Desperation as migrant traffic piles up on Mexico's border with the United States.
Mexico is coping with a new surge of refugees who have been deported from the United States, and more are moving north in the hopes of reaching the border. Many people are being turned away from shelters that were once vacant four months ago.
Human smugglers have instilled confidence in the migrants by promising that President Biden's administration will welcome them.
Instead, the US is deporting them to Mexico, where they will join tens of thousands of others trying to cross the border. As shelters and officials fail to support the families trapped in Mexico, the strain and desperation is mounting.
In the United States, federal officials are scrambling to deal with a surge of children crossing the border on their own and being kept in detention centers for periods of time that exceed the legal limit. The twin crises on both sides of the border aren't showing any signs of abating.
On Saturday, as they walked back into Mexico from the United States near the El Paso, Texas border crossing, a group of mothers and fathers holding their children sobbed. When they were detained by US Customs and Border Protection, their shoelaces were confiscated and discarded along with all of their other personal belongings, so they walked unsteadily in sneakers that were too loose.
Enrique Valenzuela leapt from his chair in Ciudad Juárez, abandoning a meeting to sprint to the bridge to meet the families after his daughter, Elena, 13, spotted them approaching.
Mr. Valenzuela, a coordinator for the Mexican government's migration efforts in Chihuahua State, was well aware that if he couldn't meet them to offer assistance, organized crime networks preying on migrants' desperation to extort or abduct them for ransom would.
As Mr. Valenzuela approached, the migrants — nine adults and ten children — dried their tears. Over the course of three days at the frontier, New York Times journalists encountered many scenes of desperation and confusion.
Mr. Valenzuela said, "The border is closed." “Come with me; I'll assist you.” Officials said he led the party to his office near the rusted border wall that divides El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, which is topped with miles of fresh concertina wire built during President Donald J. Trump's final weeks in office.
As Mr. Valenzuela handed out hand sanitizer, Jenny Contreras, a 19-year-old Guatemalan mother of a 3-year-old daughter, collapsed in a bench.
As she talked with her husband, a butcher in Chicago, she sobbed into the phone, "I didn't make it."
Another woman wailed, "Biden promised us!"
Many of the migrants said they had squandered their life savings and gone into debt to pay coyotes — human traffickers — who had told them that the border would be open after President Biden's election.
Despite this, the migrants continue to arrive, and many officials expect the numbers will be higher than in previous years, following the pandemic and recent natural disasters in Central America that have wiped out livelihoods.
Since announcing shortly after taking office that his administration would no longer turn back unaccompanied minors, Mr. Biden has now directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist with the management of the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who are crowding detention facilities.
According to Mexican officials and shelter operators, the number of infants, whether accompanied by their parents or not, has reached levels not seen since 2018. Tens of thousands of migrants crossed the border each month late that year, causing Mr. Trump's administration to split families and imprison them. Hundreds of children have never been reunited with their parents.
Mr. Biden has asked Mexico's government for assistance in easing the border congestion. According to Mexican shelter operators, Mexico's response has largely consisted of the smuggling ring raids and beginning to send migrants — the majority of whom are from Central America — back home. Officials say the government is now attempting to prevent more Central American migrants from entering Mexico, as it did during the Trump administration.
An official from Mexico's Foreign Ministry said the government was within its rights to expel illegal migrants, but declined to comment on whether raids had escalated in recent weeks or whether the Mexican government was reacting to a US appeal.
Dagoberto Pineda, a Honduran migrant, appeared stunned as he brushed away tears and kissed his 6-year-old son's hand at the international bridge on Saturday. He had thought he was entering the United States, but now he was weeping under a Mexican flag in Ciudad Juárez. He enlisted the assistance of Mr. Valenzuela and New York Times journalists: Was he admitted or not?
Late last year, a major hurricane ripped through Mr. Pineda's town, devastating the Chiquita Brands International banana plantation where he worked. The organization laid off Mr. Pineda after years of paying him around $12 per day to help fill American grocery stores with fresh fruit. He accepted a $6,000 bid from coyotes to move into the United States, which was more than his annual salary.
Mr. Pineda had crossed the border from Tamaulipas into southern Texas, where he was held for several days by American authorities. He believed his entry into the United States had finally been granted when he was flown 600 miles to a second detention center in El Paso, Texas.
Instead, he was released on Saturday on the Paso del Norte bridge, which connects El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, and ordered to walk in the direction of the Mexican flags.
