Migrants being sent back into Mexico over the Hidalgo International Bridge from McAllen to Reynosa paused to lace their sneakers and restart smartphones. The migrants floated across the Rio Grande River during a torrential downpour in the small hours of Tuesday morning, but were captured by Border Patrol agents and returned to Mexico within seven hours under Title 42 provisions, according to a Salvadoran woman – who ignored questions from Mexico border guards upon entering Reynosa and disappeared into the city.
Title 42, a pandemic health provision facilitating the rapid expulsion of migrants back to Mexico, was scheduled to be lifted May 23. But federal Judge Robert Summerhays issued an injunction against its removal May 20. Migrants converged on the borderlands in advance of its scheduled lifting, joining the thousands of potential asylum-seekers already waiting in cities such as Reynosa for the opportunity to present their petitions to U.S. officials.
Kevin Mendoza was one such person hoping to apply for asylum. The 30-year-old bus driver paid a coyote $4,800 and set out from Managua on April 29, knowing the Nicaraguans were exempt from Title 42 since the U.S. government generally doesn’t return migrants to countries with which it has poor diplomatic relations such as Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. That policy changed, however, as he was traveling through the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz as the U.S. and Mexican governments struck a deal for Mexican to accept the return of a limited number of migrants from those countries under Title 42 provisions. “They approved this law in which they were going to deport 20 Nicaraguans (daily) and I was came here as part of these 20 Nicaraguans,” Mendoza said ruefully from a Reynosa migrant shelter.
Others interviewed in Reynosa say they had no knowledge of Title 42 prior to paying coyotes to take them to the United States – even though they hit the migrant trail more than a year after it was imposed as a pandemic precaution in March 2020. “They tricked us,” a woman calling herself “Lluvia” said of the coyotes’ sales pitch in her native El Salvador. Part of the sales pitch, she said, was “mothers with children are entering.”
Lluvia said she couldn’t return to El Salvador; she previously paid extortion to gangsters and she had to repay the money handed over to coyotes. She end up in a camp for migrants in Reynosa’s Plaza de las Americas, a stone’s throw from the Hidalgo International Bridge. (The Reynosa municipal government recently cleared the camp, forcing migrants to find space in one of three shelters.) Camp conditions were deplorable with residents living in tents, lacking adequate sanitation and enduring cold snaps and heatwaves alike. They cooked with firewood and largely depended on donations from Evangelical congregations and kind-hearted Americans. They were also targeted by drug cartels, which control access to crossing the Rio Grande River. Lluvia formed part of a patrol to keep criminals and cops out. “Sometimes it was the police coming in here to steal migrants’ money,” she said.
An American missionary working in the camp said criminal groups attempted to recruit desperate migrants. They also kept a close eye on the camp to sell their smuggling services as desperation drove migrants to cross the river. Some migrants sent their children with smugglers, knowing the minors would be taken into Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody and eventually released into the custody of a family member already residing state-side.
- SENDING CHILDREN SOLO
A Salvadoran woman named Marleny, 35, paid smugglers $1,400 to take her son to the United States in December 2021 after he repeatedly fell ill with stomach problems and diarrhea in the Reynosa camp. The smugglers sent her child across the Rio Grande “in the arms of a woman” and with another 16-year-old migrant – leaving them on the U.S. side of the river and texting her a photo of the pair. The children were collected by Border Patrol agents and her son was re-united with Marleny’s husband, who had been living in Los Angeles for the past four years. The story did not have a happy ending, however. Marleny said her husband lost interest in her plight after being reunited with their son, though she would wait for Title 42 to be lifted and try for family reunification. She also expressed fears over returning to El Salvador, having received threats from unknown gangsters, who had been unhappy with her husband, a former soldier – forcing him to flee in 2017.
Sending children solo to the United States isn’t a new phenomenon, but it surged 2021. Data obtained by CBS News showed 12,212 re-entries by unaccompanied migrant minors previously expelled under Title 42, according CBP.
