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Expelled from U.S. in name of public health, migrants in limbo in Mexico

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  • 8 min to read
Expelled from U.S. in name of public health, migrants in limbo in Mexico

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — A local gang threatened the life of Leti Baires Ventura, so the Salvadoran woman fled.

The trek from El Salvador to the U.S. border with her 5-year-old son by foot, motorcycle and cramped bus took less than two weeks.

On a bridge to El Paso, she had planned to ask for asylum by telling U.S. immigration officials about violence back home and the family members waiting for her in New Jersey.

Instead, a Border Patrol agent took her picture and fingerprints and dropped her off in Mexico without any further questions.

“I wanted to ask for asylum, but I didn’t have an opportunity to talk. They didn’t ask why I came,” Baires Ventura, 25, said in Spanish during an interview last week at an immigrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez. “Now I don’t know. We’re waiting here for something to change so we can cross.”

Baires Ventura and her son, Franklin Jose, were two of more than 101,800 people expelled upon arrival in the U.S. in March under a provision in a public health code known as Title 42. Under an order last year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Customs and Border Protection has been using the 1946 law to deny entry to those who potentially pose a health risk during the coronavirus pandemic — effectively closing the border to immigrants hoping to lawfully request asylum. The practice began under the Trump administration and has continued under President Joe Biden.

“Anybody who comes to the border, they can just expel,” said Fernando García, executive director of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights.

As a result, immigrant shelters in Las Cruces and El Paso remain largely empty while those in Juárez are filled beyond capacity.

Baires Ventura and her son are living at the Pan de Vida shelter, where 290 people awaiting entry to the U.S. share 15 houses. Children play soccer on a dirt field while their parents do laundry and cut hair on porches furnished with old theater seats.

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A migrant woman does laundry Thursday at the Pan de Vida migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez. At the shelter, 290 people awaiting entry to the U.S. share 15 houses.

While families — most from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — are being expelled under Title 42, the CDC has exempted unaccompanied minors, which immigration attorneys say has led to an increase in children and teens being taken into U.S. custody at the border.

“Families are trying to cross and are being expelled, so then families are becoming desperate and sending kids on their own,” said Hector Ruiz, an attorney for the nonprofit Santa Fe Dreamers Project who works in El Paso.

“Title 42 is resulting in all these kids on their own and causing a lot of anguish and confusion,” he said, “with folks being returned to dangerous situations in Juárez or other border towns.”

Officials have said the U.S. government detained a record 19,000 unaccompanied children and teens at the border in March, double the number from the previous month.

According to Customs and Border Protection, more than 20,000 immigrant minors — an all-time high — are now being held by that agency and the Health and Human Services Department, through its Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program, which works with churches and nonprofits around the country to connect them with sponsors and family members.

Earlier this month, more than 2,000 teenage boys were rumored to be headed to Glorieta Camps, a Christian mountain retreat south of Santa Fe, for temporary housing through a federal contract. The camp had quickly mobilized volunteers, prepared to hire dozens of workers to care for the kids and launched a supply donation campaign before the plan was halted.

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Volunteer teachers help kids with an art project Thursday at the Pan de Vida migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez.

‘Everyone is getting expelled’

Biden campaigned on a policy of upholding asylum-seekers’ rights. So far, he has ordered a review of the Title 42 policy without taking action. But on Friday, he pledged to increase the limit of refugees allowed into the country from a historically low 15,000 set by President Donald Trump. Some Democrats are pushing for a cap of at least 62,500 when Biden announces the increase next month.

Melissa Lopez, director of migrant and refugee services for the Roman Catholic Diocese of El Paso, said without the opportunity to seek asylum, people are turning to desperate measures.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of stories about people jumping over the wall and breaking legs and hips, and then being expelled as soon as they are discharged from the hospital,” Lopez said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to who they let in and who they don’t let in.”

Despite national headlines, however, people in U.S. border towns say there is no surge or crisis — just another spring in a broken immigration system.

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Migrants at the Pan de Vida shelter in Ciudad Juárez unload a van full of donations from El Calvario Methodist Church in Las Cruces on Thursday.

