This February, Jennifer Turcios decided to leave Guatemala. She wanted better health care for her five-year-old son, Jordy, who was born with two holes in his heart, and to get away from gangs in her neighbourhood.
So Ms. Turcios, 27, found a smuggler to take her and Jordy to the U.S.’s doorstep. The price: equivalent to $6,700, about a year’s salary at her job with a telephone company.
In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Ms. Turcios walked across the border at a park next to the Rio Grande and surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol. But instead of taking her into custody and allowing her to claim asylum, the officer simply sent her back to Mexico.
Now, she’s living at a shelter in the rolling desert hills on the outskirts of this industrial city, waiting for another opportunity to make a bid at refugee status in the United States. The country’s efforts to keep people out, she contended, make no sense. “We’re not all the same. We come to work,” she said.
Ms. Turcios is one of thousands of migrants gathered along this border hoping for the end of Title 42. Put in place by then-president Donald Trump in March, 2020, the rule allows border guards to immediately deport people without processing or giving them an opportunity to make a refugee claim. Ostensibly it was an emergency measure to control the spread of COVID-19, but now many U.S. politicians favour leaving it in place indefinitely to bar asylum seekers.
On Friday, a federal judge stopped President Joe Biden’s attempt to lift Title 42, on the grounds that the government is not sufficiently prepared to handle the build-up of migrants waiting to enter. Since the policy was enacted in March, 2020, the U.S. has used it to expel people more than 1.9 million times.
Last month, Customs and Border Protection reported a record 234,088 encounters with migrants at the southern border. The Department of Homeland Security is preparing for up to 18,000 people arriving daily when Title 42 ends.
For now, this growing group remains in limbo.
“The fact that the Mexican National Guard, and Customs and Border Protection in the U.S., don’t allow them to even get into the country to ask for asylum, for their case to be reviewed, that’s a violation of human rights,” said Santiago Gonzalez Reyes, who works on migrant services for Juarez’s city government.
His office runs a shelter that includes a school, library and medical services. It also tries to connect migrants with jobs. His hope is they can make a life here for as long as they stay.
Starting at a bustling warren of market streets around its cathedral, this city of 1.5 million sprawls across open scrublands. Its factories – making auto parts, semi-conductors and steel – are constantly hiring. The pale, cloudless sky is seemingly endless, and the bright sunshine persistent.
In conversations around town, asylum seekers recounted perils back home and along the way to the U.S.
Waiting for a work permit at Coespo, a state migrant agency, Guermise Edner, 36, said she left Haiti in 2016. A teacher by training, she couldn’t find a job, and feared gangs perpetrating street robberies.
She lived for several years in Chile, where she and her husband worked as office cleaners. After a racist boss laid them off last year, she said, she struck out north with her four-year-old daughter. It was a two-month trek, by a combination of bus and walking. Her husband stayed behind.
“The road was dangerous, especially for my daughter,” Ms. Edner said as she sat in Coespo’s whitewashed office building, in the shadow of the bridge connecting downtown Juarez with El Paso, Tex. “We went over mountains and by rivers. If you fell, the river would take you.”
At a construction site in a hillside neighbourhood a few kilometres from the city centre, Henry Ordonez said he decamped Mexico’s southern Tabasco state last month with his wife and two children after witnessing a murder.
Mr. Ordonez said he was working his job as a store clerk one afternoon while his three-year-old boy kicked around a soccer ball outside. A truck pulled up at a drug house across the street, an adolescent boy got out and shot to death a man and his eight-year-old son who lived there.
“My kid remembers it. When he sees people in the street, he asks if there’s going to be another killing,” Mr. Ordonez, 30, said as he worked in the dry 36-degree heat.
Standing in a hallway at the shelter where he is staying, Dieual Charles recalled crossing the mountains between Colombia and Panama on foot last spring. In a rural area, he said, he was surrounded by bandits who demanded money. He didn’t have any, so they beat him up, crushing a nerve in his spine.
“I want to go to the U.S. legally,” said Mr. Charles, a 37-year-old Haitian who wore a shirt with a pattern of Uncle Sam hats and U.S. flags. “I’m not able to work, and I need to have surgery.”
The treatment of asylum seekers by U.S. authorities can vary. Many are immediately turned back. Others are loaded onto planes and deported to their home countries. Some are allowed into the U.S. while their claims are adjudicated. Any sign that the rules might be loosening causes a new wave of arrivals in Juarez.
Juan Fierro Garcia, a Methodist pastor who runs a migrant shelter, is trying to rapidly complete a second building to handle the influx. “I’m expecting the shelters will collapse because there are a lot of people coming and nearly everywhere is full,” he said. “Some come directly to homelessness here.”
Another shelter, Esparanza Para Todos, is also in a constant state of expansion. Grissel Ramirez, who started the facility with her family last year, said 20 to 30 people have been arriving every day for the past two months. She has repeatedly had to turn dining rooms and other common spaces into new dorms to accommodate them. Currently, 230 people live there.
“This space is not enough. Even though we’re full, people will wait outside because they have nowhere else to go,” she said.
For all the uncertainty everyone around town seemed to feel, there were some who offered reason to hope.
One was Manuel Pinto. In 2019, he fled an extortion racket in Honduras with his then-13-year-old son. At the U.S. border, he lodged an asylum claim and was subject to remain in Mexico, another Trump administration policy that mandated refugee claimants stay on the other side of the border while their cases were assessed.
For three years, he has bided his time in Juarez, working construction jobs and volunteering as a church organist.
Then, in January, his son made it across the border. He’s living in Miami with a friend of Mr. Pinto’s. In recent days, Mr. Pinto himself received good news: The U.S. will admit him while his claim is decided.
“I know God can open doors that are closed,” said Mr. Pinto, an easy-going 38-year-old, as he stood in Mr. Fierro’s office. “I’ve seen so many people who would get desperate after 15 days or a month because nothing was moving.”
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