CIUDAD JUÁREZ — In the spring of 1864, a massive flood from the Rio Grande in El Paso diverted the river’s route, bringing a swath of territory that belonged to Mexico into the boundary of the United States. The U.S. possession of this land — known as the Chamizal — then became a contentious issue for the next century.
In 1964, a negotiated land swap converted it into a memorial park shared by both nations. Even after this diplomatic resolution, the Chamizal has stood as a symbol of the complicated relationship between the two nations.
Today, the westernmost sliver of Mexico’s Chamizal territory is known as Parque Gardenias, a bustling gathering spot wedged between two Juarez streets and Fronterizo Boulevard, a sun-scorched road that runs parallel to the international boundary.
No longer about geographic boundaries and the shifting Rio Grande, the issues of the modern border are defined by the weary migrants, drug dealers and border crossers who congregate in this corner of the Chamizal, awaiting their moment to hurry across the highway, tread over the shallow streams of the river and pursue, legally or not, the journey into Texas and New Mexico, their gateways to the storied opportunities in the United States.
“I want to enter the United States, to live better, to be safe,” said Rene M. Joseph, a 30-year-old Haitian migrant, as he walked from the Gardenias park, speaking the broken Spanish he picked up along his 2,000-mile journey.
He showed his cracked teeth and scars on his head that he says came from machete strikes, then maneuvered himself down the sandy river embankment, made his way across the mud and rocks of the shallow Rio Bravo, and scaled up the U.S. side of the river, jogging toward Union Pacific boxcars lined up in an El Paso rail yard unfettered by the Border Wall.
Data indicates that the Mexican border along the U.S. Southwest is undergoing its second migration wave in the past three years. The increase in entries is evident in the region’s border counties — Doña Ana, Luna and Hidalgo in New Mexico — and in the U.S. Border Patrol encounters up north through New Mexico toward Albuquerque, said Richard Barragan, a spokesman for the El Paso Sector Border Patrol.
“There obviously is a flow. It’s one of the busiest in the country for people coming north and trying to get away,” he said. Recounting statistics of the previous week, he cited several smuggling attempts that were intercepted on their way into northern New Mexico: A semi-tractor trailer with 17 suspected migrants hidden in the back, one van with 22, another with 11. All stopped and all headed north on Interstate 25.
Government figures show nearly 750,000 encounters between immigrants and the U.S. Border Patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border so far this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. That’s 40% more than the same period during the previous high in 2019, and 196% more than last year, which included the pandemic.
In Mexico, the first three months of 2021 has also seen an 18% increase in migrants entering that country from the same time last year, according to numbers from Mexico’s National Migration Institute.
Dora Giusti, chief child protection officer for UNICEF in Mexico, monitors the migration trends that affect the shared border of the United States and Mexico. Exceptionally troubling, she said, is the rate of children migrating into Mexico while en route to the United States.
“What stands out in the Mexican data is that 50% of the migrant children are unaccompanied. We never had such a high rate,” she said.
In the United States, Border Patrol data also shows a large increase in unaccompanied minors.
In April 2021, 17,171 unaccompanied minors were picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol along the southern border. That was a massive increase over April 2020, during a high point of the pandemic, which saw only 741 unaccompanied minors picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol. But it is 85% higher than the 2019 migrant surge, which logged 9,265 April encounters.
With more illegal border crossings, other risks also increase for people crossing into New Mexico and Texas, said Border Patrol Agent Joel Freeland, from the public affairs office of the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which includes all New Mexico border counties as well as El Paso and Hudspeth counties in Texas.
“So we are also seeing a dramatic increase in the number of people abandoned, people that we have to rescue,” he said, emphasizing that Border Patrol rescues along the border from October to April of this year are at 5,787 — which has surpassed the total for all of 2020.
“The cartels exploit people for money and they don’t care about the welfare of the individual they are trying to smuggle,” Freeland said.
He added that another area of concern among agents is the rise in the number of “adults who are trying to evade apprehension and detection.”
Border Patrol data confirms the rise of encounters with single adults from 29,759 in April 2018 to 37,745 in April 2019; and a decrease to 15,609 during pandemic-struck April 2020. Then in April of this year, numbers spiked to 111,301 adults picked up along the border.
