Abel Oviedo of Venezuela hugs his two sons, David, 4, and Matias, 2, on April 20 at a home where his family lived on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez. Oviedo lost his half-brother, Orlando Maldonado, on March 27 after a migrant detention center caught fire, killing 40 men and injuring more than 25. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune)
CIUDAD JUÁREZ, MEXICO — On a recent windy afternoon, motorists in this border city stopped at a red light where a 4-year-old boy sat on the shoulders of his father, who held a cardboard sign that read: “Hello Mexican friend, we’re a Venezuelan family. Could you help us with something to feed the kids. God bless you and whatever your heart desires. I’m looking for a job.”
A woman driving a white four-door Honda handed 29-year-old Abel Oviedo 20 pesos, or about $1. “Here you go,” she said.
“Thank you, may God multiply it,” Oviedo responded.
After three hours, he had collected 200 pesos, or about $11.
“Enough to buy dinner for the kids later today,” Oviedo said. “That’s the point, to be able to provide for them.”
“The bad thing about this is the humiliation we have to go through,” said his wife, 23-year-old Katiuska Márquez, who sat on the sidewalk as their 2-year-old son, Matias, slept in a baby stroller despite the blowing dust and the heat radiating off the street.
Oviedo and Márquez each left Venezuela five years ago as its economy collapsed and moved to neighboring Colombia, where they met, married and lived for the next three years. When the pandemic hit, the family left Colombia for Peru to find work, but in late 2022 they decided to migrate to the U.S. They arrived in Juárez in March and spent a month and a half depending on the generosity of Mexicans to help them feed their sons.
They joined thousands of other immigrants who have gathered in Mexican border cities leading up to the impending end of Title 42 — an emergency health order invoked by the Trump administration at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Immigration officials have since used it 2.7 million times to quickly expel migrants from the U.S without allowing them to request asylum.
The Biden administration plans to end Title 42 on May 11, and political leaders and immigrant rights advocates in El Paso and other cities on the southwest border are expecting a stream of asylum-seekers who have been stranded in Mexican border cities to cross into the U.S.
After a harrowing six weeks in Juárez — they were arrested in March for panhandling and sent to a detention center, which was ravaged by a fire that killed Oviedo’s half-brother, 26-year-old Orlando Maldonado, and 39 other migrants — Oviedo and Márquez decided they couldn’t wait. They crossed the Rio Grande in late April and surrendered to Border Patrol agents, hoping they would be among the lucky ones who didn’t get sent back to Mexico under Title 42.
The gamble paid off: They were processed and released to an El Paso church that’s serving as a temporary shelter. But with no money, clothing or food, they are now stranded on the U.S. side of the border, hoping to find a way to get to Chicago where a friend of a friend can temporarily help them.
“On the one hand, we feel a little more relaxed because after all the sacrifice, we’re here [in the U.S.],” Márquez said on a recent afternoon outside of the church. “But on the other hand, I feel helpless because we’re still in the same economic situation.”
New federal policies aim to deter mass crossings
An untold number of migrants are still waiting to make the same crossing and hoping that the end of Title 42 will allow them to seek asylum in the U.S. In preparation for a post-Title 42 border, the Biden administration has rolled out a series of policy changes that will create pathways for people to enter the U.S. legally, with the goal of reducing the rising number of illegal crossings on the southern border — immigration agents made a record-breaking 2.3 million apprehensions in the last fiscal year, which ended in September.
Last week, the administration also announced plans to open processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala to allow qualifying migrants to legally enter the United States, Canada or Spain without coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. It also unveiled a new family reunification program for people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia: People from those countries will receive background checks before immigration agents determine on a case-by-case basis if they are eligible to be reunited with family already in the U.S.
To discourage migrants from rushing across the border to seek asylum, the government since January has urged them to use CBP One, a cellphone-based application that allows people to request asylum from their home countries — or from Mexico — and schedule an appointment with immigration agents at a U.S. port of entry. The app offers 740 appointments per day across the nearly 2,000-mile southern border.
If migrants don’t use one of those options, the administration announced that it will ramp up deportations of people at the border — they could be slapped with a five-year ban from entering the country and be ineligible for asylum in the future. As part of a deal with Mexico announced earlier this week, U.S. immigration agents will deport people from Cuba, Haití, Nicaragua and Venezuela to Mexico if they cross the border illegally.
On Tuesday, the administration announced that it plans to send 1,500 U.S. troops to the border to help immigration agents on the ground as Title 42 ends.
Meanwhile, advocates who work with migrants want the administration to use federal resources to welcome people rather than deter them.
“If our federal government was genuinely committed to addressing this humanitarian crisis with dignity, instead of increasing the presence of military personnel at our southern border, they would have sent additional lawyers, health care providers and coordinated emergency response teams to welcome refugees at our border,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based immigrant rights organization.
‘We were scared’: The long journey north
Oviedo and Márquez didn’t meet until after they both moved to Colombia in 2018.
Márquez, who had just given birth to her first child, David, said she was following David’s biological father. She said he was kidnapped and murdered there in early 2020 — she discovered that he had been selling drugs.
