Trapped in Juárez: Life in the Migrant Limbo

Migrants hoping to cross legally into the United States wait along the Mexican border, where life is a mixture of instability, violence, and luck.

Guatemalan migrant Ledy Perez embraces her son Anthony on a dirt road as a member of the Mexican National Guard stands beside them.
In Ciudad Juárez, a Guatemalan migrant embraces her son in front of a member of the Mexican National Guard. (Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters)

Updated at 12:10 p.m. on October 10, 2019.

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico—I met Dana outside the Little Habana restaurant, where she was hunched over a cellphone, struggling to understand a series of prompts in English, directions from a U.S. immigration detention contractor, on how to deposit enough money to call her husband.

Dana and her husband left Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, in March and crossed the Mexico-U.S. border in June. (Dana, like the other asylum seekers in this story, asked to be identified only by her first name because of her pending case with American immigration authorities.) But though she was detained for 44 days and returned to Juárez, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shipped her husband to a privately run detention center in Louisiana. It had been weeks since they last talked. “Thank you for your patience,” said the voice on the phone. “We are currently experiencing a high call volume that may extend your wait time.”

Like Dana, more than 12,000 asylum seekers have been returned to Juárez since the Trump administration expanded its Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) in June, forcing asylum seekers to wait out their cases in Mexican border towns. Each day, their number grows by as many as 300—all of them forced back here, a city once called the “murder capital of the world.” Then last week, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to temporarily carry out a “safe third country” plan, pending legal challenges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling would force migrants to first apply for asylum in one of the countries they passed through; otherwise they will be denied U.S. protection. It’s still unclear how this will be carried out, but it will almost certainly compound the issues MPP has already brought to the border.

On the streets in Juárez, MPP is experienced by asylum seekers less as a policy and more as punishment, less as a law and more as a game with no discernible rules. People wait for months to cross into the United States and ask for asylum, then are handed a set of documents from U.S. immigration authorities that aren’t explained and, because 99 percent of asylum seekers in MPP never find an attorney, that they have little hope of understanding. Once back in Juárez, they must find work to feed themselves, but are often unsure if they can legally get a job. They must find housing, but this is already in short supply. Who is allowed to stay in the United States, who is returned here, and who can survive the violence has become puro suerte, I was told repeatedly—“pure luck.”

For Dana, this meant she did not go out at night. She rarely ventured beyond the block between her hotel and Little Habana, a local restaurant that employs Cuban asylum seekers, where she waited tables for $10 a day. It also meant she had no idea she’d been placed in MPP. All she knew was that in a few days she had an appointment to cross the border. She believed this meant she’d be free to stay in the U.S., and her Cuban friends had planned a going-away party to celebrate. “I did not leave my home to stay in Mexico,” she told me.

This was what she’d wanted to discuss with her husband—her future. But the voice on the phone repeated, “Thank you for your patience. We are currently experiencing a high call volume that may extend your wait time.” After more than half an hour on hold, Dana hung up.

Juárez is still one of the most violent cities in the world. And for a migrant or an asylum seeker, it is arguably worse. Four migrants have been murdered since the program began in March.* Kidnappings in the city have since doubled. Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable because they carry large amounts of cash, or have access to family in the U.S. who can wire them money, and criminals know this.

Law enforcement is not always to be trusted either. In one case, federal police officers kidnapped a Honduran migrant in the MPP program, handed her to a gang that raped her, then extorted her family in the U.S. for $5,000. One asylum seeker was kidnapped outside Juárez’s immigration office, the first building people in MPP are directed toward here, then forced into sexual slavery for three months, according to a human-rights group.

They’re returned here from the U.S. only with the clothes they wore while crossing the border, stripped of even their shoelaces. This is how I found Roger, 18, and Mario, 25, both Hondurans who had met in detention and were sent back to Juárez together. Each carried his MPP papers, a Mexican visa that allowed him to find work, and a date to appear in immigration court in the U.S. at 4:30 a.m. on November 6. None of this had been explained to them before they walked into Juárez’s migrant-resources center.

Central American migrants in Ciudad Juárez after their return to Mexico from the U.S. under the Migrant Protection Protocols. (Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters)

The center opened in October, initially to help what was expected to be a flood of Mexican deportees from immigration raids threatened by Donald Trump. But it’s now become a carousel-quick orientation building for the recently returned. Inside, the air was cool. A long, bare room with white-tile floors was surrounded by placards for the Red Cross, as well as a human-rights agency and a child-safety outreach group. At the back, a kitchen served saltine crackers and tuna. “Where are you from?” a man who worked at the office asked Roger as he signed his name in the entry book.

He was from Roatán, he said, a little island on the east coast of Honduras. He’d crossed the Mexico-U.S. border earlier that week with his 14-year-old brother, who, as a minor, was released from detention to stay with their mother in Chicago. When the man asked Roger what he wanted to do—return home or wait in Juárez for U.S. asylum—Roger paused. “I want to call my mom,” he said. But he had no phone. No cash. Not even an ID so relatives could wire him money. “If you know someone you can trust,” the man said, handing Roger his own cellphone, “you can have your mother deposit money in their name.”