On Thursday, staff and volunteers of El Calvario Methodist Church in Las Cruces dropped off two vans full of rice, beans and hygiene products at the Pan de Vida shelter across the border.

In 2019, El Calvario hosted its own shelter, serving around 10,000 meals to 2,000 immigrants before helping the families find bus and plane tickets to their destinations in the U.S. Pins in a hallway map show locations across the country. Typically, every kid received a stuffed animal and a hug upon arrival.

This year, the church’s shelter has been empty.

In the large room where women and children would sleep, volunteers prepared feminine hygiene bags last week for women staying at Pan de Vida.

“It’s sad. We could share what we have,” Lupe Ortiz, who migrated to Las Cruces from Mexico as a young mother, said in Spanish. She now cooks, organizes and enforces rules at El Calvario. “I’ve been back to Juárez and seen families living in the tents in the street,” she added. “I’m a sensitive person, but I know because of the pandemic I can’t hug the babies whenever they do get here.”

Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter in El Paso, has been taking in 100 to 150 people per day who are released across the border through Migrant Protection Protocols, a Trump administration policy commonly known as “Remain in Mexico” that’s being phased out under Biden. The program still has some 20,000 asylum-seekers waiting in Mexico for a court date, rather than in the U.S.

Annunciation House Director Ruben Garcia said the shelter welcomed over 400 people per day in fiscal year 2019, before the CDC enacted Title 42.

“Our numbers are down. We are under capacity,” Garcia said. “Title 42 is pushing everyone back. Everyone is getting expelled.”

Among them are Honduran high school biology and chemistry teacher Ruth Cartagena and her 19-year-old daughter, Nicole. They have been waiting in Juárez for two years due to Migrant Protection Protocols. They are now at Pan de Vida, their third shelter.

In Honduras, one of Cartagena’s students joined a gang and threatened her. On her commute to work the next morning, she said, she received the same death threat from a motorcycle taxi driver.

She and her daughter left their home country hoping to live with her brother in Boca Raton, Fla. He has a room ready.

A smuggler led the mother and daughter to the Mexican border town of Ojinaga, and after they crossed the Rio Grande — with water up to their knees — Border Patrol agents picked them and took them to El Paso. There, Nicole Cartagena said, they were detained for four days in a metal cage in a room with no windows. She told time by the guards changing shifts before they were dropped off in Juárez.

Now they wait for a phone call.

“Every time the phone buzzes, I go a little crazy,” said Nicole Cartagena, speaking in Spanish. “I really just want to see the beaches in Florida.”

She wants to study to be a nurse.

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Migrant children gather Thursday in the school area at the Pan de Vida migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez.

‘Better border governance’

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a Southern New Mexico Republican who has introduced legislation that would extend the use of Title 42 until the end of all public health orders tied to the pandemic, issued a call this month for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to send National Guard members to the border to aid federal agents addressing what she called a worsening situation as border crossings increase.

Lujan Grisham refused.

Johana Bencomo, a Las Cruces city councilor and community organizer who immigrated to the city from Mexico as a kid, doesn’t see the recent numbers of border crossers and asylum-seekers as a crisis requiring a military response.

“Groups of migrants have been coming to the U.S. in mass numbers for a really long time,” she said. “It’s a pattern. We always talk in terms of push and pull. The U.S. keeps demanding cheap labor. That work pulls people in. Then there is a push factor: civil unrest in many of these countries and climate refugees.”

She said, “We’re trying to create a counternarrative to this militarized crisis. We want better border governance, not security.”

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A young migrant girl plays Thursday at the Pan de Vida migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez. At the shelter, 290 people awaiting entry to the U.S. share 15 houses.

Fernando García, with the Border Network for Human Rights, believes the nation needs a new approach to ease the flow of asylum-seekers — such as new economic recovery initiative, like the 1948 Marshall Plan, for the Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. He also envisions new “Ellis Islands” in border towns like El Paso; Brownsville, Texas; and San Diego to connect asylum-seekers to sponsors and family — a job frequently left to churches and nonprofits.

