WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Sergio Ortiz Borbolla/WOLA

15 Dec 2022 | Commentary

Few Ways Forward, No Way Back: Asylum Seekers’ Search for safety at the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez Border

In mid-November 2022, scores of migrant families, children, and adults wrapped themselves in coats and blankets or huddled inside improvised tents as temperatures dropped to near-freezing on the Mexican side of the shallow Rio Grande river in Ciudad Juárez. They had fled their homes in search of safety, surviving often life-threatening conditions on the journey north. Yet they arrived at the U.S. border only to find it closed to asylum requests, stranding them in Mexico and placing them at new risk of attacks. Unable to move forward or return home, they waited on the riverbank with the buildings and streets of El Paso, Texas, clearly visible just blocks ahead of them and Mexican National Guard troops patrolling silently to one side.

Dominated by an enormous Venezuelan flag, the makeshift encampment of some 350 tents housing an estimated 1,500 people was the tangible result of the latest U.S. measure to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from accessing the border: the Biden administration’s October 12 decision to expel Venezuelans to Mexico under Title 42, the Trump-era policy under which arriving migrants are turned away without the opportunity to seek asylum, while establishing a limited humanitarian parole program for up to 24,000 Venezuelans who meet certain conditions.

On November 15, U.S. federal judge Emmet Sullivan struck down Title 42, finding the measure to be arbitrary and unjustified. At the Biden administration’s request, Judge Sullivan granted the government a five-week stay to prepare to end its application of Title 42, meaning that expulsions would end by December 21. A week after Judge Sullivan’s ruling, 15 Republican state attorneys general filed a motion to maintain Title 42 expulsions, so the definitive ending date for the policy remains unclear. So do prospects for access to asylum once Title 42 ends, as the administration is contemplating several measures that would continue to limit the ability to access asylum at the border.

For many in the tent camp at the time, waiting until even December 21 was not an option. Having survived routes including the treacherous Darién Gap and exposure to criminal attacks and corrupt authorities on the migration journey, the migrants struggled to find any justification in either the October 12 order that had abruptly stranded them or the weeks of additional wait time for lifting Title 42. “We’ve already been here for a month in Mexico living through scarcity, cold, hunger, exhaustion, and now to wait another month to have the opportunity to cross… that’s an uphill battle for us,” someone told us.

Citing the presence of children, many of the people WOLA spoke with in the camp expressed that the families could not be expected to live outside in winter temperatures until the end of December. Even before the news of Judge Sullivan’s decision, a small but steady number of Venezuelans crossed the Rio Grande on stepping stones each day to line up and turn themselves in one by one to the U.S. authorities on the other side, hoping against hope for a favorable reception.

Within days of Judge Sullivan’s decision, some half of the camp’s residents had crossed to turn themselves in. With Title 42 still in effect, they faced an uncertain future: some Venezuelan migrants detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in El Paso in prior weeks had been transported east and summarily expelled into Matamoros, Tamaulipas, a Mexican state notorious for organized criminal violence. Other camp members remained on the riverbank, awaiting a clear path to seek asylum. Mexican authorities repeatedly requested the remaining migrants to abandon the camp and move to shelters in the city. Many migrants viewed this prospect with distrust after already having been mistreated or transported against their will by authorities, and scarce shelter space, especially for non-family groups, makes it a logistical challenge. On November 27, citing risks of hypothermia and fires due to the migrants’ attempts to keep warm, state and local authorities used force to evict the migrants and dismantle the camp.

Whether stranded in an encampment or in the city, however, what none of the people we met considered an option was to return to their places of origin. They told us that conditions in Venezuela and other home countries—or in the other places where some of the migrants had temporarily settled prior to coming to the U.S. border—offered them little hope of a safe life. Some had faced particular persecution based on their identities, including when attempting to relocate to other South American countries. “The homophobia and xenophobia in those countries is very strong,” one young man told us. 

