CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — The message popped up on Pastor Juan Fierro’s phone one recent afternoon. U.S. border agents had expelled another group of Central American families to this Mexican city. Could someone take them in?
Fierro, an evangelical minister, was startled by the request. During most of the pandemic, officials in Juárez had sent newly arrived migrants to a quarantine center for 14 days. Suddenly it was full. “There was no place to take care of these people,” Fierro said. So his staff at the Good Samaritan shelter hauled bunk beds into an empty room and penned it in with battered wooden benches. Within days, the rudimentary “quarantine” center held 23 women and children.
President Biden hoped to put the brakes on a surge of U.S.-bound Central American families by relying on a Trump-era policy to return them to Mexico. But increasingly, this country is straining to cope with the influx. Mexico is now limiting the number of families it will allow back. That’s forced the U.S. government to accept most of them, as their numbers soar: About 53,000 members of family units were taken into custody in March, compared with 7,300 in January.
Mexico’s pushback has created a new obstacle as the Biden administration struggles to deal with what could be the biggest wave of migrants at the U.S. southern border in 20 years. Pressured by President Donald Trump, Mexico became a crucial buffer zone between Central America and the United States. Its authorities deported tens of thousands of U.S.-bound migrants and took back asylum seekers to await their U.S. court dates. As the coronavirus pandemic descended on both countries last year, the Trump administration adopted one of the most restrictive border policies ever, using a health measure called Title 42 to expel nearly all Central American migrants and asylum seekers to Mexico.
The Biden administration continued to use that rule for families and solo adults, while exempting unaccompanied children. Now U.S. officials fear Mexico’s refusal to go along with the family expulsions will have a cascade effect. As more Central Americans succeed in entering the U.S. immigration system, their relatives and neighbors back home are deciding to make the journey.
They’re people like Ingrid Posas, 33, who left Honduras in mid-February after seeing Facebook posts of friends who had made it into the United States.
“We heard they were letting families in. That’s why I came,” she said, sitting with her 4-year-old daughter on a bench at the Good Samaritan center’s quarantine site, under a curtain of laundry hanging from clotheslines.
Mexican authorities say their abrupt refusal to accept most families follows a new law that bars children from being detained in adult migration facilities. It sailed through Mexico’s Congress at the end of last year, receiving little press attention.
U.N. agencies and human rights activists had long pressed for such legislation. But the government has few shelters for children in northern Mexico. So just weeks after the law took effect in January, Mexican authorities said they had no more room for Central American families expelled from the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the busiest crossing point.
“It certainly snuck up on us,” said a senior Biden administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic issues.
Administration officials then asked if those families could be flown to other parts of the border and expelled. Mexican authorities “agreed to a limited number,” the senior official said.
In Juárez, that’s been set at 100 family members each day, according to local officials and activists. Even that number is taxing resources in this industrial city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Tex. More than 1,700 migrants and asylum seekers have filled Juárez’s 20 shelters, sleeping in bunk beds in dorm-style rooms or on mattresses on the floor. That’s more than during the last migration peak in the summer of 2019. But now there’s a pandemic. And the religious and civic organizations that run most of the shelters have little access to coronavirus tests.
“When they ask me, Father, can you care for these 80 or 120 people — who will guarantee they don’t have covid?” asked the Rev. Javier Calvillo, the Catholic priest who runs Casa del Migrante, one of the largest shelters. The pink-brick complex already weathered one outbreak last fall. Fifteen of his staff and three dozen migrants were infected. He’s now refusing to receive some of the families.
Across town, the Rev. Hector Trejo, an Episcopalian priest, worries about how many people he can accommodate during the pandemic. He has set a 60-person limit at his shelter at Espiritu Santo church, half the usual capacity. In February, though, local authorities called to say 100 Haitians had just been expelled to Juárez. Could he take half of them?
“At that moment I had 53 people,” he said. “We broke our rules, by necessity.” Three more times last month, the number of migrants at the shelter swelled to more than 100.