“The real crisis is a lack of infrastructure other than cages and jails,” García said. “That’s what we have. That’s what we’ve invested in. All the infrastructure here is punitive and criminal-oriented. We need infrastructure that is humanitarian and service-oriented.”

Regional immigrant review centers could offer “legal support, vaccinations, information about rights, and basic things like help finding family and traveling there,” he said. “Finding sponsors for children.”

García said he spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas during a visit to El Paso earlier this month and urged him to include funding for new immigration centers in Biden’s infrastructure plan.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who visited El Calvario Methodist Church last week, is pushing for similar reforms. He has introduced legislation that would set up refugee processing centers in Central America’s Northern Triangle and Mexico and expand funding and services for unaccompanied minors.

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A woman feeds her daughter Thursday inside their living area at the Pan de Vida migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez. At the shelter, 290 people awaiting entry to the U.S. share 15 houses.

‘Reform with pardons, not punishments’

In January, Biden introduced a measure that would allow undocumented residents living in the U.S. by the first of this year to apply for temporary legal status. After five years, they could apply for a green card, and after another three years, green card holders could apply to become citizens. The process would require multiple background checks and testing in English and U.S. civics.

Immigrants in New Mexico and Texas say, however, they want a less means-tested path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented residents in the nation and others, like the Baires Ventura and Cartagena families, who are still on their way.

“We want just immigration reform with pardons, not punishments — and not just for some of us but for all of us,” Susana Herrera, an undocumented immigrant living in El Paso, said in Spanish during an interview in a neighborhood park.

“I have felt like a prisoner in this country for 21 years,” she said. “I can’t go back to Mexico. I can’t get a good job. I have to work in the shadows and always receive racism and discrimination.”

Across the border at Pan de Vida, some sent back to Mexico under Migrant Protection Protocols have been waiting over two years for a court date in their asylum cases.

Others, like Baires Ventura, are waiting for the U.S. to end its use of Title 42 so they can begin to seek asylum.

“The best I can do is be patient,” Baires Ventura said.

Shelter residents can come and go as they please, but they say Central American accents are targeted in Juárez, and many have been assaulted on the streets and kidnapped in taxis for ransom.

Those who left a career back home describe leaving in a rush, facing denial at the border and now feeling stuck.

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Wearing a colostomy bag, Rojelio Hernandez shows his scars from being shot in Honduras. Hernandez, who is staying at the Pan de Vida shelter in Ciudad Juárez with his wife and five kids, says he’s worried about the risk of infection.

Rojelio Hernandez said he worked on construction sites as a civil engineer before surviving two gunshots to the torso in a street robbery in Santa Barbara, Honduras.

“I lived really well. I never ever thought I would emigrate,” said Hernandez, who has been at Pan de Vida for over a year with his wife and five kids, who range in age from 2 to 18. “I don’t have any money or any way of making money here, so we’re just waiting,” he said, speaking Spanish.

Joel Martinez worked in a state tourism department in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. His wife and two of his kids left home in April 2019 and made it to New York. He hasn’t seen them since. Martinez left home a few months later, in August, with their third child and reached the border by truck before being made to wait under Migrant Protection Protocols.

“We left the violence. Everyone gets threats,” Martinez said in Spanish, an hour before he and his son were scheduled to leave Pan de Vida.

They were likely to be dropped off by Customs and Border Protection at Annunciation House, with hopes of eventually reaching the rest of the family.

“The truth is, I really don’t know how I will get there. Someone will have to help me,” Martinez said. “It seems really unjust to make people wait here instead of with families in the United States.”

(24) comments

Prince Michael Jauregui

A most provocative and honest comment, Angel Ortiz. So, after 245-years, in the continent originally settled and colonized by Hispanos , -decades before anyone else- let's take a look at the scoreboard:

Hispano/Latino-American U.S. Population - 86 million

Hispano/Latino-American U.S. Presidents - 0

Hispano/Latino-American Vice-Presidents - 0

Hispano/Latino -American U.S. "Supreme" Court Justices - 1

Hispano/Latino-American actors in leading-roles on American television - 0

Yet, per-capita, Hispano/Latino-Americans are only second to Native Americans in U.S. Military Service? The "game" is rigged. So, "game" OVER.