U.S. expulsions increase risks for victims fleeing violence

Ciudad Juárez had absorbed a substantial proportion of expelled Venezuelans since October 12, receiving over 2,000 expulsions out of a total of roughly 8,000 along the southwest U.S. border through mid-November. Venezuelans are far from Title 42’s only victims, however: since March 2020, U.S. authorities have expelled people under Title 42 over two million times, with Mexicans and nationals of Central America’s northern triangle among the most impacted. During our visit to Ciudad Juárez, we conducted in-depth interviews with six asylum seekers from these countries. Those interviewed had survived violence, precarious living conditions, and uncertainty about their futures—and they expressed in clear terms that turning back was not an option.

Elizabeth and Josselinne come from different countries (Honduras and Guatemala, respectively), but from an early age, both lived through gender-based violence including rape, sexual exploitation, beatings, and rejection due to their sexual orientation and/or gender expression. Attempts to relocate within their countries or to report violence to authorities were fruitless, and their attackers threatened to harm their families to keep them trapped in their situations of violence. Finally, both made the decision to escape their persecutors and seek freedom by fleeing north.

Elizabeth fled Honduras in 2020, working in exchange for food. She spent time in Guatemala and later crossed through Mexico, facing new dangers and incidents of discrimination along the way. Eventually she crossed the U.S. border in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. Her repeated requests for protection were ignored, however: after being held by CBP in extremely cold conditions, she was ultimately returned to Honduras. Knowing that her life was at risk, she fled Honduras the very same day she arrived there. She survived a second harrowing trip through Mexico and attempted to cross into the United States with a group of migrants traveling through the desert. Extreme heat left the group dehydrated and unable to move. Border Patrol picked them up and Elizabeth was returned for a second time to Honduras. For the third time, she fled north. This time, something changed: Elizabeth had previously met Josselinne in Guatemala and the two had become a couple, and now, they made their way through Mexico together. They survived assaults, attempted kidnapping, discrimination, lack of food and shelter, and extortion by authorities. Elizabeth and Josselinne finally reached Ciudad Juárez and began a months-long wait to seek asylum. They narrate how they have befriended other migrants in Ciudad Juárez, sharing stories and mutually supporting each other through their traumas; Elizabeth is known as the one who can always make her companions laugh when they are discouraged.

As in the case of Elizabeth and Josselinne, those we spoke with did not think of seeking asylum as their first option. Many told us they were tracked from one place to another while attempting to flee persecutors within their home countries and had filed fruitless complaints with local authorities before seeking protection in the United States. Disappearances were another recurring topic: we heard accounts of migrants being disappeared along the route and the disappearance of people seen, correctly or not, as interfering with the cartels’ lucrative clandestine border-crossing business.

Criminal violence and other dangers in Mexico

The story of Luz shows another way in which disappearances intersect with migration. Years ago, she was forced to relocate internally from her home in northern Mexico to protect her son from being forced to work for organized crime groups. She returned to her home state approximately three years ago, however, when her brother was disappeared. Like over 100,000 people in Mexico, Luz’s brother was never heard from again and she doesn’t know with certainty whether he is alive or dead. When she filed a criminal complaint, authorities discouraged her from pursuing the case and told her that her brother had been disappeared because he was a criminal. Shortly afterwards, she began to receive threats, suggesting that authorities themselves may have informed criminal actors that she had filed her complaint. “Criminals and authorities collude with each other, I learned this,” she says.

Luz returned to the geographically distant state where she had been living and sought to follow up on her brother’s case from there, only to receive more threats, culminating in a physical attack by assailants who beat her, causing her to lose part of her hearing in one ear. Knowing that she was not safe even in a distant part of Mexico, Luz fled to the U.S. border. “I love my country… I like being here, but the criminals are too powerful,” she tells us.  At the time of our interview, she had been waiting for four months to cross the border under an exception to Title 42. Her time in Juárez was at first “a terrible, terrible experience,” as she made ends meet by selling candies on the street, exposed to different types of violence and risks. She later found shelter and assistance from local service providers. Luz is hopeful of finding safe haven in the United States and would like to work as a caregiver for senior citizens or children.