Later that year, she met Oviedo, who worked managing a fleet of taxis. They fell in love and Oviedo started helping Márquez buy food and diapers and pay the bills. Nearly a year later, Márquez gave birth to Matias.
When Oviedo’s work began to dry up, they moved to Peru. The couple first made money by collecting and selling recyclable materials. Oviedo found temporary construction jobs before finding full-time work as a coal miner.
Late last year, the couple decided to migrate north to the U.S. with two of Márquez’s cousins, their husbands and children, plus Maldonado — whose wife and son stayed in Panama until her husband could raise enough money to send for them.
“The goal was to provide for the children a quality life and educational opportunities,” Oviedo said. “Give them the type of life we couldn’t when we were younger.”
They went back to Colombia to start the journey, joining hundreds of other migrants crossing through the treacherous Darién Gap, a roadless and deadly stretch of jungle, mountains and rivers straddling Colombia and Panama. Matias had his second birthday in the jungle. It took the family 18 days to get through.
Oviedo and Márquez said they witnessed horrific things during the hike: Parents woke up to discover their children had been fatally bitten by snakes, and children hiked alone after their parents were swept to their deaths crossing a fast-moving river.
Márquez, who was still breastfeeding Matias, said she thought she wouldn’t make it because she was so exhausted from walking and carrying her son.
“I would just sit and cry, I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said.
“We were scared, but by the grace of God we made it out,” Oviedo said.
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They stopped for two months in Costa Rica, where they cleaned people’s driveways and dug through trash to find recyclable items to sell. Then they continued north on buses or hitchhiking through Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. After crossing into Mexico, they joined a caravan of migrants who traveled to Mexico City, then jumped onto four different cargo trains that eventually got them to Juárez.
The eight of them arrived in Juárez in mid-March and moved into a hotel room near downtown before some of them moved into a one-bedroom house that a Mexican couple let them live in.
Oviedo and Márquez said they repeatedly tried to apply for asylum using CBP One, the cellphone-based app. But the app either crashed or there were no available appointments. So the family decided to stay in Juárez until either Title 42 lifted or they could get an appointment.
Detained in Juárez before a fatal fire
In early March, hundreds of migrants attempted to enter the U.S. by rushing to a port of entry. U.S. immigration agents, some in riot gear, blocked and turned away the migrants and temporarily closed the port entry.
In response, Juárez Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuéllar ordered a crackdown on migrants asking for money in the city’s streets.
“Our patience is running out,” he said during a March 14 news conference.
Two weeks later, Maldonado, Oviedo and his family were arrested while asking motorists for money and taken to a detention center. Mexican authorities released Oviedo, Márquez and their children and told them they could stay in Juárez only for 30 days.
Maldonado, along with other migrant men who were not with their families when they were arrested, wasn’t released.
Later that night, a fire broke out in the detention center. Mexico’s president said one or more migrants set a mattress on fire as a protest against deportation to their home countries. The Los Angeles Times reported that the protest started because the men were held in an overcrowded cell without access to water.
Maldonado was among the 40 migrants who died, and another 28 were injured. Security camera footage showed security personnel fleeing the center without opening the cell doors to let the migrants escape the fire. The incident is still under investigation; the head of Mexico’s immigration office has been indicted in connection with the fire.
The next day, Oviedo and Márquez joined dozens of other migrants to protest outside the detention center, demanding answers from authorities on why they didn’t rescue the victims.
“I was destroyed, I fell to the ground crying,” Oviedo said. “I didn’t want to accept it. I was hoping I’d see [Maldonado] again.”
After three weeks of living in the cramped one-bedroom house where the courtyard smelled of raw sewage, Márquez’s cousin, Julianny López, told the family that she was heading to the border with her husband and their 1-year-old son. They would take their chances crossing the river.
Márquez told her it was not worth the risk of being deported.
“But look at us right now. Do you think this is any kind of life to live?” López responded as the three toddlers ran around the room, playfully yelling at each other.
López and her family later surrendered to U.S. agents and were eventually released from custody and taken to a shelter in Las Cruces, N.M. From there they flew to Atlanta, where López’s aunt lives. They will have to report to immigration authorities there to open an asylum case.
That encouraged Oviedo and Márquez to cross the border, too.
Four days later, they walked across the shallow Rio Grande and waited for Border Patrol to apprehend them. In a processing center, Márquez was placed in a room with her sons and other migrant women and their children. Oviedo was placed in another room with other migrant men.
They could see each other through the windows but couldn’t talk. They were allowed to shower and the agents gave them burritos and apples.
Agents released them on May 1, dropping them off at the El Paso church, where they could stay only one night. Then they joined an estimated 1,000 other migrants outside of a downtown Catholic church that opens its shelter in the afternoons.
“I feel like a child in a candy store, that’s how happy I am,” Oviedo said.
They have until July 6 to report to a U.S. immigration office in Chicago. They’re trying to scrape together enough money to buy bus or plane tickets to Chicago. Oviedo has asked church volunteers if they know of a place that is hiring or if they can give him money to leave El Paso.
They have talked about eventually moving farther north to Canada, which they’ve heard is a more welcoming country for asylum-seekers. They hope to hire a lawyer to help them with their asylum case.
“I know this is going to cost me a lot, but I’m a hard worker,” Oviedo said.
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