Jim Klukkert

Prince Michael Jauregui- Never quit, never stop.

Prince Michael Jauregui

James, I appreciate you decent concern for your fellow man, however, bordering upon bleeding heart Liberalism. Still, let not your heart be troubled. Overstand, - if you will-my "Game over" phrase was not a lament, rather, a forewarning for the unjust, wicked and oppressive powers-that-won't-be in "America":

The U.S. "Government"? Multinational "Corporate America"? It's dead, Jim.

Jim Klukkert

PMJ- Call me a radical, as in get to the root of the issue, or a Christian Democratic Socialist, or a saddle tramp with a camera if you want. Please do not accuse me of being a liberal, nor troubled, nor a bleeding heart. My thoughts & conscience are clear, and I do not act out from guilt. I am motivated by self-interest. Curiously, turns out being charitable, kind and loving are the best choices, and so those are the qualities I nurture. I do admire the DL.

Tried all sorts of other choices, but here I am.

Thanks, Prince.

Prince Michael Jauregui

James, as always, your candor is greatly appreciated - and never any disrespect intended. Again, your genuine concern for your fellow man is extremely admirable, sir. Personally, I come from a long and distinguished line of Godly, "Giant Slayers", so I'm merely tending to family business - and business is very good, and getting better. Psalm 110 is 2021!

zach miller

saddest part is these immigrants are more american than Yvette Herrell could ever hope to be, as Herrell votes to disregard election results with no evidence.

Mike Johnson

We have laws and process for immigration here in the US, as well as distinctions for granting asylum. When I and my company were working in Somalia, we sponsored many refugees to immigrate here, none of them were just looking for a better job, more money, better living conditions, etc., they had a real reason to be refugees and could easily prove it given the civil war and Muslim terrorists rampant in their country. This should be no different.

Rob Morlino

Mr. Johnson, I lived for a year in Honduras for a year and have a masters' degree in international relations. Trust me, these folks are refugees fleeing violence.

Pam Walker

I just do not understand what the Gov is thinking allowing anyone in at all. We have homeless all over every city, hundreds without jobs due to covid, hungry people everywhere and not enough to go around. Not until every single American has a roof over their head and food to eat should we be allowing more to come in.

Jim Klukkert

"America First!" right Pam Walker? Are you claiming the United States had no role in creating the conditions south of the border?

What if "America First!" had been the call of those who first greeted your ancestors to these shores?

Pam Walker

Different world back then Sir. We are in the middle of a pandemic, people out of work, thousands in the streets homeless, and what is being done for them. This isn't immigration it is an invasion plain and simple. How many are you going to take into your house to feed, clothe, provide medical and the list goes on. Where are they going to go to school and how are we going to supply the extra teachers. I paid my taxes both Federal and State and would only wish that it help Americans first.

Jim Klukkert

How darn white of you Ms. Walker. Things were so much easier back then, a real student of history, except that you cannot answer the question of how the US created the problems in the South.

You claim this is a planned invasion? By whom? What nonsense.

You now feed on the white skin privilege that was created by oppressing others. This is the richest country in the world, and the new administration is doing plenty for the folks who are suffering. Move over, there is room in the life boat for plenty more, and they deserve the helping hands that you would deny.

We live in the largest house in the world. Perhaps if we rescind the Trump tax cuts for Billionaires, we will have plenty to share.

What goes around, comes around Ms. Walker. Suffer the children, and comfort the afflicted. Or we will afflict the comfortable no end.

Bonnie Cox


Laurie Buffer


Comment deleted.
Angel Ortiz

Interesting comment Claudia. Actually there are over 86 million of us here in the United States. Our numbers will continue to grow. The ironic thing is that my brown brothers and sisters who are trying to cross the border are seeking an empty dream here in the US. Our country had become more and more racist and all they will find is more oppression. Sad but true.