The man who oversees the migration center, Enrique Valenzuela, who’s also the director of Chihuahua’s State Population Council, was a spring of patience, considering the resources he had. He works six days a week because the asylees arrive Monday through Saturday and the Mexican government provides only eight full-time employees. “It’s not that many people, regarding the size of the situation,” Valenzuela said as we talked in his office.

By the end of the year, it’s expected that MPP will have returned 70,000 asylum seekers to Juárez, or 5 percent of the city’s current population. Juárez has 1,500 beds in its shelters, most of which are already taken. Feeding asylees has mostly fallen upon the goodwill of local churches that are already stretched thin; in July, a Honduran man starved to death on the streets. There were also social issues to factor in: Few jobs and a tremendous wealth gap make it unclear how the local working poor might react to this new surplus labor.

“Yes, we need resources for social inclusion, for school inclusion, but there is something particular about Juárez,” said Valenzuela, who, as a Juarense, had limitless faith in his people’s capacity to open their hearts. “It’s not like other places in the world. Here in Juárez, we look at each other always as equals.”

Earlier, Valenzuela and I had discussed how terrified Roger had looked, and Valenzuela had asked, “Is he out there now?” Five minutes later, he’d found the young man a bed at a retirement center. These spaces, so rare now, go almost exclusively to families, and I knew Roger had caught a lucky break.

Roger was given two options: stay or go home. But in truth, there is a third. Some migrants are deciding to cross illegally in the desert, where they travel for days through remote, harsh terrain in 100-degree heat, in part because of Mexico’s National Guard. Mexico’s leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, hastily created the force in February to combat drug traffickers, mostly drawing from other branches of the military. But in July, Mexico deployed thousands of soldiers to the northern border after Trump threatened Mexico with tariffs unless the government reduced the flow of migrants to the United States. Now every 50 yards or so a soldier with a rifle stood, often in the shade of a tree if one existed. Behind them was a sloping canal. A trickle of the Rio Grande. Then the rusted U.S. border fence.

Mexico says the soldiers have reduced migration to the U.S. by 56 percent. And while some migrants are riding the free buses provided by the government back to their homes in Central America, the overwhelming majority remain in Juárez. Yet the longer they stay here, the more a desert crossing seems like a good option. This raises worrying parallels for immigration experts such as Adam Isacson, who works with the Washington Office on Latin America, a D.C.-based think tank.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration erected walls near cities and forced migrants, mostly men, into deadlier terrain. The result was not a decrease in overall migration, but more deaths as smugglers adjusted their routes. Now about 70 percent of migrants are families, and it’s easy to imagine the outcome, says Isacson, who’s already studying these effects. “You’re going to see more children crossing in the desert, and that means you’ll see more of their bodies in the desert,” he told me. “It’s going to be horrible, and it all seems pretty predictable.”

Like a wall, MPP and the latest Supreme Court ruling function together as a deterrent to migration. The fact that few asylum seekers know what to expect, or why they must wait months in Mexico’s most violent cities, only encourages them to give up. But past attempts at deterrent strategies haven’t had the intended results: When the U.S. built fences near border cities in the 1990s to redirect migration into deserts, policy makers believed no sane person would risk the deadly trip. But they were wrong. More than 7,000 corpses have since been recovered from the desert—and this is likely only a fraction of the actual body count. What policy makers had failed to imagine fully then was the hell these people were leaving, and the lengths they’d go to in order to escape.

Dana and her husband left Cuba after police raided her home, due to Dana selling clothes to earn extra money. The officers kicked her in the face, she told me, then locked her in jail. “They called me a gusano,” she says, or “worm,” and she was marked a traitor. To get here, she rode a horse through pastures and mountains in Nicaragua; was mugged, she says, by police in Guatemala; and then, in southern Mexico, bought phony immigration papers that landed her in a detention center. “The food was not fit for dogs—not even for rats,” she says of the facility. “I was there eight days, and if I stayed one more, I would have died or gone crazy.” In April, Dana was among 600 migrants who escaped. By the time she reached Juárez, she’d been robbed so often that she carried the remains of her cash, $20, wrapped in a condom stuffed in her crotch.

National Guard soldiers patrol the border in Ciudad Juárez. (Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters)

The night before her immigration hearing, Dana and a friend celebrated her departure from Juárez by watching The Lion King at a theater. A friend straightened Dana’s hair, and the following morning, Dana wore a white blouse and blue jeans. She had assumed she would be able to stay in the U.S. and reunite with her husband.

Instead, she was packed alongside two dozen other asylum seekers. Words in English were spoken that she didn’t understand. She was handed a stack of papers and returned to Juárez.

“The judge never asked me anything about my case,” she says.

Two weeks later, Dana finally spoke with her husband. Returning to Cuba was not an option, she said: “It would be my downfall, the end of my life.” They agreed she should find a lawyer. And although she’d never considered it before, at night after her shifts in the restaurant, she’d begun to think seriously about crossing illegally through the desert. She’d survived this long. Perhaps her luck would hold.

* This article originally misidentified the victims of violence in Juarez. Four migrants have been murdered since the MPP began, not four people in the program.