Try, try again: for some Central Americans, US politics opens a revolving door
MEXICO CITY, May 21 (Reuters) – After six attempts to enter the United States from Mexico in two and a half months, Nicolas, a 35-year-old Guatemalan migrant, was at risk of failing and returning home with thousands of dollars in debt. .
Then on his seventh shot – squeezing into a corner on a freight train for a heart-wrenching seven-hour ride to Texas – he pulled it off.
Since the pandemic flattened the tourist economy of his lakeside town in Guatemala, rumors have gradually spread among Central Americans trying to enter the United States that once they reach the border, they can continue. to try again, day after day, even if they are refused the first times.
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This development is an unintended consequence of a COVID-19 health order implemented under former President Donald Trump that was put in place to slow migration during the pandemic. It has so far been maintained by President Joe Biden despite calls from migrant rights advocates to end it.
Known as Title 42, the health ordinance allows U.S. border officials to quickly return mostly adults and Central American families to the Mexican side of the border, without imposing traditional penalties on repeat offenders that may include a sentence. from prison, or deport them to their country of origin. thousands of kilometers to the south.
For Nicolas, this offered the opportunity to keep trying.
“I thought to myself, ‘I can’t go back to Guatemala. I will fight, “said Nicolas, remembering the promise to provide for his three children and his wife. He had used his land as collateral to pay for the trip.
“If I go back to Guatemala … I will lose everything.” Nicolas spoke on condition that he only used his first name because he has no legal status in the United States.
The repeated crossings have contributed to the increase in arrests of migrants at the US-Mexico border, to their highest monthly level in 20 years in the past two months.
This increase in level crossings adds to the complications facing US President Joe Biden’s administration as it attempts to craft more humane border policies while under pressure from opposition Republicans and some Democrats to its management of immigration.
Biden officials have said they will end this unprecedented use of Title 42, a pre-existing health code, when the Centers for Disease Control says it is safe to end it. They did not provide a timetable.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) returned 94,082 single adults in April under Title 42, up from 14,200 in the same month in 2020, when the policy was just introduced and pandemic lockdowns severely restricted the movement of migrants.
Nearly 30% of those apprehended at the border last month had crossed multiple times, a CBP spokesperson said, up from 7% in fiscal 2019.
“If the goal is border management, Title 42 doesn’t work,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy adviser to the American Immigration Council, which advocates for migrants in the United States. “It has led to more people crossing the border more times.”
CBP said the order was aimed at preventing infections by reducing the number of migrants gathered in detention centers, and some Republican lawmakers backed it for migration control.
“The Biden administration has made it clear that while we are rebuilding our immigration system, people should not be making the dangerous journey,” said a White House official. “There is no policy change at this time.”
Nicolas attempted to migrate to the United States twice in 2019, but was deported to Guatemala each time.
To cover the smuggling costs of around $ 12,000 for the two attempts, he lost the small piece of land he had inherited from his mother and his two bedroom house.
When the pandemic hit, he lost his job driving tourists to the jungles and volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan. He turned to cultivating crops and collecting firewood to feed his 10-year-old son and two daughters, ages 7 and 1, and found the courage to attempt another trip to the United States. United.
This time, Nicolas took out a bank loan with his wife’s land as collateral and raised $ 13,000 to pay a smuggler again.
Eight young men from his hometown of San Pedro la Laguna, where the local indigenous language is Tz’utujil, traveled with him. They arrived in Nuevo Laredo, northeastern Mexico, across from the Texas border in January.
During Nicolas’ first attempt to cross the Rio Grande, he attempted to swim away from border officials, fearing deportation. The officers caught him anyway and dropped him off at the international bridge within minutes.
He relayed the news to his brother at home, who told Reuters how word of the new method of crossing the border began to spread.
Nicolas said his smugglers offered to help him cross as many times as he needed within three months, but would charge him nearly $ 2,600 for another three-month run.
After Nicolas was caught crossing the river four more times, the smugglers tried a new tactic. They drove him and other migrants into the desert to wait for a freight train bound for Texas. After five days with little food and water, the train arrived at 3 a.m. one night. Nicolas got stuck in a crack above the wheel and held out on the seven-hour journey to the Texas town of Agua Dulce.
They were caught when a drone alerted migration officers of their arrival, Nicolas said, and once again they sent him to Mexico. For the second time, he clung to the bottom of the dusty freight train to reach Texas.
This time, his luck held.
Nicolas now lives in Houston and takes construction jobs outside of a Home Depot store, helping him send part of his $ 100 a day salary home. Every week, his wife makes payments to pay off Nicolas’ debt.
Nicolas said he hoped, in a few years, to return to his family.
” They miss me a lot. But I came here out of necessity, ”he said.
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Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala and Ted Hesson and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Aurora Ellis
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