REYNOSA, Mexico — Desperation, depression and anxiety hang in the air.
The sprawling migrant camp here in a city park near the international bridge has seen its population double in recent months. Migrants crowd nearby shelters.
These are the people — from Honduras to Haiti and beyond — who have traveled days, weeks and months to the border, where they hope they can cross into the U.S. Many plan to seek asylum.
For two years, Title 42 has allowed for the quick expulsion of migrants who try to cross the border. The pandemic health order began under President Donald Trump and was inherited by President Joe Biden. The result has left thousands of people in limbo in Mexico.
Now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the health order is no longer a necessity, and the Biden administration plans to allow it to end on May 23.
Texas Gov. Abbott has blasted the Biden administration for ending Title 42, citing the move in his own efforts to beef up border security by, in part, stepping up border inspections to stop human and drug smuggling.
He warns that after the Title 42 is lifted, thousands of additional migrants will cross the border. And he’s right.
In March, the number of migrant arrivals was nearly 210,000, surpassing the previous peak under the Biden tenure in July 2021 when there were 200,000 encounters.
These are the people Abbott is trying to keep out.
“It is my dream to go to the United States,” said Faviola Vasquez, who has already tried to enter the U.S. As she crossed, she says she was so startled by an approaching Border Patrol agent who grabbed her that she began to feel labor pains.
Vasquez was quickly expelled under Title 42. Her child, Ashley, was born soon after, in Reynosa.
Anxious migrants here say the end of Title 42 can’t happen too soon. It’s the dream of many stuck in this border city of 900,000 to start a life north of the Rio Grande. Men and women hear of plentiful jobs. Parents hold out hope that they can settle down and salvage their kids’ childhoods.
In Reynosa, they wait. Anxiety attacks happen frequently. And nonprofit medical clinics are swamped, attending to broken limbs, pregnancies, rashes and mental trauma. One 8-year-old boy told his mother he wanted to die, weeks after she said she saved him from a local gun-toting gang member.
On one recent day, 8-year-old Nohemi tried out her moves on a small skateboard on a stretch of sidewalk at the Plaza de La República park. Her thick bun of hair accentuated her determined face. Her Guatemalan mother called for her from a bench to chat with visitors.
“I want to go to the United States,” the child said. Already, her older sister and brother are there. They traveled as unaccompanied minors and were allowed across the border, exempt from Title 42 because they were not with adults. They live in the Bronx with their grandmother.
“I miss them,” said the girl, who said she hated the camp.
Misery in the camp
No wonder. Where grass once grew in the park, there is now dirt. Tents cover nearly every patch of its brown earth. Huge blue tarps provide an unsteady roof when it rains. Narrow passages lead deeper into the dimly lit labyrinth. Stalls have sprouted up to sell toilet paper for the equivalent of 50 cents in Mexican pesos and pastries for a little more.
Spicy smells waft through the air at the periphery of the camp where migrants cook with donated foods like rice and beans.
It’s not only crowded here; it’s dangerous.
Migrants have organized their own security patrols because Mexican gangs have snatched away so many people.
Health care is limited, but volunteers do what they can.
Two medical groups attend to migrants with all sorts of ailments. Each group has their specialty, but mental trauma is covered by both. The mobile clinic stands in front of a mighty bronze statue of an eagle, the Mexican symbol of freedom at a prominent corner of the park.
A tall, reed-thin man of 20 named Jose Rivera hauled a huge bag of oranges into the camp. He came from Honduras, where he said he’s seen many problems. “I left my country to survive,” Rivera said.
Suddenly, he began talking of nightmares. “I can’t sleep remembering the things that happened,” he said.
An older migrant man nearby looked at him with sympathy, and said they try to give him therapy.
Around the corner, a priest in the purple vestments of the Easter season said the Lord’s Prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread,” he said in Spanish.
There are 2,500 to 3,000 people living in the park. An estimated 1,500 more are at the biggest shelter, Senda de Vida, or Path of Life. And a few thousand are believed to live in two other shelters and dwellings around Reynosa.
People languish here because they have nowhere else to go. Under Title 42, migrants are repeatedly expelled back into crime-ridden Mexican border cities, finding themselves back in Reynosa within a few hours to a day.
Agencies and advocates as prominent as Filippo Grandi, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, have criticized the use of Title 42 because they say it deprives migrants of their rights to due process. Migrants have a legal right to apply for asylum and must then prove why they need it — that they are fleeing violence, for example — to stay in the U.S.
Many already have family spread out across the United States.
Ojalá, God willing
Juan Mejia, a thin 61-year-old man who stirred a hot, thick rice-and-raisin drink at the edge of the camp, said he simply couldn’t live in Honduras any longer with gangs demanding extortion money and beating him.
He used his iPhone to quickly show proof of his injury, an X-ray of damage to his spine that he says is from gang violence. Mejia emphasized his clean record, with no law enforcement problems — and, he added, he has no tattoos that might signal a gang affiliation.
“Title 42: We are waiting for God to tell us they will let us pass,” Mejia said. Then he adds an “Ojalá,” God willing, a common expression in Spanish.
Around him, other Hondurans talked about how their homeland has deteriorated into violence under former President Juan Orlando Hernández, who left office in January after eight years in office. Hernandez was arrested at his home in mid-February at the request of the U.S., whose prosecutors claim he helped an alleged drug trafficker for hefty bribes.
