JUÁREZ ― Maribel E. reached the top of the Paso del Norte bridge, where the U.S. ends and Mexico begins, clutching her 5-month-old baby in a black and white Mickey Mouse blanket.
The 36-year-old Honduran mother stopped at the top, just after 5 a.m., unsure of what to do next. The past hours had been harrowing. She had crossed the border illegally, in the desert dark and cold. The U.S. Border Patrol had taken her fingerprints and left her on the bridge back to a city that can be especially dangerous to those who don’t know it.
“I couldn’t have imagined everything that happened,” she said. “I came to give my son a better future. I thought they were accepting women with children.”
Since inauguration, Biden administration officials have repeatedly insisted that “the border is closed,” but that message is being ignored by coyote smugglers and thousands who are making unauthorized crossing attempts borderwide. The administration also isn’t applying its “closed border” policies evenly across the Texas border.
“The border is not open,” Troy Miller, the senior administration official performing the duties of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said in a recent press call. “We are moving as fast as we can to rebuild, but this is going to take time.”
At the El Paso-Juárez border, the Border Patrol continues to expel migrants to Mexico ― including people from Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador, Brazil and other nationalities ― under the Title 42 public health law invoked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a year agoto prevent the spread of COVID-19 in border holding facilities.
The Title 42 mandate prohibits the Border Patrol from holding people in “congregant settings.”
The border was closed for Maribel E., who asked that her full name not be used because of her uncertain immigration status. But the same week that border agents ejected the Honduran mother at the El Paso-Juárez border, dozens of migrant families who crossed recently with tender-age children in South Texas were flown up to El Paso ― where some were processed for release into the U.S.
U.S. Border Patrol El Paso Sector Chief Gloria Chavez told the El Paso Times that, beginning March 8, “the El Paso Sector has been receiving a varying number of family units daily from the South Texas region” and that the agency’s “priority is to process them and expel them into Mexico under Title 42.”
“We work very closely with the government of Mexico and they also have capacity issues that we have to consider; therefore, only a limited amount of families from the region and from South Texas can be expelled into Ciudad Juárez daily in coordination with Mexico immigration officials,” Chavez said in an emailed statement.
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“This has prompted us to coordinate with local El Paso city and county officials and non-governmental organizations to coordinate the release of families from the South Texas region to our local NGO shelter network,” she said.
El Paso’s Annunciation House shelter is receiving the families that are released, said director Ruben Garcia. The families being released are in addition to the organized, daily arrivals of migrants who have been waiting in Juárez under the Migrant Protection Protocols.
The number of migrants crossing the border in family units — children traveling with a parent or legal guardian — climbed sharply in February from the prior month. The Border Patrol reported 18,945 apprehensions or “encounters” of family units in February, up from 7,064 in January.
The numbers are well above year-ago levels, when the Border Patrol reported roughly 4,600 apprehensions of people traveling with a family member in February 2020 and about 5,100 in January 2020.
At 5 a.m. on Thursday, there were no representatives of the government of Mexico to receive the Honduran woman, her baby and two other Guatemalan mothers with four girls between them in Juárez. The women found themselves at the delta of the Paso del Norte bridge, where cross-border commuters idled their engines and blared their horns as the line of passenger vehicles inched north.
Migrants are especially vulnerable in the minutes and hours after they are left at border crossings to return to Mexico, advocates say.
Two nonprofit organizations, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First, have documented hundreds of abuses against migrants returned to Juárez and other Mexican border cities including sexual assault, theft and kidnapping.
Maribel E. sat on a concrete bench and cried. She called her mother in the U.S. on a cellphone, with the speaker on.
They kicked me out of the country, mami. They kicked me out of Texas. I’m here where it says, ‘Puente Internacional Paso del Norte.’ And my son without clothes for the cold…
Through the speaker a woman said, “They didn’t give you an appointment?”
Nothing mami, nothing, nothing. They only took my passport, and imagine, this child with such cold, and no, nothing, nothing. Ay mami, I am so confused…
‘Very, very limited capacity’
Every day around 9 a.m., a Chihuahua state-run migrant aid center opens its doors around the corner from the base of the Paso del Norte bridge in Juárez.
The agency, known as the CAIM, coordinates with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to receive expelled migrant families, said Enrique Valenzuela, who runs the center.
The CAIM received about 100 migrants expelled in family units on Monday, Valenzuela said and took in dozens each of the previous three days. The windows of the CAIM building look out upon the bridge, and agency workers watch for when people are heading south on the northbound side of the bridge, he said.
“It’s been decided that we’re going to receive them at the Paso del Norte bridge,” Valenzuela said. “They send everyone around midday.”
The CAIM directs those who need a safe place to stay to “filter shelters” in the city’s network of religious and nonprofit refuges, where they must quarantine for two weeks.
“In reality we can say that we’re full,” Valenzuela said of the shelter network. “At this point, they have very, very limited capacity.”
In El Paso, Ruben Garcia, director of the Annunciation House, said that his shelter is receiving new migrant families flown up from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and released by Border Patrol in El Paso.
Later that day, the Annunciation House would also receive several dozen migrants who waited for years for their chance to cross into the U.S. legally under the Migrant Protection Protocols.
“What I can tell you, from the people being released, they are overwhelmingly Central American they are all family units and they all have at least one tender aged child,” he said.
More:‘Unacceptable’: Border Patrol holding hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children in El Paso
Linda Rivas, executive director of El Paso’s Las Americas Immigrant Rights network, said the nonprofit’s attorneys have done “bridge observations” watching for patterns in the expulsion of migrants under Title 42.
Referring to the apparent inconsistencies in Border Patrol’s application of Title 42, she said, “Some Title 42 people are accompanied by the Mexican government and sometimes they completely by themselves.”
“This inconsistent treatment of Title 42 — depending on what sector a person crosses in — is leading to people like these mothers to take these very, very dangerous risks of potentially making it across and some people are not,” Rivas said.
‘Don’t stay on the street!’
Maribel E., in a government-issued blue surgical face mask, nuzzled her baby close.
On the phone, the woman’s voice came through earnestly, begging: “Don’t you dare go anywhere but with someone who is going to a shelter. To a shelter, you hear me!
Si mami, okay.
The voice on the line insisted: “Don’t stay on the street!”
Sí, mami, sí…
Maribel hung up the line.
The metal doors were drawn down tight on the dental offices and pharmacies and currency exchanges that line Avenida Juárez at the base of the bridge. Taxi drivers hawked their services, but Maribel E. didn’t have the pesos to pay, nor anywhere to go.
Lauren Villagran can be reached at [email protected]