Critics say the lack of shelter space is only part of the problem. The Mexican government, they suggest, is using the new law as an excuse to avoid doing the Biden administration’s bidding — or to obtain something in return, such as coronavirus vaccines.
“Everyone knows that Mexican laws are meaningless if the federal government doesn’t want to respect them,” said former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, a frequent critic of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Mexican authorities could easily comply with the new law by transforming unused schools into makeshift centers for migrant families, he said. But the federal government has shown no desire to do so, or to increase the budget for new shelters.
That’s left local officials scrambling. In Juárez, they’ve worked with international organizations and the federal government to set up a shelter in a gym where as many as 500 arriving migrants can be quarantined and tested for the coronavirus. It significantly expanded a quarantine system that until recently had centered on a hotel with capacity for 108 people managed by the International Organization for Migration. But within days of opening last week, the municipal shelter held more than 150 people, raising concerns it could fill up, too.
Biden said last month that he was negotiating with López Obrador about the Central American families reaching the U.S. border. “They should all be going back,” he declared. U.S. officials say they’ve asked the Mexican government to delay implementation of the new law. So far, though, that hasn’t happened. In February, the United States returned about 40 percent of the families who crossed the border, but as traffic has surged, the proportion has dropped to 10 to 20 percent.
Asked for comment, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said the country “receives certain immigrants depending on institutional capacities” and in compliance with domestic laws. López Obrador has criticized the Biden administration for not investing more in development projects in southern Mexico and Central America to prevent citizens from leaving. “We are ready to do our part and work together in fighting human trafficking and protecting human rights, especially those of children,” he tweeted on Wednesday after a phone call with Vice President Harris.
U.S. officials are also scrambling to house migrant families and unaccompanied children on the American side of the border. Many families are being released with orders to appear in immigration court, but their cases could drag on for months or years. That’s motivating more people in Central America to make the journey.
Xeni, a 25-year-old Honduran, left her home in the province of Comayagua in mid-March. She was hoping to reunite with her husband, who had migrated to Florida in 2019. “Many people from my town had crossed” the U.S. border in recent weeks, she said. She traveled by raft across the Rio Grande from the Mexican city of Reynosa to McAllen, Tex., with her small son and daughter. They waded ashore in what she remembers as a brief moment of jubilation.
“Call Daddy,” her 6-year-old son Wilson told her. “Tell him to come get us.”
But Xeni was one of the unlucky ones. U.S. border agents took her and the children into custody and put them on a plane. She said the agents told her the family was being taken to a different city for processing. When they landed in El Paso, they were bused to a bridge leading into Juárez. On a recent evening, she sat at the cafeteria at a migrant shelter, cradling her 3-year-old daughter, who repeatedly coughed.
“We were all tricked,” Xeni said, speaking on the condition her last name wasn’t used, for fear of problems with the U.S. immigration system.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that migrants from the Rio Grande Valley were being sent to three other border crossings — Laredo, Tex., San Diego and El Paso — so they could be processed “as safely and expeditiously as possible.” It added: “The border is not open” due to coronavirus restrictions.
Activists worry that migrants like Xeni have no legal status — neither immigration court appointments in the United States, nor work permits in Mexico. “This is provoking chaos on the border,” Fierro said.
The situation could become more complicated if the Title 42 expulsions end. Biden administration officials have said the policy is under review; but as the pandemic wanes, it will eventually become moot. The administration has terminated the Migrant Protection Protocols, a Trump-era program that required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their court dates. It hasn’t yet announced a new system to process those arriving at the border.
Many migrants say they can’t return home, because they fled violence or spent all their money on the journey. Some are traveling to other border points to cross, or instructing their children to walk into the United States alone, knowing the Biden administration isn’t expelling unaccompanied minors.
Xeni said she can’t go back to Honduras because her home was damaged by two devastating hurricanes in November. And she’s desperate to give her children a better life. So desperate, she’s considering a drastic step.
“The only option I have is to send the kids over the bridge,” she said.
Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti in Washington contributed to this report.