CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — The migrants’ hopes have been drummed up by human smugglers who promise that President Joe Biden’s administration will welcome them.
Instead, the United States is expelling them back to Mexico, where they wait along with tens of thousands of others hoping to cross. The pressure, and desperation, is quickly building among families stuck in Mexico, as shelters and officials struggle to help them.
In the United States, federal authorities are scrambling to manage a sharp increase in children who are crossing the border on their own and then being held in detention facilities, often longer than permitted by law. And the twinned crises on both sides of the border show no sign of abating.
Near the crossing with El Paso, Texas, a group of mothers and fathers clutching their children were sobbing as they walked back into Mexico from the United States on Saturday. They walked unsteadily, in sneakers too loose after their shoelaces were confiscated and discarded along with all their other personal items when they were detained by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
From his office in Ciudad Juárez, Enrique Valenzuela sprang from his chair, leaving a meeting to run to the bridge to meet the families after his daughter, Elena, 13, spotted them coming.
Valenzuela, a coordinator for the Mexican government’s migration efforts in Chihuahua state, knew that if he couldn’t get to them to offer help, organized crime networks who prey on migrants’ desperation to extort or kidnap them for ransom probably would.
The migrants — nine adults and 10 children — wiped their tears as Valenzuela drew near. The moment was one of several such scenes of despair and confusion witnessed by New York Times journalists at the border over three days.
“The border is closed,” Valenzuela said. “Come with me, I will help.” He led the group to his office near the rusty border wall that separates El Paso from Ciudad Juárez, topped with miles of new concertina wire installed in the final weeks of President Donald Trump’s administration, officials said.
Jenny Contreras, a 19-year-old Guatemalan mother of a 3-year-old girl, collapsed in a seat as Valenzuela handed out hand sanitizer.
“I did not make it,” she sobbed into the phone as she spoke with her husband, a butcher in Chicago.
“Biden promised us!” wailed another woman.
Many of the migrants said they had spent their life savings and gone into debt to pay coyotes — human smugglers — who had falsely promised them that the border was open after Biden’s election.
Still, the migrants keep coming, and many officials believe the numbers could be bigger than those seen in recent years, after the pandemic and recent natural disasters in Central America wiped away livelihoods.
Biden is now directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help manage the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who are filling up detention facilities after Biden said, shortly after taking office, that his administration would no longer turn back unaccompanied minors.
Mexican officials and shelter operators say the number of children, with parents or unaccompanied, is reaching levels not seen since 2018. Late that year, tens of thousands of migrants headed for the border each month, prompting Trump’s administration to separate families and lock them up. Hundreds of children remain separated from their parents to this day.
Biden has asked Mexico’s government for help in easing the pileup at the border. So far, Mexico’s response has mostly been to ramp up raids of smuggling rings and to begin sending migrants — most of them from Central America — back home, according to shelter operators in Mexico. The government is also trying to keep more migrants from crossing into Mexico from Central America, as it did during the Trump administration, officials said.
A Mexican Foreign Ministry official said the government was within its right to deport unauthorized migrants but did not comment on whether raids had increased in recent weeks or whether the Mexican government was responding to a U.S. request.
At the international bridge on Saturday, Dagoberto Pineda, a Honduran migrant, looked shocked as he discreetly wiped away tears and held his 6-year-old son’s hand. He had thought he was entering the United States, but here he was in Ciudad Juárez, crying underneath a Mexican flag. He asked Valenzuela and New York Times journalists for help: Was he allowed in or not?
A massive hurricane hurtled through Pineda’s town late last year, destroying the banana plantation he worked on, owned by Chiquita Brands International. After years of paying Pineda about $12 a day to help fill American grocery stores with fresh fruit, the company laid him off. When coyotes offered him a chance to cross into the United States for $6,000 — more than his annual salary — he took it.
Pineda had crossed from Tamaulipas state into southern Texas, where he was detained by U.S. officials for several days. When he was flown 600 miles to a second detention center in El Paso, Texas, he thought his entry into the United States had finally been granted.
Instead, on Saturday, Border Patrol agents released him on the Paso del Norte bridge, linking El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, and told him to walk in the direction of the Mexican flags.