- POLICE MUSCLE OR POLITICAL THEATER?
Speaking at a press conference, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott estimated 100,000 potential asylum-seekers were waiting in Mexican border cities for Title 42 to be lifted. Border observers expressed skepticism with the figures, but reported an influx ahead of May 23.
Dominican Brother Obed Cuellar, director of the diocesan migrant shelter in Piedras Negras, opposite Eagle Pass, Texas, estimated several hundred migrants had been arriving daily throughout the month of May. Migrants opted for Piedras Negras, he said, due to perceptions of public safety – especially in comparison to cities in nearby Tamaulipas such as Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros, where drug cartels prey upon migrants. The increase in migration led to more attempted river crossings – and drownings. Cuellar put the number of drownings in the dozens so far in 2022, in spite of Coahuila state police supposedly guarding access to the Rio Grande, working closing with Texas DPS and even deploying a helicopter to hover above migrants crossing the Rio Grande.
The arrival of so many migrants in Piedras Negras followed the Coahuila state government – and the governments of Nuevo León, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas – signing agreements with Texas to enhance border security. The deals came after Abbott ordered truck inspections at ports of entry, which snarled cross-border trade. Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard – an early favorite for the 2024 presidential race – called the tactics “extortion” and told the Milenio news channel, “We’re not prepared to have a governor extorting Mexico. I will never allow that.” Economy Secretary Tatiana Clouthier announced a proposed rail corridor connecting the port of Mazatlán with the Canadian city of Winnipeg would bypass Texas and traverse New Mexico instead. “We can’t leave all the eggs in one basket and be hostages to someone who wants to use trade as a political tool,” the Dallas Morning News reported Clouthier saying.
Cuellar described the situation as Coahuila as police acting in their usual ways:
“How do you explain that entering the state of Coahuila, there are five, six state police checkpoints the length of the state of Coahuila, where there are supposedly filters so that migrants don’t get here? So how do people arrive at the border in such numbers? How do they pass through these five, six checkpoints? There’s a lot of extortion, where police charge migrants money to let them through.”
Journalist Jorge Ventura asked Abbott if he considered his deals with Mexican governors a success given the “minimal presence to stop illegal crossings.” Abbott responded: “There’s only been one government official in the United States of America that has negotiated with and talked with Mexican officials about the border.”
- HUMANITARIAN PAROLE
Migrant advocates report an increasing number of asylum-seekers are being admitted to the United States through humanitarian parole, which applies often to families or people falling ill. In Reynosa, several sources in April reported “20 to 30” people daily were admitted daily at the port of entry. Much of it depended on the discretion of leadership at the port of entry, they said. “With this issue of seeking humanitarian visa, migrants make use of all these difficult situations that there have been and they will have to face be able to enter the United States,” said Father Francisco Gallardo, director of migrant ministries for the Diocese of Matamoros, who called humanitarian parole, “A blessing and a curse.” “What families are doing is sometimes getting sick and not taking care of themselves, letting their children get sick and not taking care of them until it’s serious. And with that they believe that they can enter the United States more quickly.”
In Reynosa, a Colombian family of three entered the United States under the humanitarian parole provisions May 24. They were among the 38 individuals admitted to the United States that day under humanitarian parole, the family said. All those entering that day were Haitians except for the Colombians – two adults and their six-year-old son. All were in families – spare two individuals, who were sick, they said. The Colombians said they fled their country after receiving death threats. The patriarch dealt cryptocurrencies – used for remittances and money transfers, he said – but received overtures from criminal organizations to launder their funds, he said. They fled after an unnamed criminal organization threatened his wife and son – traveling to Panama, then Cancún, Mexico City and Reynosa, where they stayed for a month, waiting for Title 42 to be lifted. (Colombians can enter Mexico without visas.) They immediately purchased plane tickets to New York upon arriving in McAllen.
Journalists covering immigration report a U.S. policy now of families being interviewed or processed under regular immigration procedures if they express fears of facing danger upon expulsion to Mexico.