Prince Michael Jauregui

Truth, most-often, is quite disturbing: Anyone coming to our once-blessed country to escape violence, is jumping into the fire from the frying pan.

Robert Kowalski

I’ll ask the author of this piece, try and enter another country and ask for asylum in these times. What don’t you think will happen? I pretty much guarantee they’ll tell you to go back to where you began your “journey”.

Jim Klukkert

Good morning Mr. Kowalski- Please let us know what other country has more responsibility for the deplorable state of the environment, the economy and the lack of freedom in Latin America? Almost 200 years after the fifth US President declared the Monroe Doctrine, countless American military adventures, as well as cloak and dagger shenanigans, along with our Fossil Fuel polution of the planet, have left our neighbors poor and getting poorer.

One of the most troubled countries of the Northern Triangle, Honduras, was first labeled a Banana Republic by the writer O. Henry in 1904. But there are for more gringo companies with a history of political sabotage in the name of US Hegemony, AKA American Imperialism. Thank the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, and later AT&T, with its handmaiden Henry Kissinger for the fall of the oldest democracy in Latin America, Chile, in the first 9/11, this one in 1973.

The world is seeing this same cycle play out in Europe, where climate/political refugees are coming from the South seeking shelter from the storms set by Colonial Powers.

Which brings to mind an excellent lesson for us all. The climate crisis brought a drought to Syria, which drove destitute farmers off their land into cities. In turn this led to social pressures that ultimately led to the Syrian Civil War. People fleeing that conflict are rightly seen as climate/political refugees, as it was a combination of Climatic Stress and Social Instability that led to their exodus.

Cracker Barrell famously has a rule: "You Break It, You Bought It." More appropriate might be, "For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind," Hosea 8:7. Or more simply, "What goes around, comes around." Any of these idioms is what faces the wealthy nations of the First World, who built so much of what they have at the expense of the Third World.

Prince Michael Jauregui

Mr. Klukkert, you make an equally honest, and sweeping comment: From the Monroe Doctrine to O. Henry to Henry Kissinger to Syria to -ironcially- Cracker Barrel? Surprisingly, I was actually able to decipher your comment, and within it I found glimpses of ugly, Truth. All that was missing was the CIA-Reagan-Bush Contra-Cocaine unleashed to destroy Hispano/Latino-American communities. That, and Henry Mancini (see what I did there James?).

Without question, the wicked and gutless -again- CIA worked overtime placing puppet-governments in power throughout Central and South America, and as you correctly noted, Today, "America" is paying the price. Still Mr. Klukkert, at what point do these third-world nations cut their losses and take responsibility for their own inaction, corruption and misuse of resources? In 2021, one thing has been immutably established: Foreign nations allowing their citizens to illegally immigrate to the U.S. en masse has only enriched Corporate America - not the United States nor their home countries. While you allude to Syria, be advised, for decades I've taught that if the U.S. had placed as much emphasis, focus and resources with our neighbors in Central and South America, as they did in the Middle East and Africa, both continents would be much more prosperous and stable today: Think, Hemispherically.

Bottom-line: Dios lo ve todo. Psalm 149:Seven-9 in 2021!

Jim Klukkert

Mr. Prince Michael Jauregui- Good morning, and thank you for your reply.

To address your question- " at what point do these third-world nations cut their losses and take responsibility for their own inaction, corruption and misuse of resources?"

That point will be reached when those nations finally achieve the ability to speak with one voice, a voice that comes from a vast majority of their citizens, rather than the elites of privilege who currently rule by force.

That might take some time, given that the poor do not seem to have any access to the power to determine their own fate.

To answer your other question, "see what I did there James?" No I do not, especially given your reference to Hank Mancini. I suspect humor is at play, which would be welcome, Prince!

Prince Michael Jauregui

James, Ex-ack-a-ack-ly....I was merely to stay true to your Henry stream-of-Consciousness. Remind me to tell you about the time I went to the home of John Henry Deutchendorf (AKA John Denver) in Roswell, when I was 11-years-old! Be good to you James.

Welcome to the discussion.

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