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Title 42: US-Mexico border shelters brace for approaching storm

People in charge of centers hosting immigrants are anticipating an increase in deportations when the Donald Trump-era public health law ceases to be in force as of midnight on May 11

Puerto Paloma, Chihuahua
The sun sets in the municipality of Puerto Palomas, in Chihuahua, Mexico, on May 10, 2023.Nayeli Cruz

In Puerto Palomas stands a monument to the most famous Mexican to illegally cross the border into the United States. An equestrian statue of Pancho Villa marks the spot where the revolutionary leader breached the frontier early on the morning of March 9, 1916, with a force of soldiers who staged a raid on Columbus, New Mexico, that left 18 Americans dead and sparked a major conflict between Mexico and the United States. More than a century later, the more radical right in the U.S. is talking about another invasion in border towns like this one, that of the tens of thousands of migrants who crossed into the country while Title 42, which expires at 11:59 p.m. ET, was still in place.

A few meters from where Villa launched his raid on Columbus, there is a shelter full of people who have lost their own battle, waged against Washington’s immigration policy. The center was set up by the authorities in the municipality of Ascensión to cope with the waves of people expelled from the U.S. by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents since Donald Trump introduced Title 42 in 2020, which was imposed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 during the pandemic but the text of which allows the authorities to turn would-be migrants back without the need for administrative paperwork while also removing the right to apply for asylum.

José, a Honduran immigrant, works 24-hour shifts as a caretaker to greet new arrivals. The last knock on the door was heard at 1 a.m. “Over the past two months there has only been one day when no one arrived,” he says, sitting in a small room that doubles as a dining room, kitchen, and entertainment room. Behind him is a darkened space containing bunk beds, where eight men from Mexico, Venezuela and Honduras are resting. Some 2,000 people have passed through the center so far this year. That figure may seem small compared to the vast numbers of migrants arriving in border cities such as Nogales (Sonora), Piedras Negras (Coahuila), Nuevo Laredo (Tamaulipas) or Ciudad Juárez, 75 miles east of Puerto Palomas, but it represents 25% of the town’s population.

“We absolutely do not have the capacity to deal with Title 8,″ says Saúl Carrillo, the head of Civil Protection in the town who holds overall responsibility for the shelter. Carrillo is concerned what will happen as of midnight on Thursday, when the United States will apply tougher processing procedures to people arriving at the border illegally and without having previously completed an asylum application. Washington will also step up the pace of deportations. Title 8 is a legal tool that allowed Customs and Border Protection officials to remove three million people from the U.S. during the eight years of Barack Obama’s administration.

The shelter in Puerto Palomas has capacity for 40 people. On Wednesday afternoon space was created when a large group left in the morning. José explains that the local authorities reached an agreement with a bus company to offer tickets with a 50% discount. But there was a condition: “The trips can only be southward, because if you ask to go to another place on the border, they won’t let you on.” José adds he does not know what will become of the shelter when Title 42 is revoked.

Título 42 Ciudad Juárez
José Humberto López at the center in Puerto Palomas where he works as a caretaker, 10 May 2023. Nayeli Cruz

“There are never enough of us to deal with the situation”

U.S. authorities estimate there are around 150,000 people in shelters, hostels or on the streets in towns along the border, which is nearly 2,000 miles in length. Ciudad Juárez has become one of the focal points of the crisis that began when migrant caravans started leaving Central America and heading north to meet Trump’s administrative wall. In the city of Chihuahua, numerous civil organizations, churches, and various levels of government are trying to prevent a humanitarian crisis.

“Every time there are significant migratory changes there is a certain peace, everything is calm, but then comes the storm,” says Juan Fierro, a pastor who for the past eight years has run a shelter located in a neighborhood northwest of Ciudad Juárez. “The migratory situation overwhelms us every time. There are never enough of us to deal with the situation, be it now or in the years to come. It is a situation that is only going to get significantly worse because violence continues all over the world. And to that is added the climate situation, which is leaving people without homes.”

Fierro’s shelter, The Good Samaritan, has hosted immigrants of some 25 nationalities, not only from countries in South and Central America but also from Iraq, the DRC, Ukraine, Ethiopia, and Cameroon. On one occasion, in 2019, the migrant caravans delivered 260 people to Fierro’s doors, despite the shelter having capacity for only 40. Through donations and investments from international organizations, the building grew and today it can provide for 150 migrants. On Tuesday, there were 62 people, but Fierro believes that the situation will become more complex in the coming days. “On Sunday I will have 75 or 80 people here and next week I will probably reach the maximum capacity we have.”

Across Ciudad Juárez, a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, a similar panorama is unfolding. Carlos Nájera, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, told EL PAÍS that none of the city’s shelters were at more than 50% occupancy on Wednesday. “There are no more than 2,000 people in the city and we have about 4,000 beds in all the shelters in the network for the next few days.”

Fierro notes that the face of the current crisis is no longer made up only of citizens from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, or Central America. There are also large numbers of Mexicans displaced by violence. “I estimate that 40 of the 62 people I have here are Mexicans who have left their home states,” he says. As he spoke, two families from Guerrero, a southern state plagued by violence and poverty, sought shelter from the sun under a tent. Ismael, 38, from the municipality of Coyuca, says he was planning to cross the border and turn himself in to the CPB. In the end, he didn’t go because a man told him he had to pay the cartels $6,000 for his daughter, his wife and himself to get the green light. “The border is run by crime,” he says. He has been waiting for two weeks to get an appointment through the application set up by the Department of Homeland Security for asylum requests.

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