- RECORD NICARAGUAN ARRIVALS
The United States struck a deal with Mexico in late April for 20 Nicaraguans and 100 Cubans to be returned daily from three border regions to Mexico until May 22. The deal came as the number of Nicaraguans and Cubans arriving at the U.S. border soared – the product of political repression and poverty, according to interviewees. Cuba scrapped its visa requirements for Nicaraguans in November, turning the Central American country into a jumping off point for northbound migrants from the island. CBP data show 92,037 encounters with Nicaraguans at the border in fiscal year 2022, which started in October 2021. Those figures are nearly the double the 50,722 encounters in fiscal year 2021 and dwarf the 3,164 encounters from fiscal year 2020.
Nicaraguans on both sides of the border spoke of their experiences – with luck seeming to determine who entered the United States and who was sent back to Mexico. All voiced displeasure with the political situation at home, though not all experienced police repression or suffered threats. “They’ll throw you in prison for waving a flag in the street,” said Mendoza, 30, the bus driver returned to Mexico. “I didn’t want to become a prisoner so I didn’t protest.” Nicaraguans traditionally migrated south to neighboring Costa Rica. But Mondoza didn’t consider seeking asylum in Costa Rica, saying his parents reside in Miami and “most Nicaraguans already have family living in the United States.” Also, “The situation in Costa Rica has worsened … so Nicaraguans aren’t traveling there.”
Howald González, 44, also got returned to Mexico, though his brother and 18-year-old niece – who crossed into Texas with him on May 17 – were accepted into the United States and made their way to Los Angeles. “If you’re not in favor of the (regime) you’re seen as a threat,” González said. Santo García, 49, was waiting to join a younger brother in Wisconsin, where he had a packing plant job lined up. García farmed corn and coffee back home, but complained of a poor economy and said, “Everything went from bad to worse with this government.” He crossed Rio Grande with his 13-year-old son and was released from CPB custody in less than a day. His wife and a younger son remain behind in Nicaragua for the time being.
“The problem in Nicaragua isn’t the economic poverty, it’s the restriction of services,” said Lisbeth Pastrán Rivera, 42, a Nicaraguan waiting in McAllen to be reunited with a brother in Massachusetts. “I had a problem with early stage cancer. I went to health center to see if they would attend to me and they told me that if I didn’t show an identification as a party member, they couldn’t do anything.”
Pastrán’s brother was killed by paramilitaries in 2018, she said, because he participated in student protests, calling for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega. She eventually gave up on Nicaragua after being unable to enroll her children in school – something she attributes to her opposition status – despite owning a small coffee farm and working as a bank manager. “It’s totalitarian,” she said. “When you go to a school they ask, ‘Where are you from?’ They have a very well-monitored network.”
- CUBANS, VENEZUELANS AND … UKRAINIANS
CBP data showed 114,916 encounters with Venezuelans at the border in the first seven months of fiscal year 2022, which started in October 2021 – nearly triple the 50,722 encounters in fiscal year 2021. It also surpassed the 14,015 encounters from fiscal year 2020. Some six million Venezuelans have departed the oil-rich South American country, where the economy has shrunk by roughly two-thirds under governments promoting “21st Century Socialism.” Most have moved to other South American countries – causing tumult as the welcome wears out. CBP reported 93,583 encounters with Venezuelans in fiscal years 2022 – more than 20 times the encounters recorded in fiscal year 2020. “It’s the American dream for many of them,” said a Jesuit priest in Colombia, who works with Venezuelan migrants. “That’s why they’re heading there.”
Ukrainians started arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in February after the Russian invasion of their country. Mexico didn’t demand special visas, according to media reports. More than 20,000 Ukrainians were admitted to the United States, in spite of Title 42 – with a migrant shelter operator in Tijuana quipping: “For Ukrainians, the door has been wide open. There seems to be no Title 42 for them.”