Over the past week, Mexican officials and shelter operators like the International Organization of Migration said they had been surprised by the Department of Homeland Security’s new practice of detaining migrants at one point of the sprawling border only to fly them hundreds of miles away to be expelled at a different border town.
The United States is doing this under a federal order known as Title 42. The order, introduced by Trump but embraced by Biden, justifies rapid expulsions as a health measure amid the pandemic. But cramming migrants into airplanes and overcrowded detention facilities without any coronavirus testing defeats the purpose of Title 42, observers say.
Stephanie Malin, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, said that U.S. authorities had seen “an increase in encounters” but that to adhere to federal guidelines for COVID-19, border officials were “expeditiously” transferring migrants out of their custody.
“Trump got his wall, it’s called Title 42,” said Rubén Garcia, founder of Annunciation House, one of the largest shelter networks in the United States, based in El Paso.
Still, the new surge of migrants is straining resources throughout the system. Last Sunday, Garcia said, he was left with barely 30 minutes to prepare after being told by the authorities that 200 migrants were about to be deposited at his shelter, none of them tested for COVID-19.
“I’m on calls with staffers at the White House and DHS and when I’m on those calls I say: ‘You’re not prepared. You’re not prepared for what is about to happen,’” Garcia said in an interview, using the acronym for the Department of Homeland Security.
Across the border, Mexican officials are also ill-prepared to handle the rising number of migrants, with shelters at a breaking point.
If Valenzuela’s daughter had not looked up from her book to spot the families crossing the border, all 19 migrants would have been dumped in downtown Ciudad Juárez, one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, at the mercy of the cartels or human traffickers.
The night before, Valenzuela welcomed 45 families with little time to prepare.
Under Trump’s Remain in Mexico Policy, which deported migrants to Mexico to wait out their court cases for asylum in the United States, communication and coordination was better between the various organizations operating along the border, shelter operators and Mexican officials said. Biden ended that policy in January and promised to start processing some of the 25,000 migrants enrolled in that program. In recent weeks, hundreds have been let in.
Jettner, 29, a migrant from Honduras, is one of those who was allowed in to the United States. After waiting for nearly two years on the border with his wife and two daughters, it took them barely an hour on Friday to be processed and let in. He swiftly went to his sister’s house in Dallas.
As he walked up the bridge, leaving Ciudad Juárez behind as he strode toward El Paso, he was confident. “My life is going to change 180 degrees,” said Jettner, who asked that only his first name be used, fearing reprisals for his family back home. “I am going to a place where I will be well and have a decent roof over the heads of my daughters.”
Though U.S. officials insist that the border is closed to new migrants, that has not stopped thousands from making the dangerous journey north, most from Central America.
Just four months ago, the Filter Hotel shelter in Ciudad Juárez was so empty that they used several rooms as storage. The shelter, run by the International Organization of Migration, now has signs on its door declaring “no space.”
Of the 1,165 people the Filter Hotel has processed since early May, nearly 39% were minors, most of them younger than 12, employees said. Its staff often has to shoo smugglers away when they loiter around shelter entrances.
Gladys Oneida Pérez Cruz, 48, and her 23-year-old son, Henry Arturo Menjívar Pérez, who has cerebral palsy, came to the shelter after being expelled from the United States late last month. Shortly after Biden’s inauguration, smugglers began cruising her neighborhood in Honduras for business, falsely putting out the word that the U.S. border was open.
Pérez hoped to join her sister in Maryland, and to find work that would help her afford medicine for her son.
A coyote charged her $9,000 for the trip — a steeper price than she expected, but it came with the promise she would travel by car and his colleagues would help her carry her son across the border, as he had to leave his wheelchair behind. Her sister wired the money. She and her son embarked on the dangerous trek on Feb. 7, she said. Nearly two weeks later, the smugglers dumped them at the border and said they would have to cross on their own.
They managed to cross after hours of effort, but were quickly detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents and expelled back to Mexico. She has decided to return to Honduras, preferring to face poverty rather than risk being killed or kidnapped in Mexico.
“I apologize for having tried to enter the United States like this, but it was because of my need and my son’s illness,” she said through her tears.
“Biden promised us that everything was going to change,” she said. “He hasn’t done it yet, but he is going to be a good president for migrants.”