Last Wednesday evening, Henry Antonio Chicas was wearing a clean denim shirt and a weary look as he walked with a slight limp down a hallway at the San Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora.
The 32-year-old from Guatemala City had come a long way, but after a months-long journey north and a harrowing four-day desert crossing, he’d been detained by U.S. authorities and sent back to Mexico.
Back home, Chicas said, he’d worked a reliable job for years as a motorcycle delivery driver for Burger King and had a wife and three young children. But he decided to make the journey north when a friend proposed the idea and smugglers told him that getting into the United States would be easy – he would ride buses and a make a short six-hour walk across the border, not through the desert, they’d said.
He hoped to eventually work in Texas and send money home to his wife to buy milk for their kids.
“You’re paying a ton of money and they tell you you’re going to sleep in hotels,” Chicas said. “It’s not like that, it’s a lie.”
Chicas is one of a growing number of primarily Central American migrants who have been making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border in the past two months after hearing promises about an easy crossing and a permissive moment in U.S. immigration policy.
Many of those migrants are unaccompanied children who can’t be immediately repatriated or released, and who are now being crowded into shelters – mostly in Texas – that are unequipped to handle them. Others are adults or families who claim credible fear of violence if they return to their home countries and ask for U.S. asylum hearing. With the numbers of asylum-seekers also soaring and temporary detention space filling up (and the cancellation of the “Remain in Mexico” policy that had required people to wait south of the border for their asylum hearings), the Border Patrol has begun releasing some of those folks in small towns with few resources to serve them, like Ajo and Gila Bend, Ariz.
But not all asylum-seekers get to stay in the country, and the Border Patrol still has authority under a public health measure invoked during the COVID-19 pandemic, called Title 42, to immediately return to Mexico any adult who enters U.S. territory without legal documentation. According to a statement provided to the NI by a Border Patrol spokesman in late March: “The border is not open, and the vast majority of people are being returned under Title 42.”
In Nogales, Sonora, that’s meant more migrants filling up the shelters that primarily house people who’ve been sent back to Mexico by U.S. authorities after a border-crossing attempt.
As many as 200 migrants per day have sought refuge at the San Juan Bosco shelter in recent months, according to the shelter’s legal advisor, Juan Francisco Loureiro, whose family has operated the shelter for nearly four decades.
That’s still far short of the 360 men, women and children that Loureiro’s father told the NI were staying there on a nightly basis back in February 2019, during a previous surge in asylum-seekers at the border. But it’s nearly twice the number of people who stay at San Juan Bosco during more typical times, and Louriero said the latest increase began in January.
“At the shelter, the migratory flow has increased considerably,” he said.
The Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit ministry that aids deported migrants in Nogales, Sonora, provided services to 720 new people in March, up from 462 in February and 229 in January, according to Joanna Williams, the organization’s executive director.
Loureiro said many migrants at the shelter had heard one version or another of an interview that President Joe Biden gave early in his term, promising a humane approach to immigration policy and a departure from the hardline policies enacted under former President Donald Trump. Some misinterpreted the president’s comments to mean that they would be able to enter the country, while others had simply heard bad-faith interpretations spread by coyotes seeking to encourage people to head north.
“Smugglers lying to (migrants) to drum up business certainly is nothing new,” said Scott Brown, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Arizona.
But he said changes in presidential administrations provide human-smugglers with opportunities to spread the idea that it’s a good time to cross the border.
“Just the perception that there could be a change in policy is something the smugglers will latch onto,” Brown said.
As Chicas spoke on Wednesday, pots and pans clanged in the kitchen of the San Juan Bosco shelter as staffers prepared an evening meal – beans, salad, pork tacos and Coke. Dozens of migrants – almost all from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – sat quietly in neat rows of chairs in the shelter’s chapel. Others lay on bunk beds, using cell phones to contact loved ones more than a thousand miles south.
At San Juan Bosco, people are now arriving 24 hours a day, Loureiro said. Until recently, deportations and expulsions generally stopped at 10 p.m., but starting earlier this year, migrants began arriving at the shelter at all hours.
More than 170,000 migrants were apprehended along the United States’ southwest border in March, according to a New York Times report published on Friday, which also said the number was the highest monthly total in 15 years. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which hasn’t yet released official data for March, reported that 100,000 migrants were picked up by agents in February – the highest total since the last spike in early 2019. Of those, 70,000 were “expelled” from the country under Title 42, the data shows.
Alex Fuentes, from Honduras, was among those apprehended and sent back to Mexico in March. Like Chicas, Fuentes also sported a new shirt courtesy of the Kino Border Initiative as he sat in the chapel at San Juan Bosco last Wednesday. Many of the migrants who stay the night at the shelter make their way to the KBI during the day.
Fuentes said he’d heard that the new U.S. president “gave a lot of opportunities. He wasn’t like the outgoing president. He gave opportunities to people.”
Fuentes, who looked to be in his 40s, worked on a banana plantation at home and his wife had become pregnant with a boy late last year. He said his life was calm and his salary livable, but he fled the country earlier this year after becoming the target of gang members, who assaulted him several times.
In February, he arrived in neighboring Guatemala, where he found work as a carpenter. People he knew there started talking about the possibility of going to the United States. So, last month, he traveled north through Mexico and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the middle of the desert, walking two hours with his wife and five other people before the group turned themselves in to Border Patrol and asked for asylum.
Even though he had a document from a judge attesting to the dangers he faced at home, Fuentes said, he wasn’t given an opportunity to make his case to U.S. authorities. (He and other migrants interviewed for this story didn’t specifically say if they’d been processed under Title 42.)
Biden and other officials in Washington, D.C. are trying to walk a fine rhetorical line – insisting that the president will take a softer approach to immigration than his predecessor, but also asserting that migrants shouldn’t come to the United States right now. Reuters reported that the U.S. government has purchased tens of thousands of radio spots and social media ads in Central American countries and Brazil aimed at dissuading migrants from heading north.
Some changes are also underway at the border. A new law in Mexico means the United States won’t be able to send back most families with children younger than 7. Still, it’s not clear how that rule will be enforced.
At the San Juan Bosco shelter on Wednesday, a 5-year-old boy played with a toy dinosaur and flipped five-peso coins as he sat in the doorway. The boy’s mother, a young Honduran woman who declined to give her name, said she’d heard from friends and relatives that the United States was allowing families with children under 7 into the country.
The woman said she made the journey alone, without the help of a smuggler, because she wanted to do things legally and ask U.S. authorities for asylum. But after crossing through the desert and spending a freezing night with her young son, she was arrested by the Border Patrol and didn’t have a chance to plead her case before being sent back into Mexico through Nogales, she said.
Many of the migrants who’ve landed at the San Juan Bosco shelter after being returned to Mexico by U.S. authorities face a difficult decision: Go back home, or attempt another perilous crossing. They’ve seen the danger in trying to reach the United States, but also envision consequences if they return home.
Chicas, the young father from Guatemala City, recalled his treacherous desert crossing that led him to Route 86 on the Tohono O’Odham nation, and an assault he’d suffered right after being released in Nogales, Sonora. But if he goes back to Guatemala, he said, he likely won’t be able to return to his job, where he’d earned 20 quetzales (about $2.60) per delivery.
Chicas said he’d paid 100,000 quetzales (approximately $13,000) to be smuggled from Guatemala to the border and into the United States. Brown, the HSI agent, thought the figure seemed high, and said he’d heard of Central Americans paying $6,000 to $8,000 for the journey.
Fuentes, the Honduran man, said he was hoping to get in touch with a lawyer in the United States and explain his situation, including the threats he faced in Honduras.
He felt like his first attempt, going through the desert, had been based on false promises.
“They started saying the situation was good, so I decided to do it,” Fuentes said. “But the truth is… I just lost my money.”
Their decisions, along with those made by prospective migrants who still haven’t left their home countries, could determine whether the surge seen at local institutions like San Juan Bosco continues in coming weeks and months.
“We think this situation is really serious and we hope some solution is implemented soon,” said Loureiro, the shelter’s legal advisor. “But we’re also conscious that migration is a natural phenomenon that’s never going to end.”