TIJUANA, Mexico — Tucked into a grassy canyon where cars bump along dirt roads, Templo Embajadores De Jesús has become one of several shelters in this border city across from San Diego, where hundreds of migrant families expelled from the United States have been stranded over the past month.
On a sunny afternoon this week, the church’s auditorium buzzed with the anxious shuffle of nearly 1,000 people, mostly mothers and children from Honduras and Guatemala, who were flown to San Diego and released into Tijuana by US immigration officials after they attempted to cross into the country undetected at points along the border as much as 1,500 miles away.
At least a dozen parents who had just arrived described a dizzying journey after reaching the United States, which was supposed to be the final destination of their onerous trek.
They said they were apprehended and held for days in South Texas, where immigration officers asked for identification documents and took their fingerprints; the officers asked few questions and offered the refugees no chance to talk about their cases. Some said agents told them they were headed to a shelter in San Diego, where they would have an opportunity to call their relatives and stay in the country, but they realized that was not true when they saw Mexican flags waving as they were bused over the border.
“I feel tricked,” said a 39-year-old mother from Honduras, her daughter, 3, tugging on a sweater as the two sat on a gray polyester floor mat where they had spent the night. “They tell us we can’t lie because it is a crime, and yet, they used lies to fool us,” said another woman, 28, who came with her 2-year-old daughter from northern Honduras. Other mothers, tired and disheveled, nodded in agreement. The Globe is not identifying the women because some were fleeing assailants in their native country.
The harsh realities for migrant families underscore how little has changed at the US-Mexico border under President Biden, even as he has sought to turn the page on immigration after the Trump administration. Indeed, the situation could worsen if more migrants continue to flee.
Biden has rolled back some of his predecessor’s most aggressive anti-immigrant policies, pledging a more humane approach to the way the nation takes in people requesting asylum or other forms of immigration relief. But at the nation’s southern edge, federal officials have left in place one of the tightest immigration controls in decades — an old public health statute called Title 42 that the Trump administration used last year as the pandemic took hold to bar all nonessential travel. That allowed US border officials to instantly deport or turn away refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants.
The rule has helped fuel a sort of cruel dissonance at the border.
US officials are allowing some migrants and asylum seekers into the country as they unwind Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols, or the “Remain in Mexico” program, which required people to wait out their US immigration and asylum cases on the other side of the border. The US also is taking in children attempting to cross the border without their parents, following a federal court ruling in November against Trump officials’ efforts to deport unaccompanied minors without due process.
But the border remains closed to virtually all other migrants, as the administration attempts to rebuild an asylum system hollowed out under Trump and continues to insist on a bipartisan approach in Congress to rewriting the nation’s immigration laws.
“The asylum system, in some ways, has been preserved as Trump has left it because we haven’t really seen any tangible changes yet,” said Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of the Central American Resource Center San Francisco, one of several community-based organizations that have been responding to the needs of migrant families arriving in California.
That hasn’t stopped people waiting in Mexico from trying to cross the border again — or deterred new minors and families from coming. And in recent weeks, US and Mexican officials have scrambled to respond to a large increase in children and teens fleeing poverty, hurricane-ravaged homes, and drug and gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The number reached more than 18,800 in March, breaking the previous record of 11,861 in May 2019, according to the latest public federal data.
To curb overcrowding as they did in certain southwestern sectors in 2019, US Customs and Border Protection agents in mid-March started sending migrants from some of their facilities — mainly in Yuma, Ariz., and the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas — to other facilities in San Diego, and El Paso and Laredo, Texas. Biden administration officials have said this largely was done because some Mexican border states have not had the capacity to take in people expelled from the United States. But officials of the border agency — commonly known by its initials, CBP — say their own processing facilities are also strained.
“In order to process individuals as safely and expeditiously as possible, other sectors along the Southwest border are assisting by processing these subjects at their facilities,” a CBP spokesman said in an e-mail this week. CBP assesses “numerous operational considerations” when determining which families to fly where, but the spokesman declined to specify what those were, and federal officials say they have not made a determination as to when the flights might end.
Interviews over the past two weeks with more than two dozen migrant parents, immigrant advocates, and human rights activists in Tijuana and in the Mexican desert city of Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, captured the confusion and often Kafkaesque situations in which families are trapped.
At Centro Cristiano Pan De Vida, a shelter in Juárez where almost 300 people have been sharing space in 15 small houses spread out across dirt yards, several parents echoed the experiences of those in Tijuana. The families were held in South Texas in border processing facilities kept at such frigid temperatures that they are known as “hieleras” — Spanish for icebox — where the nights were interrupted with cell cleanings, inspections, and instructions from officers to dispose of all of their clothes, medications, and other belongings.
“They told us it was all garbage,” said Mayra, a 40-year-old mother who held back tears and asked that only her first name be used for fear of retaliation from US authorities. After several days, US immigration officials put the parents and their children on a plane to El Paso, about 750 miles west, with claims that they would have an opportunity there to reconnect with friends and relatives in the United States, parents said.
