Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail
Pastor Juan Fierro was sitting in the migrant shelter he runs, on a dirt road in an outlying neighbourhood of Ciudad Juarez, around dusk one recent evening. Five Venezuelans approached the front door: three women and two children. They had been sleeping for the last week in a downtown plaza in this Mexican city.
Though the shelter was full, Mr. Fierro invited them in. Temperatures in the high desert can fall below freezing this time of year. There are stories of cartels kidnapping women off the streets. He would somehow make room. “There are 25 shelters in the city, and it’s still not enough capacity for everyone who’s arriving,” he said.
This is the picture along the U.S.-Mexico border. Worsening economic and political conditions in already-dire Venezuela have pushed even more people to leave. Hope among migrants that the U.S. might soon lift Title 42, a Trump administration policy that allows for immediate deportation of most refugee claimants, has also spurred the influx.
But the Supreme Court has so far chosen to extend Title 42. U.S. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has ended exceptions to the policy for migrants from Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba, barring them from seeking asylum at the border. Instead, he has set up a channel for them to file refugee claims from outside the country.
Mr. Biden has promised his new system will still offer protection while creating a more orderly process at the border. For tens of thousands of migrants waiting – and people trying to help them – it’s unclear whether the procedure will work, either in fulfilling the U.S.’s humanitarian obligation to take in refugees or easing the strain on border communities
Michele Mujica and Alexander Gonzalez, who trekked nearly four months from Venezuela with their seven-year-old daughter and several other family members to reach the U.S.’s doorstep, are among those putting their faith in the system. They haven’t tried to cross the border, instead making asylum applications from Mexico.
“We’re doing it the legal way,” Ms. Mujica, 22, said in the courtyard of El Buen Pastor, the whitewashed adobe shelter Mr. Fierro manages. “It has been very dangerous to get here.”
Mr. Gonzalez wasn’t making enough money to feed his family despite holding down three jobs in the city of Maracay: in an autobody shop, a grocery and a clothing store. So the family decided to search for a better life. Joining a group of dozens of other Venezuelans, they hiked for days through the Darien jungle in Panama, paying hundreds of dollars to human smugglers not to murder them. In Guatemala, they were repeatedly stopped by soldiers and shaken down yet again.
“We want to follow the American dream,” Mr. Gonzalez, 26, said.
At a government office in Juarez’s city centre, hundreds of migrants are packed in every day, looking for help finding shelter, work or completing immigration papers.
Enrique Valenzuela, the agency’s director, said many would never make it across the border. If they would put down roots in Juarez instead, he vowed, they would find the sort of welcome so often lacking in the U.S. The industrial metropolis of 1.5 million, which sprawls an arid valley between steep brown mountains, has 35,000 unfilled jobs in its factories.
“This city was built by migrants,” he said. “All of those that are willing to stay and work and become a productive part of this community, we’re glad to have them.”
Many asylum seekers are reluctant to remain. They say Mexican police and immigration officials have persistently harassed them, apparently looking either to clear the streets or collect bribes. “At 2 a.m., they came and grabbed people out of their tents,” said Ricardo Vazquez, as he sat in an encampment near the border describing how he was once held in detention for four days.
A 57-year-old farmer from Cali, Colombia, Mr. Vazquez said he was chased off his land back home by drug traffickers who shot him in the leg. He compounded the injury by falling off a train on his journey north. The police in Juarez eventually took pity and let him go.
Across the Rio Grande in Texas, the frayed social safety net is facing obstacles from anti-immigration politicians. Governor Greg Abbott has ordered the state attorney-general to investigate organizations that help undocumented migrants. These groups are also ineligible for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The political landscape recently has not been a kind one,” said John Martin, deputy director of the Opportunity Center for the Homeless, a shelter in El Paso, Tex. “Our immigration system has been broken for decades.”
When Mr. Biden visited earlier this month, Mr. Martin said the President asked what he could do to help. Mr. Martin told him that the city needed another shelter that would take people in regardless of immigration status.
Still, there have been some signs of hope. At El Buen Pastor, Mr. Fierro said migrants who have stayed with him recently have been regularly getting appointments to cross into the U.S. Those who have faced threats, extortion or violence back home are most likely to be taken in, he said.
One Mexican official said U.S. authorities have always made exceptions to Title 42. They have typically relied on Mexican authorities and NGOs to refer people who have the strongest asylum cases. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the behind-the-scenes workings of the immigration system.
To Mr. Fierro, the attitude of U.S. politicians who want to completely pull up the drawbridge is self-defeating.
“They should have a wider vision. The tough jobs, the harder work in the U.S. is done by Latinos,” he said. “With a lot of effort, those immigrants have succeeded.”
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Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail