Moises Castillo, AP
Central American migrants walking to the U.S. start their day departing Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. Despite Mexican efforts to stop them at the border, about 5,000 Central American migrants resumed their advance toward the U.S. border early Sunday in southern Mexico. Their numbers swelled overnight and at first light they set out walking toward the Mexican town of Tapachula.

The United States has been a beacon of hope for people who are poor, mistreated or persecuted. That is a unique position on the world stage that must not be abdicated.

Many Americans trace their roots to people who left harsh conditions in other countries in search of a better life in the United States, and their migration, despite often-harsh opposition, ultimately has blessed the nation and its economy.

So the first reaction upon seeing thousands of people marching from Honduras and through Mexico with hopes of reaching the U.S. border should be compassion.

Journalists interviewing these people have uncovered stories about families fleeing gang violence and seeking hope for children whose future looks bleak in a country where the World Bank estimates 66 percent of the people are in poverty. In rural Honduras, about 20 percent of the people live on less than $1.90 per day.

The people who make up the caravan are suffering deprivations and health problems, including swollen feet, lacerations and infections, as the Red Cross told People don’t voluntarily endure such hardship unless their lives reach a critical level of desperation. They speak about the hope of a better life in the United States.

The second reaction should be concern about the need to handle these people in an orderly and humane manner if they should make it to the U.S. border. For obvious reasons, the United States cannot allow thousands of people to storm their way in with no vetting.

" People don’t voluntarily endure such hardship unless their lives reach a critical level of desperation. They speak about the hope of a better life in the United States. "

But the nation also should not cruelly separate families at the border, as it has in the past, while determining who stays and who is sent back. The long-term implications of such separations on the psyches of children and parents alike are likely to lead to many unintended consequences in the future.

An asylum-vetting process already is in place. The truth is that most in the caravan are not likely to be granted their wish. Using statistics provided by the Syracuse University Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, The New York Times earlier this year said 75 percent of asylum cases originating with nationals from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were denied between 2012 and 2017.

Despite President Trump’s assertions that Democrats are behind the current wave, most of those years were during the Obama administration.

Merely being impoverished or fearing for one’s life is not an official reason to seek asylum. An immigrant must prove he or she is part of a persecuted group that is being targeted because of religion, race, nationality or as retaliation for political speech.

That does not mean the nation should turn its back on those who are desperate.

While the president obviously sees the emerging caravan as an opportunity for political gain ahead of midterm elections, his tweets, including unsubstantiated fears that the caravan is being infiltrated by international terrorists, are not helpful.

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However, his threats to withhold international aid to Honduras and other Central American countries come closer to a productive response. Those nations are rife with official corruption that makes life unbearable for many of their citizens. Pressure could spur substantive changes that might make migration unnecessary.

Meanwhile, Congress and the president should lay politics aside and resume efforts to pass meaningful immigration law. That would include a guest-worker system and a more realistic, fair and compassionate asylum policy.

Compassion for others and safety for all on both sides of the border should be the true measure of our nation’s rich immigrant heritage.