“‘Oh, you are fortunate because out of all the 500 people here, only you are going to get to call your families once you’re there,’” Mayra recalled one male agent loudly telling her group when someone shouted, “Where are we going? We have a right to know.”
Mayra left her native Honduras in March with her two children, ages 2 and 6, after a hurricane last year wiped out her crops, ravaging her farming business; criminal organizations had also begun to infiltrate her neighborhood. She had been hoping to reunite with her husband, a construction worker in North Carolina recovering from COVID-19; he was rushed to the hospital as she traveled north.
Instead, she and a busload of people were driven back across the border and dropped off in Juárez on April 10 as shopkeepers were closing for the day. “We wandered through the streets in search of a church to take us in,” she said.
Alfredo, 25, a native of Guatemala who lost his coffee farm in Honduras to a hurricane, left the country with his 6-year-old son in January after he was threatened by gang members. Months ago, he and his son had first attempted to turn themselves into US immigration agents near the Rio Grande in Juárez and were expelled. The two tried to cross the border again through Reynosa, across from McAllen in South Texas, but they were stopped by border agents, held in a processing facility, and flown to San Diego.
“‘Don’t worry,’ [CBP officers] told us, ‘You are headed to California — not Mexico,’ and we felt joy,” he said. But the relief didn’t last long, as officials released the group in Tijuana. There, he called home and learned his wife had also had to escape Honduras because of the gang threats.
She attempted to cross through Juárez with their 7-month-old daughter, and the two were summarily deported before Alfredo and their son could join them. Now, he, his wife, and their two children are waiting out the days at Pan De Vida.
“People think that there is going to be opportunity here, that Biden is going to help you because, as people say, he is a good president,” said Alfredo, who gave only his first name because of the danger his family faces. “But once you cross the border, you realize the reality, that this is the place where dreams end and a sadness strikes because of how much children suffer along the way.”
Immigration lawyers and immigrant advocates debate whether the false promises from US immigration officials stem from incompetence, the continuation of cruelty as a form of deterrence, or the willful fueling of confusion by rogue agents at odds with the new administration over immigration policies. Asked to comment on the allegations, a CBP spokesman said only that “the border is not open” and that the agency is continuing to return the vast majority of people under Title 42.
Whatever the case, the actions by border guards seem tailored to “break spirits,” said Hugo Castro, founder of SOS Migrantes Org, an advocacy group serving migrants in Tijuana and San Diego. And at least two lawyers handling the asylum and immigration cases of families in Tijuana and Juárez said the rule is forcing some parents into a difficult choice: sending their children across the border alone.
“It feels similar to Trump, and in some ways it feels worse because we thought that things are getting better, and they’re not, and we’re exhausted,” said Linda Rivas, executive director and managing attorney of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.
As congressional Republicans have used the border wall in El Paso as a photo-op backdrop, seizing on the humanitarian crisis to stir ethnic anxiety and portray the border as overrun, activists, artists, and advocates last weekend gathered at San Diego’s historic Chicano Park, where colorful murals tell Mexican American and Latino history. As part of the “Caravan for the Children” campaign, the coalition led by Latino and immigrant rights groups from the San Francisco Bay Area called on Biden to reunite families and allow migrants to enter the country to petition for asylum, as is their legal right.
The caravan then made its way to the San Diego Convention Center, where federal officials are holding hundreds of unaccompanied minors. Activists unfurled banner letters the color of silver foil, like the blankets with which migrants sleep in hieleras. They spelled words such as “heal” and “uncage.”
But change is unlikely to happen soon as children and families continue to arrive at the US-Mexico border, and the challenges have only become more politically fraught. Just this month, Biden initially refused to lift the refugee cap, violating a campaign promise, before quickly reversing course amid outrage from Democrats and immigrant rights groups.
The president in February directed several agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, to review whether his administration should end the Title 42 expulsions. But since early March, Biden officials have said the nation is not ready to do so.
“We need individuals to wait,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a briefing last month. “And I will say that they will wait with a goal in mind, and that is our ability to rebuild, as quickly as possible, a system so that they don’t have to take the dangerous journey and we can enable them to access humanitarian relief from their countries of origin.”
Asked for an update on the review Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki again said the nation was not ready to lift the public health rule. “Title 42 is still in place because we are still in the midst of fighting a global pandemic, so I don’t have any predictions as to when that will change,” she said.
In Tijuana, hundreds of migrant families have set up a tent city dubbed “La Esperanza” outside the US port of entry El Chaparral to wait for a chance to plead for asylum. Food is scarce and parents pay a couple of pesos to use the bathroom and take showers in makeshift facilities.
At Embajadores, families sleep on mats on the floor or a few small bunk beds crammed in the back of the room draped with San Marcos blankets to create some sense of privacy. Through the night, parents said, children cough and often wake up screaming or crying, although on a recent afternoon some were all smiles as they chased each other around the room.
“I feel traumatized,” said the 39-year-old mother from Honduras of her brush with US immigration agencies. “I am going to wait here a few days and try to recover before I decide what to do next.”