- MEXICAN SUPREME COURT RULES IMMIGRATION CHECKPOINTS UNCONSTITUTIONAL
The first bench of Mexico’s Supreme Court has declared the operating of internal immigration checkpoints to be unconstitutional because the revisions apply “to nationals and foreigners without distinction.” The case was brought by indigenous Tzeltals from southern Chiapas state, who were stopped at an immigration checkpoint in the central state of Querétaro in 2015. The four Tzeltals, who were traveling to northern Mexico to work seasonally as farmhands harvesting melons, were detained while riding a bus and accused of not being Mexican because they spoke an indigenous Mayan language and authorities accused them of carrying false identifications. The 10 Tzeltals were taken to an immigration detention center and given four days to prove their nationality. One of the Tzeltals alleged being tortured until he signed a document agreeing to be deported to Guatemala. The Tzeltals subsequently sued the Mexican government and received an apology in 2019.
In its ruling, the court said the practice of police and immigration officials at checkpoints revising immigration documents violated the right to freely transit Mexican territory. It also disproportionately impacted indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples. Both indigenous and Afro-Mexicans report being asked to prove their citizenship at checkpoints throughout southern Mexico – where both populations are prominent – by being asked to sing the national anthem.
Immigration checkpoints dot the highways leading to the interior of Mexico from its southern borders with Guatemala and Belize and form an important part of the country’s attempts at impeding northward migration – though accusations of immigration agents and police being paid off by smugglers are rife.
- MEXICO SENDS CONDOLENCES FOR UVALDE
Mexican foreign relations minister Marcelo Ebrard and the Foreign Relations Secretariat were quick to offer condolences after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which claimed at least 20 lives. Mexico routinely sends condolences after acts of violence in the United States, which sometimes claim the lives of Mexican citizens – such as the 2019 massacre in an El Paso Walmart store, where the shooter said he targeted Mexicans.
The Mexican government has showed a special interest in U.S. violence – especially during the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). It coincides with Mexico suing eight gunmakers in a Massachusetts court, arguing the gunmakers fueled mayhem in Mexico by “actively facilitating” weapons trafficking – with U.S. guns arming murderous drug cartels. (Mexico allows the ownership of firearms for self-defense, but strictly regulates sales – from a single store on an army base in Mexico City.)
The sending of sympathies to victims in the United States comes as Mexico suffers spasms of violence at home as drug cartels dispute territories across the country. On May 24, same day as the Uvalde tragedy, Mexico registered 118 homicides – the most murderous day of 2022 and second most murderous day of the AMLO administration.
AMLO has defended his security policy of “hugs, not bullets.” He’s also insisted, “There are no longer massacres,” rather “confrontations between gangs,” in which the soldiers and state actors do not participate. He later said the homicide rate “would be higher” if his opponents were in office. He later doubled down on his security policies, stating somewhat confusingly, “We are not going to change the strategy. On the contrary: those who must recognize that they were wrong, mistakes in politics are like crimes, in the best of cases, they are our adversaries.”
On Monday, gunmen shot up two bars and a hotel in the city of Celaya, in the state of Guanajuato, leaving 11 dead – an attack attributed to the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel sending a message to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in a region rife with huachicoleo (siphoning gasoline from Pemex pipelines and fencing it.) Mexican commentators noted the government had sent more messages of condolences to Uvalde than Celaya.
More than 100,000 Mexicans have gone missing since 1964. Some 97% of them disappeared during the violence of the past 15 years. Mexico passed the grim milestone earlier in May, revealing the shortcomings of the state response – especially in forensics and searches as most individuals are never found and the bodies discovered are seldom identified.
Families, meanwhile, form collectives to search for their missing loved ones, scouring rural regions for clues. One mother, María Herrera, had four sons disappear in the state of Michoacán. She met Pope Francis this week and delivered a letter to him, which read: “In the face of indifference from our governments, mothers have to head out and search with our own hands, picks and shovels.” She continued, “Pray for us and call on our governments to search for the disappeared and to stop the violence, for our pastors to better accompany us and for society to be more empathetic to our pain.”