JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – Walter Medina holds a cardboard sign as cars drive by on their way to the Bridge of the Americas U.S. port of entry: “Mexico, respectfully I ask for your support … Honduran migrant.”
His wife and children stay behind amid rows of cars as he shares his story with a passing motorist. “We left our country 18 months ago,” he says. “Mexican citizens are afraid to give us jobs because of fear they will be accused of being smugglers by the police. We have to ask people for help. […] We prefer to beg than to steal.”
Medina and his family left Honduras due to a lack of jobs and fear of gang violence. Like thousands of foreign nationals, he’s struggling to survive in this Mexican border city long enough for the United States to reopen its borders for asylum. That largely hinges on U.S. courts lifting the Title 42 coronavirus-related public health order. It empowers border agents to swiftly expel newly arrived unauthorized migrants and prevents them from walking up to ports of entry to file a claim.
Until that happens, these single adults and families who speak Creole, French, Portuguese and American Indigenous languages will rely on the charity of strangers, the help of nonprofits and money from relatives already in the U.S. to buy more time in a city within walking distance of the American dream.
Life on the streets of Juarez
Aurelio Dominguez Lopez sits near the steps of the gazebo in a park facing Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral. His luggage – consisting of a gym bag and a black trash bag carrying everything from toilet paper to dirty laundry – lays by his side.
Dominguez said he left Honduras because jobs are scarce, especially for older adults. Also, gangs in poor neighborhoods like the one he lived in quickly seize on the profits of anyone who opens up a small business, even if it’s a home-based business.
“There is no work in Honduras. There is nothing. The maras (gangs) are everywhere. They harass the workers. And the businesses and the government only employ young people, babies 18 to 35,” said Dominguez, 54.
He slept in the park – where pigeon excrement litters concrete walkways – when he first arrived in Juarez. “The shelters are full. They did not let us in. They have a lot of Mexican (families). I have not bathed in three days. […] these are trials that the Lord puts in front of you,” Dominguez said.
Things got a little better the previous night. A Mexican homeless man befriended him and together they walked to Juarez General Hospital. The 24-7 facility has outdoor benches for the relatives of trauma patients that come in every night after life-threatening accidents or being stabbed or shot. The two men found a space and temporary safety there.
“I have not seen my wife in 13 months. My children are grown up, but I cannot count on them. I have to tend to my affairs for myself,” the Honduran migrant said. “If you tell me you have a job for me, I will go with you. If you say ‘no,’ I will go away. I am not here to bother anyone.”
Dominguez said he spent nearly a year in Tabasco, a state in Mexico near the border with Guatemala. He worked in a shop there for eight months until he broke his foot. His savings exhausted and with no one else willing to hire him, he resumed his trip north. One of his nephews lives and works in the United States and he hopes to join him.
“They say the border is closed. But I need to find out for myself what is going on, see if someone can help me get across. All we want is work,” Dominguez said.
Frustration and desperation setting in
Erika Alvarez left Guatemala after the latest alleged beating by her domestic partner, a reputed gang member. Several months pregnant, she did not want to risk losing her child or having him grow up in a violent environment.
She crossed the border into Mexico with the hope the United States would open its doors to her as a victim of domestic violence. But for now, her dream has ended in Juarez.
“I tried to cross to the other side. They returned me to Mexico despite being pregnant. I have no one to watch over me. […] I have no place to stay or means to eat,” Alvarez said. “I want protection because I have been threatened with death; I filed a complaint in my country. The man I used to live with is a fugitive” from Guatemalan authorities.
Alvarez said she would not become a public charge in the U.S. because she has relatives who will take care of her until she is able to work. She expressed shock at being turned back at the U.S. border and at immigration officials refusing to hear her out.
“What they did is mistreatment, they returned me back to Mexico at the bridge. I am devastated. I know no one over here and I cannot return to my country. […] I have nowhere to go,” she said. “I ask President (Biden) to have a heart and open the door to let us get to the other side.”
Officials at Juarez’s Migrant Assistance Center gave her papers with information about shelters and other resources in the city. Then, she wandered away.
Marisa Limon Garza, senior director for advocacy and programming at the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, said frustration and desperation are beginning to set in among migrants who came to the border with the expectation of being allowed to enter the United States after placing an asylum claim and staying on until it is resolved.
