As Venezuela’s economy collapsed, life got harder and harder for Oscar Silva. His job as an administrative assistant paid less than $30 a month. Corrupt police officers would often rob him of even that. There were times he could afford only one meal a day.
Mr. Silva decided to strike out from his home in the port city of La Guaira for Chicago, where he has family. But by the time he got to northern Mexico late last year, the U.S. border had closed to Venezuelans. He managed to slip across, worked a few days upholstering furniture in El Paso, Tex., and used his earnings to buy a bus ticket out of town. At one of the ubiquitous highway checkpoints outside the city, border patrol officers caught Mr. Silva and deported him to Mexico.
Standing in an encampment of migrants in Ciudad Juárez near the Rio Grande, which marks the border, the 25-year-old wondered what he would do next. “The U.S. has its laws and the right to implement them,” he said. “But people here really need help.”
Beginning last summer, the steady flow of migrants here turned into a wave. U.S. President Joe Biden responded by effectively barring most Venezuelans – by far the single largest group – from making asylum claims at the border, a policy later extended to Haitians, Cubans and Nicaraguans.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has ordered the extension of Title 42, a policy ostensibly meant to keep COVID-19 out of the U.S. but in practice used to swiftly deport migrants.
Now, tens of thousands wait along the border with no idea if or when they will be allowed in. Some have filed U.S. refugee applications from Mexico. Others are looking further northward, hoping a country with a more immigrant-friendly reputation might be another option.
“The U.S. could open a path for us to get to Canada,” Mr. Silva suggested. “I don’t know anyone there, but I would like to go.”
Sitting nearby, Zulimar Orocopeay, 26, from Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, described a difficult journey. At one point, fording a raging river in the Panamanian jungle, Ms. Orocopeay recalled seeing the bodies of other migrants swept away by the current.
Living outdoors in this windswept desert city, where nighttime winter temperatures can get below freezing, is a shock compared to her tropical homeland.
“What we’re looking for is a solution because here, we’re wasting time,” she said. “We’re not eating healthy. We’re cold. We don’t have anything permanent.”
At a migrant shelter in a hillside neighbourhood amid Juarez’s low-rise adobe sprawl, Betzabe Angel held out hope of reaching the U.S. for both political and economic reasons.
Trained as an architect, the 33-year-old from the city of Maracay couldn’t find work in her field as Venezuela unravelled; she was paid more working in a nail salon. Then, after she supported an opposition party at election time, she said, the government of President Nicolas Maduro confiscated her house. She, her partner and their two children, aged 11 and 9, moved to Peru for a time. There, they faced xenophobic harassment. While working in a restaurant, Ms. Angel said, some Peruvians accused her of stealing their jobs, chased her down in a car and beat her in the face.
The family joined several dozen other Venezuelans heading north. They hiked for six days in the rain through Colombia and Panama. In Mexico, they rode on freight trains, the bitter wind burning the children’s faces.
“We’ve already started the application process to get to the U.S. We’re waiting on that,” Ms. Angel said. “We want to do this the legal way, the way it’s supposed to be done.” Her partner, Victor Espinoza, was also mulling other avenues. “How do you get into Canada?” he asked.
In a broad sense, Canada is certainly more welcoming to immigrants than the U.S. In recent years, the country has settled as many or more refugees than its southern neighbour, despite having just one-ninth the population. For asylum seekers gathered in Mexico, however, getting there is difficult.
Ottawa also has an agreement with Washington that bans anyone entering Canada via the U.S. from making an asylum claim at a port of entry. Practically, this means most refugee claimants would have to go through the United Nations or a charity to make an application from Mexico.
Bryan Povar, 22, stood with his wife and three-year-old son at the entrance to the border bridge from downtown Juarez to the U.S. They worked the lines of motorists and pedestrians, asking for money. These contributions would mean the difference between renting a room that night or sleeping on the street, he said.
Mr. Povar said he hoped Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s summit last week with Mr. Biden and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico City might yield some sort of solution. But he said he wasn’t particularly bothered by Mr. Biden closing the gate to Venezuelans such as himself.
“I’m okay with making the application here – at least we can wait in Mexico,” he said. “We know for a fact we have an opportunity to go to the U.S.”
Others around the city were less sanguine. Joel Guevara, 33, a nurse from Valencia, Venezuela, shook his head as he gazed across the river at the newly reinforced frontier: Over the last two weeks, U.S. authorities have strung razor wire in front of the border wall and posted National Guard troops in armoured vehicles.
“Ninety per cent of people who cross, they just want to work. We are waiting for a good answer from the U.S. and no one can answer,” he said. “That’s why many people want to know if Canada is possible.”