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An Eye Into What Has And Hasn’t Changed At The Border Under Biden At A Migrant Shelter In Juárez

Some residents are packing up to leave, others are just arriving. And for some, the wait continues.

By Mallory Falk, KERA

After a year and a half at El Buen Samaritano migrant shelter, Ingrid Lizette Muñoz Ramos was finally preparing to leave.

She patted her suitcase, resting on top of the bunk bed where she, her husband and two children had slept since arriving in Juárez.

“I can’t find the words to express the happiness in my heart,” she said.

Muñoz said she and her family fled violence in Guatemala. When they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border and asked for asylum, they were enrolled in the  Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program. Like thousands of others, they were sent back to Juárez to wait out their court proceedings.

Now, President Joe Biden is unwinding the Trump-era policy. Asylum seekers like Muñoz, who were placed in “Remain in Mexico” and still have active cases in U.S. immigration court, can now continue their proceedings inside the U.S. 

There is still no word on what will happen to the tens of thousands of migrants who were denied asylum, or ordered deported after missing a hearing while enrolled in MPP.

Muñoz registered to enter the country through a website run by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. When she finally received a date to cross, it didn’t seem real.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.

Her family is heading to Virginia to stay with her older brother. She hasn’t seen him in almost 20 years, and planned to hug him really hard.

Nine other residents were also due to cross the border, so there was a flurry of activity in the shared rooms at the shelter.

Families sat on bunk beds, sorting through their belongings. They packed what they could take and gifted the rest to other residents.

Eda Cristelia Melendez Vallecillo listed the items she received: a towel, shampoo, clothes and toys for her 3-year-old granddaughter, who happily twirled in her new light-up crown.

Some people at the shelter are still waiting to learn when they will be removed from “Remain in Mexico” and given a date to cross. But others, like Melendez, don’t know if and when they’ll ever be allowed to enter the U.S.

They arrived at the border after it was already closed to most migrants and asylum seekers, under a public health order known as  Title 42.

“Now that people in MPP are crossing, who have been here longer, at least give us that opportunity too,” Melendez, 70, said. “We don’t know anything.”

The order, issued last March, allows immigration officials to  expel or turn away migrantsduring the coronavirus pandemic, without documentation or, often, access to due process.

The Trump administration  said this order helped prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect public health. Dozens of public health experts  disagreed, claiming the order is “discriminatory and has no scientific basis as a public health measure.” The Associated Press  reported that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts initially refused to issue the order, and only changed course after then-Vice President Mike Pence intervened.

Still, the Biden administration has kept the order in place, and continues to stress that the border is closed.

At a press conference earlier this month, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas  urgedmigrants and asylum seekers to wait for the administration to rebuild the immigration process.

“It takes time to rebuild the system from scratch,” he said. “If they come — if families come, if single adults come to the border — we are obligated to, in the service of public health — including the health of the very people who are thinking of coming — to impose the travel restrictions under the CDC’s Title 42 authorities and return them to Mexico.”

The new administration has made one significant change; Biden stopped expelling children who arrive at the border alone. (It’s one reason the government is now rushing to  find appropriate care and housing for thousands of children at the border.) Some migrant families have entered the Rio Grande Valley. But Title 42 is still in place for most families and adults. In fact, some families who were able to cross the border in South Texas were then flown to El Paso and expelled back into Mexico, the Dallas Morning News  reported.

“Some people have said, ‘send your daughter across alone,’” said a Salvadoran mother at El Buen Samaritano. She asked KERA not to use her name, out of fear for her safety, and said she was expelled at the border in November.

“My daughter gets depressed here,” she said of her 11-year-old. “She feels lost.”

The woman knows some families have sent very young children across on their own.

“People say to me, ‘your daughter’s older, she can fend for herself.’ But I don’t have the strength to leave my daughter,” she said. “I also analyze the situation and look at things and say, ‘who’s going to pick up my daughter in the United States if all I have are friends there? I can’t just give her to anyone, like ‘OK, you take my daughter.’”

The woman said she first fled El Salvador when a gang started extorting her family. The father of her child was deported from the U.S., she said. When gang members saw he had a form of U.S. identification, they assumed he had money, and threatened violence when the family couldn’t pay.

So they fled to Mexico. Then, she said, her child’s father started having substance abuse issues and becoming abusive. She and her daughter fled again, to the country’s northern border, hoping to gain protection in the U.S.

Instead, officials told her she was going back to Mexico.

“I asked why,” she said. “I can’t go back to Mexico because my life and my daughter’s life are in danger. They told me, ‘ask Mexican [officials] for help.’ I said ‘how, if I’m fleeing Mexico? If this person who’s trying to harm me and my daughter is in Mexico?’ They told me, ‘go to another [Mexican] state or another country.’”

Now she watches other families leave the shelter for the U.S.

“I feel happy for them,” she said. “There may be people who have it even worse than you, so it’s good that they can cross.”

But it’s also “traumatic” to see others move forward, when her future is so uncertain.

Some have been waiting here for months, while others just arrived.

“Despite that fact that [the U.S. government has] communicated through lots of different means that this is not the time to try to cross the border, we’re seeing more and more people arriving,” he said.

The “filter” hotels, where newly-arrived migrants can quarantine before moving into other shelters, are “saturated,” Fierro said.

So El Buen Samaritano now has its own quarantine section, cordoned off by wooden benches. Shelter coordinator Marta Esquival does regular health checks, reaching across the barrier to take temperatures.

“Do you have chest pains?” she asks. “A headache?”

For some, the U.S. is still far away.

Yet for others, like Guatemalan asylum seeker Ingrid Muñoz, it’s finally within reach.

The morning her family was scheduled to cross the border, the scene was bittersweet.

People posed and snapped cell phone pictures together. There were many tearful hugs. Some residents formed tight bonds over nearly two years at the shelter.

“I’m someone who gets really attached to people,” said Muñoz’s 13-year-old daughter.

She is going to miss her two closest friends. “I really love them,” she said.

But she was also excited to meet her uncle for the first time.

“I only know him through photos,” she said. “Not in person.”

Around 7 a.m., a bus pulled up outside the shelter. Muñoz, her family, and nine other residents lined up, backpacks slung over their shoulders, suitcases zipped tight. Each received a big squirt of hand sanitizer before boarding.

Other residents and shelter staff surrounded the bus and waved as it drove off.

The bus picked up other asylum seekers who were scheduled to cross the border, then brought them to receive a medical screening and COVID-19 test outside another Mexican shelter; they had to test negative in order to enter the U.S.

Then officials from the International Organization for Migration escorted the group across an international bridge into El Paso.

The midpoint of the bridge is the boundary line separating the U.S. and Mexico.

As Ingrid Muñoz and others walked toward what they hope is a new life in the U.S., they passed another group of migrants walking in the opposite direction, into Juárez.

They had just been expelled under Title 42.