“For people seeking a state of protection, their choice is not necessarily to be in Ciudad Juarez; their choice, if they had their vision, is to be with relatives in the United States and be safe,” Limon said.
The situation is further complicated by most migrant shelters in Juarez being at or near capacity, and the difficulties American immigration advocates face in trying to provide legal assistance to potential clients in a foreign country.
The Mexican government and nonprofits in Juarez have been as accommodating with the migrants as circumstances and financial shortcomings permit. But adding to the stress is the fact that some in Juarez are turning their backs on the newcomers.
“The reality is that Ciudad Juarez has a delicate eco-system,” Limon said, explaining that xenophobia is a reality in both the United States and Mexico. “It may have nuances, but in the end, the pigment of the skin can be used against people, particularly Afro-Latinos.”
In other cases, empathy for those in need takes a back seat to practical considerations, such as “why should I give you a job if I don’t know how long you’re going to be here,” she said.
Juarez officials estimate some 15,000 migrants might be in Juarez right now waiting for the end of Title 42. Some officials in El Paso say that number could be even higher.
Haitians keeping a low profile in Mexico
Vendors like Luis Tarin, who sells T-shirts across from the Downtown Plaza de Armas, say they have gotten used to the groups of Haitians who come and go all day and occasionally try to make a living on the streets of Juarez.
“Three years ago, it was Cubans. You saw them walking all over the city. Now it’s the Haitians,” said Tarin, 46. “You could talk to the Cubans because they spoke Spanish. I don’t know what (language the Haitians) speak, so I don’t know how they think. They probably want to cross the border, just like the Cubans.”
Women who self-identified as Haitians recently braided hair next to an orange “African tresses” sign in front of the cathedral. The spot is a gathering place for Haitians looking for information or trying to hire themselves up for work.
Border Report tried to interview the women, but they said they did not speak Spanish or English. A few minutes later, one told a potential client in Spanish the cost of the braiding was 1,000 pesos ($50).
William, a Cuban migrant who has befriended several Creole-speaking Haitians, said his Caribbean neighbors have plenty of reasons to not be too trusting in Juarez.
“There is a lot of corruption. You get near the (port of entry) and the (soldiers) or the police get you. They ask you where you are from and they accuse you of bad things without even knowing you,” William said. “They and Immigration ask you for money. You protest and they say, ‘who is the judge going to believe, me or you?’”
William, who did not give his full name and refused to be photographed, said he looks after the Haitians because they make easy targets for criminals and some authorities in Juarez.
“This place is so corrupt it’s a shame,” he said. The migrants “live in an apartment that is 1,200 pesos ($60) a month but for them it’s 3,000. It’s double for migrants. The Cubans that came here a few years ago, they had family in Miami that sent them up to $3,000. But the Haitians don’t have family that can send them $2,000, $3,000 to eat, to pay the rent. If they have kids, the owner of the apartments charges them for every kid. It’s an injustice.”
A few Spanish-speaking Haitians who agreed to talk briefly with Border Report declined to say anything negative about Juarez.
“I’ve been in Mexico for a year. We have been treated well,” said Jordani Pierre, a Haitian in his late 20s. “I don’t know about other people, but here I eat well, I sleep well, three of us live in a house (paying) 3,000 pesos a month.”
Pierre said he has held temporary jobs in Juarez in the past three months, including one in a U.S.-run maquiladora, or assembly plant. His goal is to reach the United States, but as long as Title 42 remains in place and deportation flights from Texas to Haiti continue, he’s not going anywhere.
Albert, a Haitian in his early 20s, believes he has a good asylum case but is struggling to get heard. His father owned a clothing store and was murdered during a robbery, and Albert himself was threatened by the criminals.
He spent several months in the Mexican city of Tapachula near the Guatemala border and has come to Juarez looking for work. “I am young and healthy, but they don’t want to give you work if you are Haitian. They prefer Mexicans,” Albert said. “I have no plans to cross right now. They return us, they deport us if we cross now. They tell us the border is closed, so we will wait.”
Albert hooks up with some friends and they walk away towards Juarez Avenue, one of the city’s main drags and gateway to a U.S. port of entry. They walk in a group. In Juarez, Haitians rarely venture to walk alone.