‘Change of tone’
Trump-era initiatives to narrow legal avenues into the United States have clogged the system, immigration advocates say, causing border crossers to try their chances away from international ports of entry.
Leaders of immigration rights organizations anticipated that higher numbers of people would try to enter the United States under the new Biden presidency. They said they expected a Democratic administration would bring a more respectful tone in the immigration conversation, and also said they hoped for the dismantling of the “Remain in Mexico” Migrant Protection Protocols, and a lifting of the widespread expulsions under the Title 42 health code.
The change of tone has happened, says Fernando Garcia, head of the Border Network for Human Rights, a leading organization for migrant advocacy in the Southwest.
“What we see with this administration is obviously in the change of discourse on the narrative, on the rhetoric towards immigrants,” he said, adding that it is also a political calculus by the Democratic administration.
Garcia pointed out that Biden won the election with a sizeable portion of the Latino vote and “one of the demands of Latinos has been immigration reform.”
The Migration Protection Protocols initiative that expelled asylum seekers into Mexico to await their U.S. immigration proceedings began to be repealed early in the Biden administration, and were formally ended on June 1.
But Title 42, which permits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prohibit entry into the U.S. of individuals when “there is serious danger of the introduction of (a communicable) disease into the United States” remains in effect on the border. It has been a controversial decision by the Biden administration.
“Asylum has been obliterated,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which works with immigrant rights organizations in Texas, Chihuahua and New Mexico. “We do not believe it serves the purpose that they claim it does, which is the protection of these border communities. We have been increasingly disappointed to see the Biden administration continue to use Title 42.”
Title 42 falls under a section of U.S. health law, and was pulled from obscurity by a CDC directive, ostensibly as a safeguard to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Implemented in March of 2020, it has been used to swiftly expel to Mexico undocumented border crossers who come from “Coronavirus-impacted areas.”
“Title 42 is an odd thing,” said Dr. Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He is also a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez. “It allows the government to summarily deport an asylum seeker, and that is a problem.
“Technically, when someone shows up at the U.S. doorstep and they ask for asylum, the law, both domestic and international, says the U.S. has to allow them their day in court. By law.”
Despite the criticism, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki in late May affirmed the Biden administration’s continuation of Title 42.
“We are still at war with the virus,” she said during a May 24 press briefing at the White House. “Yes, there has been progress made, but we are still in the midst of a public health crisis. So, at this point, we are still implementing Title 42 and we have not changed our policy on that.”
Rivas said she believes the health measure has been politicized, affecting in an extreme way the welfare of people who are looking to the United States as their last option for stability and refuge.
“People are crossing the river, going through the mountains, scaling the wall, risking their lives, that is the only way they have right now,” she said. “And even if they make it through, even if they are injured, even if they are hospitalized, the government is ready, willing and prepared, and will, in the majority of cases, send them back to Mexico, expelled under Title 42.”
The risks of crossing into the unknown terrain of the desert, of entering El Paso, or Sunland Park and Santa Teresa, and being at the mercy of a foreign system, has not deterred migrants from Mexico, Central America and other places around the world, from pushing north into New Mexico and Texas. The numbers escalate, more each month, and if the trend continues, they will be higher than in previous years.
Down by the Parque Gardenias, at the edge of the concrete embankment of the Rio Bravo — as the Rio Grande is called in Mexico — Leticia Martinez Ramos sits with her 5-year-old son Daniel. She said she visits the river often to enjoy the cool evening.
She lives comfortably in Juarez, she said, has no plans to leave, and doesn’t follow the immigration politics of the border. But she is moved by the plight of the migrants she often sees running to the border, determined to find a better life.
“So many people want to cross to the other side, to improve their lives,” she said. “It’s very hard for them. They are suffering in their country. One just wants to give the best to your children, and I know that is very hard.”
Farther down the river, next to a dusty but well-tuned motorcycle, David Peinado also sits on the concrete, his back against the incline and camera resting on his lap. He takes pictures of migrants and border crossers, selling the photos to newspapers and magazines around the world.
“Just wait for it to start getting dark, and you will see them,” he said. “They always come.”