Arepas and cafecitos aren't customary Mexican snacks. The vendors hawking food and beverages typical to Venezuela are thousands of miles from their homeland in the cathedral square of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. They're trying to make a meager living stranded in one of the most dangerous cities along the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
"There is not plenty of shelter," human rights activist Connie Gutierrez said. "They have no money. They are staying on the streets, they are asking for money."
Gutierrez, an activist who highlights the plight of refugees, says the migrants are often targets for extortion or kidnapping by criminals as well as police.
The United Nations says there are roughly 87,000 Venezuelan refugees in Mexico. It estimates millions of Venezuelans have been displaced by an oppressive government and overwhelming poverty in their home nation. Many want to cross just miles away into El Paso, Texas. This is all in addition to thousands of refugees from other countries in South America, Central America, Africa and the Caribbean.
"They don't want to stay in Mexico. And that's understandable. Who wants to stay in Mexico? There is a lot of violence," Gutierrez said.
In the last 10 years, Mexico has transformed from being a country where refugees heading to the U.S. traveled through to a place where refugees may have no other choice than to stay.
The Hope Border Institute, which studies a variety of issues including immigration, says about 3,000 refugees are in shelters scattered through Juarez, one-fifth being children.
That figure may not count the hundreds of others camping on the streets.
SEE MORE: In Real Life: Stranded At The Border
Scripps News stumbled upon an extremely rare scene. Julio Yanez, 30, of Venezuela could be heard crying tears of joy from blocks away, his friend reassuring him, "Have faith Julio. For four days, I told you." Kissing his phone and blessing himself in thanks, the refugee told us that he'd just been granted an appointment to cross into a U.S. port of entry to declare asylum.
His smartphone is the new gateway, using an application called "CBP One." U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say more than 75,000 appointments have been granted on the app since it went online mid-January. The app requires individuals or family units to register, submit photos and try to get in a virtual line to legally cross the border. But asylum seekers told us they face daily frustration with CBP One, and say the app needs more than divine intervention to work.
Camping out in front of a migrant detention center that burned after a fire killed 40 other refugees, a group of Venezuelans described the haphazard nature of how CBP One works — or doesn't.
Juan Luis Ponte, a man in his 50s who is seeking to cross into the U.S. said, "some photos are read," that a user uploads. "But then the photo bounces back," adding the application process never finishes and the software only seems to work for a minute each day.
Greuluy Larez Avila, an academic from Venezuela seeking asylum says the app sometimes "doesn't take the photo" and that the "program doesn't open."
A U.S. CBP official tells Scripps News that the agency is aware of the problems and has worked to fix them as they arise, but adds the problems are evidence of high demand and that "appointment slots fill up fast" each day.
Some people fed up with waiting make a run for it instead. In the Santa Teresa, New Mexico twilight, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Fidel Baca blares the warning sirens in his government-issued SUV. He speeds past lean-tos in a modest subdivision. He comes to an abrupt stop, hops out and gives chase to two men he suspects crossed into the U.S. illegally from Mexico.
After a short pursuit, he emerges from the other side of a cinder block wall with two men he says are from Guatemala. "See their laces," Baca said. "They match their shoes. That means we haven't met them before."
When federal agents detain migrants who have crossed in between ports of entry, they typically seize their shoelaces so that they can't be used to harm themselves or others when they're in custody. Agents spotted the men easily using high-tech surveillance cameras perched on the foothills around Cristo Rey mountain. The cameras use artificial intelligence that can discern human beings from wildlife.
One of the two men in their 30s is Rafael Butz Xi. He told us Spanish is his second language and that he speaks an indigenous dialect found only in Guatemala. He added he left because of climate change and punishing poverty. Agent Baca asked the men how long ago they left Guatemala to travel north. "40 days, almost 40 days," Butz said as he began to cry. "We have no food. There's no corn. Corn is very expensive. We have no other solutions."
The federal government says it encountered 162,317 people crossing between ports of entry in March. Many of the migrants are expelled under Title 42, a pandemic era public health order invoked under the Trump administration as an immigration enforcement tool, which enables federal agents to quickly send them back across the border without considering an asylum claim or other due process afforded under immigration law. In fact, in March alone, 87,662 of those encounters resulted in expulsion.
"They will get transported to one of our facilities, we take their fingerprints, make sure there's no criminal history and if there isn't they get expelled back to Mexico," Baca said.
Many asylum seekers like Alida see no other way. The 25-year-old Guatemalan mother of two only wished to be identified by her first name, as she feared for her family's safety back home.
"It's dangerous and isolated where I live, it's also by a border," she said. "Last year a dispute began between two cartels from here and there."
Alida added that she tried to use the smartphone app but had no luck with it.
"I mean, I tried," she said. "To be honest, this is the third time I have tried [to cross], but I have not been given asylum here."
Scripps News was with the U.S. Border Patrol when agents detained Alida and her two children. Federal agents expelled 74,000 migrants along the southwest border in February.
"One of the possible consequences was not being granted their asylum claim if they do so in an improper and illegal manner," U.S. Customs and Border Protection public affairs officer Landon Hutchens said.
The Biden administration is also considering jailing migrants who continuously are caught trying to cross illegally, as well as engaging in ongoing negotiations with the Mexican government about other immigration and refugee policy options.
"We wouldn't be surprised if May 11 comes and Title 42 is not lifted. It really wouldn't surprise us," Betty Camargo, a policy expert with the Border Network for Human Rights said.
Various border states like Texas have sued the White House in federal courts trying to force the continuation of the public health order, but other lower courts have ruled its use unjust considering the National Health Emergency will be lifted by May 11.
Camargo and other migrant rights activists offered a blunt assessment of President Joe Biden's immigration policies: They don't see much daylight between him and his predecessor Donald Trump, who implemented harsher immigration law enforcement on the southern border, including family separations.
"Unfortunately, we haven't seen anything come out from the Republican or Democrat. As a matter of fact, if anything, Reagan was Republican and he came out with the amnesty."
Dylan Corbett of El Paso, Texas' Hope Border Institute says the Biden White House is choosing "a path of least resistance" and that "asylum seekers are caught in the middle of political expediency."
"So under one administration, like the Trump administration, they made it really painful," Corbett said. "So think of something like family separation. And under a Democratic administration like the Biden administration, they might turn that dial on pain down a little bit. But they're using the same strategy, which is just make it painful for people to cross."
Critics say no matter what pain is inflicted to prevent crossing, people will come.
"There are about 100 million vulnerable people on the move right now," said Corbett. "And since the Second World War, when we started counting, there's never been so many. It's about 3% of the world population right now.
Juan Angel Pavon Guerrero and his two daughters are among those vulnerable people on the move. Camping out on a Juarez, Mexico street, the asylum seeking father said " we want the United states, in the name of the almighty God, please Mr. President Biden, open the doors for us."
The crises Pavon and others are fleeing from don't appear to be ending any time soon; border crossings always increase in spring.
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