But the migrants — mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — who have arrived in the remote Guatemalan border town of El Ceibo describe a chaotic series of expulsions, first from the United States in planes and then from Villahermosa to Guatemala by bus. They say they were not given an opportunity to seek refuge in Mexico. Mothers with children under 1 were included in the expulsions.
When they arrived in El Ceibo, a town of about 300 people surrounded by vast stretches of farmland and jungle, they were told to begin walking south. The Casa del Migrante shelter in El Ceibo, which has a capacity of 30, has been overwhelmed as more than 300 deported migrants have arrived in the village since Friday. The shelter has implemented a two-night limit for those it accepts.
“We don’t know where we’re going to sleep tomorrow,” said Jennifer, a 24-year-old Salvadoran woman from the department of Morazón, who was traveling with her 9-month-old son. They were expelled from South Texas to Villahermosa on Monday morning, then bused by Mexican authorities to El Ceibo that evening.
“The agents didn’t tell us where they were taking us and then when the bus crossed into Guatemala, they said, ‘Okay, that’s it, get out.’ ”
The Biden administration says the expulsion flights from the United States to Mexico are justified by a Title 42 public health order, which has effectively closed the border to asylum seekers and other migrants during the pandemic. But the fate of the hundreds of migrants who have arrived in northern Guatemala offers a glimpse into the human toll of the U.S. effort to shut out newcomers.
President Biden was critical of the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies, including its “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forced asylum seekers to wait in northern Mexico for their court dates — “sitting in squalor on the other side of the river,” as Biden put it in a debate last October.
Biden has suspended an “asylum cooperative agreement” with Guatemala that sent Central American asylum seekers to Guatemala City to seek refuge. But the migrants who arrive in El Ceibo are put in a more difficult situation, dropped off in one of the most remote parts of the region.
“They are being tricked, because in Mexico they are told that in El Ceibo there will be a bus that will take them to their countries. These are lies. When they arrive they say: Where is the bus? Where do I take it to go to my country?” said Natalia Lorenzo, who works for the Guatemalan government’s human rights ombudsman in Petén, the department where El Ceibo is located.
On Monday night alone, Toribio said, at least seven buses arrived with people who had been expelled from the United States.
“These are people whose rights were violated,” he said. “They weren’t given the right to apply for asylum in either the United States or Mexico. Then they end up here in a place with almost nothing for them, without organizations that work with migrants.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security referred questions to Mexico. Mexican authorities did not respond to questions about the buses to El Ceibo, or the inability of migrants to seek refuge in Mexico. After this article was published online, the Mexican foreign ministry said in a statement that it “seeks to provide protection and assistance to people who transit through Mexican territory.”
Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s migration agency, acknowledged the expulsions to El Ceibo and said the government was being “respectful of the migrants’ needs.”
Mena shared photos of the migrant families arriving at the sparse border crossing in El Ceibo, the children holding stuffed animals.
Migrants arrived in the tiny village disoriented, they said, unsure where they had been taken. Some decided it was best to return home, but there was no available transportation in El Ceibo to Honduras or El Salvador, which are hundreds of miles away.
“We never had any idea where we were going” said Vanessa, a 24-year-old from San Miguel, El Salvador, who was expelled from Texas on Monday morning with her 6-year-old son. “They dropped us off here last night. What else can we do from here except try to get back to the United States?”
Chris Boian, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington, said the organization has been in touch with U.S. and Mexican officials about the expulsion flights.
“UNHCR is aware of and awaiting more details on these flights taking individuals and families expelled by the United States under the Title 42 public health order to southern Mexico,” Boian said. “Guaranteed access to safe territory and the prohibition of pushbacks of asylum seekers are core precepts of the refugee convention and refugee law which governments are required to uphold.”
On Tuesday evening, Toribio and his co-workers at the shelter in El Ceibo received word through a contact that another flight was due to leave the United States for southern Mexico, and that the passengers would later be bused to El Ceibo.
“What do they expect us to do with all these people?” he asked. “There’s just no space here.”
Nick Miroff in Washington and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.