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.
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.
‘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.
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.
‘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.”
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.
‘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.
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.”