Organizations and shelters operating in Ciudad Juárez provide vital necessities to the migrant and asylum-seeking population. However, shelters were at capacity and the civil society counterparts we spoke to expressed being overwhelmed by the ever-growing need for humanitarian, legal, and other services. This reality was visible when WOLA staff spoke with service providers, as people arrived seeking attention and local staff sorted humanitarian support kits; one meeting was briefly interrupted as staff scrambled to find more spare coats. Members of DHIA (Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción), an NGO located a few blocks away from the Paso del Norte border crossing that provides legal and humanitarian assistance on the Mexican side of the border, explained that the expulsions of Venezuelans are the latest emergency to respond to, following “crisis after crisis” in a prolonged context of border closures and expulsions.

For their part, when asked about the journey through Mexico and the wait in Ciudad Juárez, multiple non-Mexican interviewees described having to pay bribes to avoid detention, with authorities from municipal police to the National Guard demanding money from migrants. Migrants and asylum seekers are also keenly aware of the power of the organized crime groups that control access to the U.S. border between ports of entry, whose networks of informants keep a close watch on all movements near the border (even during our own visit, within minutes of arriving at a portion of the border wall, a group of people appeared on the Mexican side to ask WOLA staff our names and what we were doing in the area). The dangers facing migrants expelled into Mexican border cities is acute: Human Rights First has tracked thousands of violent attacks on people blocked or expelled along the border under Title 42 during the Biden administration.

The cumulative dangers at every step of the migration journey are clear in stories like that of Rodrigo, who was forced to flee from El Salvador. Gang members extorted him for more money than he had, threatening him and his family even when they internally relocated. They faced new threats of violence after crossing Mexico’s southern border, but Mexican authorities did not investigate the criminal complaint they filed. Upon arriving at the U.S. border, Rodrigo’s wife and another migrant, a man from Honduras, began to search for where it was safe for asylum seekers to cross and turn themselves in to Border Patrol. Just for approaching the border in the area known as the Turtle Park, criminals arrived in a vehicle and forced the Honduran migrant inside, taking him away. Rodrigo’s wife ran but was pursued by the criminals. Rodrigo called for help and Mexican police came to their aid, although when the police heard what had happened, they said that all they could do was take Rodrigo and his family to a shelter or to a government office that could help them find one. Rodrigo and his family eventually found space in a shelter to await their chance to pursue asylum in the United States, but they remain scared for their safety when they have to go out in Ciudad Juárez.

Looking to the future with hope

Despite the violence and hardship they have survived, the asylum-seeking women, men, and families we interviewed spoke of their hope for the future. Elizabeth and Josselinne have a clear message for fellow women and members of the LGBTI+ community: no one should be forced to endure violence or exploitation due to their identity, and those in such situations should not give up trying to escape: “have courage to move forward in life… just because you’re different doesn’t mean you should have to be repressed,” says Josselinne. Today, Elizabeth celebrates their identities. “We’re unique, we have to be authentically who we are… that’s how we want to live: free.” The Venezuelans we spoke to in the tent camp look forward to supporting themselves if they are granted protection; for now, they ask for “help and collaboration” so that the United States will adjudicate their asylum requests. For the families and individuals waiting at the border, access to asylum will mean stability, protection, and the chance for a life in freedom. In the words of Elizabeth, “Life is beautiful once you begin to live it.”

WOLA staff spent November 13-19, 2022 visiting the U.S-Mexico border between El Paso, Texas and Yuma, Arizona, documenting conditions on both sides of the border and speaking with migrants, asylum seekers, service providers, and other stakeholders. The visit came a month after the Biden administration expanded the application of Title 42 to expel Venezuelan migrants into Mexico and coincided with a federal judge’s decision to strike down the use of Title 42.