Title 42 has led to a more insecure and disorderly border. The report Two Years of Suffering by Human Rights First, released last month, documented nearly 10,000 incidents of kidnapping, torture, rape and other violent attacks of migrants who were expelled under Title 42.
Mexican drug cartels thrive off of desperate migrants who remain at the border because they can’t go north, and have no money or experience violence if they head back to their native lands. Many have repeatedly tried and failed to cross into the U.S. There’s no legal penalty for trying over and over again, said Danilo Zak, the policy and advocacy manager of the National Immigration Forum.
“We need to figure out a way to process people effectively in an orderly manner that provides protection to people who have credible claims for asylum and other protections, and that returns people who don’t,” Zak said.
“Certainly Title 42 is not the answer to that problem,” he said.
Soon, migration will rise with the end of the rapid expulsions and seasonal trends, Zak said. About 30 percent of those caught by the Border Patrol in February were people who had tried at least once before, federal immigration authorities say.
The Biden administration has plans to surge asylum specialists and others to the border, and to involve the Federal Emergency Management Administration in processing.
But Zak, like others, isn’t sure the new federal staff and resources will be in place by May 23.
There are exemptions under Title 42. In addition to unaccompanied minors, some families with small children have been allowed to cross into the Rio Grande Valley, but not at other parts of the border. Humanitarian exemptions have been given to pregnant women, but its application is inconsistent, advocates have said.
The exemption that rankles some along the border is the one now given to Ukrainians. The country’s war with Russia has led to the exodus of a tenth of its population, or more than 4.7 million.
At the Reynosa bridge, over a shimmering emerald-green Rio Grande, a line of Ukrainians waited for entry into the U.S. Yevhen Verbytskyi said his brother in the U.S. called him and said “just fly to Reynosa.” So he did with his wife.
Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, co-founder of the nonprofit Sidewalk School, works with migrants seeking asylum from all over the world. But the recent treatment of Haitians and now Ukrainians leaves her incensed.
“It is O.K. for white asylum-seekers to cross, but not for Black and brown asylum seekers,” said Rangel-Samponaro. Her organization originally focused on assisting migrant children but that mission swelled to include a variety of services at shelters, especially for Black asylum-seekers from Haiti.
“There are wars all over the world. Haiti is destroyed. They have nothing to go back to. It’s the same situation, just different skin tone,” she said.
Brendon Tucker, project manager for Global Response Management, estimates about half the patients at their clinics are Haitian. Growing numbers have arrived in Reynosa in recent months. His group is one of the few that regularly comes into Reynosa despite the presence of organized crime.
“The only constant is that it constantly gets worse here,” Tucker said.
As he drove through Reynosa’s paved and potholed streets to a shelter, Tucker coordinated a call for an ambulance to be sent there for a man who was having seizures.
At the shelter, clanging metal gates opened to admit Tucker’s vehicle. There’s a makeshift clinic under a patio roof. Haitian patients milled about, looking worried. The man who had the seizures appeared to be unconscious and was being loaded on a gurney.
The ambulance arrived, and the man was whisked away.
At a different shelter for the most vulnerable, another Global Response Management mobile clinic filled with patients, mostly from Haiti. Fellow Haitians with multiple language skills translated for Mexican doctors, including many who are Spanish-English bilingual but can’t speak Creole.
A Haitian man named Job calmly translated, smiling when Tucker greeted him. “He’s phenomenal,” Tucker said. “We couldn’t exist without him. The solidarity among the asylum-seekers is awesome, especially the Haitians.”
But many at this shelter were taken aback as they heard moans from a Haitian woman near the reception area.
Her moans became louder. She fell to the ground and patients squirmed with anxiety as they watched. A man tried to soothe her. A Mexican doctor ran to her side. She appeared to pass out and was soon taken to another room within the shelter.
It’s an anxiety attack, said Tucker, one of many he sees.
“We don’t go a day without dealing with patients who have been kidnapped,” Tucker said. Women have been raped in front of children. Fathers have been taken by gangs for extortion attempts. One boy went mute afterward, Tucker said.
“It is such a violent place for migrants. They are treated like merchandise.”
Tucker returned to Senda de Vida shelter, a nonprofit run by pastor Hector Silva. As afternoon temperatures soared, the shelter buzzed with activity. Children and men got haircuts from volunteer barbers wearing red plastic gloves. Behind them, tents in blue and gray and green seemed to stretch to the horizon.
Bring on Wonder Woman
A 4-year-old Haitian girl giggled as a Honduran 1-year-old was made up with pink eye shadow from a child’s toy compact. A mother looked on, grateful for the break in the sad routines of the day.
Another little girl played with a Wonder Woman doll, treating it like a queen, perched on the base of a cement pillar.
But around the children, the adults look pained. Some are eager to learn more about policy changes in the U.S. that will allow them to make a claim for asylum.
Among them were many Haitians, Hondurans and Guatemalans and even a family from Kazakhstan.
Yessi Garcia, a Guatemalan, kissed her little boy. He returned the affection, clinging to her. The young mother says she saved him from what could have been a murder by a gang member. “I said, ‘Don’t kill my son. Why?’ ”
They were released. But at the shelter, he has told his mother he wanted to die.
She gently rocked her small body as she told their story. She rubbed the joints of her thumb over and over again, as though soothing herself.
“If I get across, I will work to help others.”
Her son wrapped his arms around his mother’s neck and buried his face in her black hair.
Garcia said she will not give up hope.