the group also includes many families with young children who have now been traveling for four weeks.
Ms. Alvarado and her relatives left their home on the outskirts of Comayagua, a city in central Honduras, on Oct. 12. They came from a family of farm laborers who worked for abysmal wages in coffee plantations. Generations of residents from Comayagua had made the trek to the United States to find better-paying work, and the possibility was always forefront in the minds of those who remained behind.
Ms. Alvarado, one of the few in her family who had managed to escape the coffee fields, had been working as an assistant in a government social development program, but barely getting by on a salary of $200 a month.
In October, she heard on television about the caravan taking shape in San Pedro Sula and decided it was her best chance to make it to the United States’ southern border. Within a couple of days, Ms. Alvarado had set off to join it. The other two women and their children went, too, viewing the caravan as their safest and least expensive opportunity to migrate.
Each mother had a different destination in the United States in mind; the group’s relationship with the country was already complex.
Ms. Alvarado, who had spent a year living and working without immigration papers in New York and Ohio, hoped to reunite with the father of her son, Dubier, in Ohio. Ms. Jiménez planned to move in with her father in Ohio.
Ms. Benegas, who had been working in the coffee fields since she was 7 and had seven children, said she had only one thing in mind: finding work, wherever. Her plan was to stay in the United States for a few years then return to Honduras. Two of her children were already married, and the rest, she said, had remained in Honduras with their father.
In the few bags they carried, the group had packed only essentials, mostly clothes. They could not afford to carry anything of sentimental value.
They, like most members of the caravan, were ill-prepared for walking. Ms. Jiménez was wearing pink plastic sandals. Ms. Banegas and her son wore flip-flops. Ms. Jiménez’s 3-year-old had to be carried by the adults for much of the way.
For sustenance, they relied on food donated by local governments, civic groups and well-meaning people. At night, they mostly bedded down on plastic sheeting and in public squares and parks along with the thousands of other members of the caravan.
In San Pedro Tapanatepec, on the 16th day of the migration, the group laid out their plastic sheeting in the town’s central plaza, in the shade cast by the Catholic church, then strolled down the hill to jump in a river. The children, stripped to their underwear, played in the water while the women washed clothes. Ms. Alvarado, still wearing her jeans, sunk into the river up to her hips and dipped her long dark hair in the water.
Two mornings later, after a rest day, they were on the move once again, departing San Pedro Tapanatepec and bound for Santiago Niltepec, about 30 miles to the northwest. They said little as they walked, tired and hungry, through the darkened streets of Tapanatepec, moving past clumps of migrants resting on the shoulder of the road. From time to time, Ms. Alvarado and her group stopped, too, slumping to the ground to rest.
The group did not plan to apply for asylum. Rather, like many other families in the caravan, their plan was to cross between official border entries and turn themselves into the United States Border Patrol. Since they were women traveling with children, they hoped they would be released quickly from detention and allowed to remain in the United States pending the outcome of their deportation case. It’s a practice that has been widely used for years, but one that Mr. Trump is seeking to end.
Ms. Banegas said she picked Elmer, who left school three years ago to work in the coffee fields, to travel with her to the United States because he was her oldest minor child.
With him, “I might have a better chance of getting in,” she said.
The women had heard that the Trump administration policy of family separation had ended. Other migrants from their hometown had successfully crossed into the United States since then and had been released with their children.
Still, nobody was sure what might actually happen.
“The only fear is the fear of losing a child — along the entire trajectory,” Ms. Alvarado said.
But the matter of the border was in the future. For now, Ms. Alvarado’s group was concentrating on getting through each day.
“I’m focused on the journey, on survival on the road,” Ms. Alvarado said.
At a highway checkpoint, they joined hundreds of other migrants hoping to catch a ride. A car began to slow. Ms. Alvarado bolted forward and crammed in with her two sons. The other four, lagging behind, were shut out. For the first time since leaving Honduras, the group had split up.
Ms. Jiménez, Ms. Banegas and their children started walking again. A stranger had given Ms. Jiménez an old stroller, and her son was soon fast asleep in it.
After several miles, they came to a crossroads where several women were handing out water and tortillas slathered with black beans and cheese. At the invitation of another migrant, an acquaintance, Ms. Jiménez, Ms. Banegas and their children took a taxi to the next town, then leapt in another taxi, which carried them the rest of the way to the day’s final destination, Santiago Niltepec.
In Santiago Niltepec, the women tracked down Ms. Alvarado in a police barracks that had been converted into a shelter. She had staked out a patch of the concrete floor and laid out plastic sheeting for the group. Volunteers handed out secondhand clothing and food.
Reflecting on the trip, Ms. Alvarado said it had been easier than she expected, even with all the walking. Strangers had eased their passage. She had no complaints.
“I get used to whatever,” she said. “I learned from life.”