Mexican officials and shelter providers, such as the International Organization of Migration, have expressed surprise at the Department of Homeland Security's recent strategy of detaining migrants at one point along the sprawling border and then flying them hundreds of miles away to be expelled in another border area.
The US is doing so under a federal order known as Title 42, which was proposed by Trump but endorsed by Biden and defends accelerated expulsions as a health measure in the face of the pandemic. However, observers argue that cramming migrants into planes and overcrowded detention centers without coronavirus testing defeats the intent of Title 42.
Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Stephanie Malin said that while there had been a "increase in encounters," border officials were "expeditiously" moving migrants out of their custody to comply with federal requirements for Covid-19.
“Trump has his wall, it's called Title 42,” said Rubén Garcia, founder of Annunciation House, one of the country's largest shelter networks located in El Paso.
Nonetheless, the recent influx of refugees is putting a strain on services across the board. Mr. Garcia said he was given just 30 minutes to plan last Sunday after being informed by authorities that 200 migrants were about to be dropped off at his shelter, none of whom had been checked for Covid-19.
“I'm on calls with White House and Department of Homeland Security staffers, and when I'm on those calls, I tell them, 'You're not prepared.' In an interview, Mr. Garcia said, "You're not prepared for what's about to happen," referring to the acronym for the Department of Homeland Security.
Across the border, Mexican authorities are still unprepared to deal with the influx of refugees, with shelters at capacity.
All 19 migrants would have been dumped in downtown Ciudad Juárez, one of Mexico's most dangerous areas, at the hands of cartels or human traffickers if Mr. Valenzuela's daughter had not looked up from her book to spot the families crossing the border.
Mr. Valenzuela welcomed 45 families the night before, with little time to plan.
Communication and cooperation between the different organizations working along the border became stronger under Mr. Trump's Remain in Mexico Strategy, which returned migrants to Mexico to wait out their court proceedings for asylum in the United States, according to shelter operators and Mexican officials. In January, Mr. Biden announced the end of the policy and vowed to begin processing some of the 25,000 migrants who had enrolled in the program. Hundreds of people have been allowed in over the last few weeks.
Jettner, a Honduran refugee, is one of those who has been given admission to the United States. After waiting nearly two years at the border with his wife and two children, they were processed and allowed in in under an hour on Friday. He dashed to his sister's apartment in Dallas.
He was calm as he marched up the bridge, leaving Ciudad Juárez behind as he strode toward El Paso. Jettner, who requested that only his first name be used because he was afraid of retaliation from his family back home, said, "My life is going to change 180 degrees." “I'm moving to a place where I'll be safe and my daughters will have a good roof over their heads.”
Despite American officials' statements that the border is closed to new refugees, thousands of people have made the precarious journey north, the majority from Central America.
The Filter Hotel shelter in Ciudad Juárez was so vacant just four months ago that they had to use several rooms as storage. The shelter, which is operated by the International Organization for Migration, now has “no space” signs on its entrance.
Employees said that approximately 39 percent of the 1,165 people processed at the Filter Hotel since early May were minors, the majority of whom were under the age of 12. When smugglers loiter near shelter entrances, the staff sometimes has to shoo them away.
Gladys Oneida Pérez Cruz, 48, and her cerebral palsy-affected 23-year-old son Henry Arturo Menjvar Pérez arrived at the shelter after being deported from the United States late last month. Shortly after Mr. Biden's inauguration, smugglers started cruising her Honduran neighborhood for company, falsely claiming that the US border was open.
Ms. Pérez hoped to visit her sister in Maryland and find jobs to help her pay for her son's medication.
A coyote charged her $9,000 for the journey, which was higher than she had expected, but it came with the assurance that she would fly by car and that his colleagues would assist her in carrying her son across the border, as he had to leave his wheelchair behind. Her sister was the one who sent the money. She and her son set off on the risky journey on February 7, she said. Smugglers dumped them near the border and told them they'd have to cross on their own after nearly two weeks.
After hours of effort, they were able to reach the border, but were soon apprehended by American border patrol agents and deported back to Mexico. She has preferred to return to Honduras rather than risk being killed or abducted in Mexico, choosing to face poverty.
“I apologize for attempting to reach the United States in this manner, but it was necessary due to my need and my son's illness,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears.
She said, "Biden told us that everything will change." “He hasn't achieved it yet, but he will be an excellent president for migrants.”