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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Days after border closes for most migrants, manageable crowds but more anxiety

Jorge Gomez, 34, from Honduras, rests near the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on June 8, 2024. Shelters along the border were quieter on Friday and Saturday compared with previous months, but many hoping to cross into the U.S. felt stranded and fearful. (Paul Ratje/The New York Times)

By Edgar Sandoval and Reyes Mata III

On a hot and humid morning in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, less than a mile from the Rio Grande, one question seemed to linger in the minds of hundreds of people who had arrived Saturday at a shelter for migrants.

When would they be able to cross into the United States?

The answer remained elusive. At least 1,100 men, women and children, a majority of them from Central America and Venezuela, had arrived at Senda de Vida, a sprawling respite center consisting of makeshift tents and temporary wooden rooms, with hopes of reaching the United States. Instead, many felt stuck in limbo after President Joe Biden signed an executive order that prevents migrants from seeking asylum along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border when crossings surge.

The order effectively closed the U.S. border for nearly all asylum-seekers as of 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

The full effect of the new rule was difficult to assess three days after Biden’s announcement, but, as of Saturday, the number of migrants massing at the border showed signs of stabilizing, at least for now, compared with previous years, as many migrants appeared to be heeding the warning that they would be turned away, said Héctor Silva de Luna, a pastor who runs the shelter.

During the height of the migration crisis, he welcomed more than 7,000 people, he said. Many now appear to be waiting in the interior of Mexico, in cities such as Monterrey and Mexico City, to see what happens. But the migrants at the border, like the ones at de Luna’s shelter, are “the ones that will pay the price,” he said, because they are being rejected.

For them, seeing the border closed produced yet more anxiety. Reison Daniel Peñuela, 29, from Venezuela, felt despondent knowing his wife and seven children were relying on him to reach the United States. On Saturday morning, he cast his eyes down as children chased one another and women cooked meals on a rudimentary stove. Before the new order took effect, three of his friends were able to cross the border and are now in Denver.

“I feel like I’m stuck here,” Peñuela said. “Now, I don’t know when I will be able to cross into the U.S. I can’t go back empty-handed now.”

For years, many migrants would turn themselves in at a port of entry or seek out a Border Patrol agent after crossing the Rio Grande, and then ask for asylum. The migrants would then be processed and released into the United States to wait for a court hearing, a process that could take years.

The number of migrants arriving at the border reached historic highs in recent years, up to 10,000 in a single day in December. More recently, those numbers have hovered around 3,000. By taking a page out of former President Donald Trump’s strict immigration policy playbook, Biden appears to be trying to clamp down on a major concern for voters from both parties and, increasingly, for Latinos on the border, a once reliable constituency, who are worried about unauthorized crossings.

The executive order does not address the issue of migrants who evade border authorities and do not seek asylum.

Not everyone at the shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, which is next to McAllen, Texas, felt helpless. Nuvia Baires, 34, from El Salvador, jumped for joy Saturday when, after seven months of trying, she learned she had been granted an asylum interview via CBP One, a mobile app that migrants must use before entering the United States to secure an appointment with federal authorities to submit an asylum application. Biden’s executive order does not apply to those crossing the border legally by using the app.

“God answered my prayers,” Baires told a fellow migrant, Nicole Lopez, 20, of Honduras. “I was afraid I was going to stay here forever with that new rule.”

Others around her congratulated her but lamented that they had few options.

“This new rule is bad news, bad news for people like us who left everything to reach the border,” said Cintia Patricia Media, 40, who left Honduras with her husband and four daughters. They cleaned up a modest wooden room on a sweltering day to make the most of their time here. “It is painful to be so close and being told you are not allowed to enter.”

The slowdown was also evident in McAllen, at a two-story respite center for new arrivals run by Catholic Charities. On Friday afternoon, Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director for Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, counted about 133 people, many of them with young children, a far smaller number compared with the daily average of 600 to 800 people during the height of the surges.

Migrants arriving in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, which borders El Paso, Texas, were feeling nervous about the new order. Jorge Gomez, a lone 34-year-old Honduran man who arrived a day after the border was shut for people such as him, sat hunched and weary near a patch of overgrowth at the river’s edge. He squinted and wiped dust from his arms.

“What I can say is that only God decides who can cross,” Gomez said. “I am alone, so I am afraid they will deport me.”

Pastor Juan Fierro García, director of the Good Samaritan shelter in Ciudad Juárez, said he had seen more migrants trying their luck securing a CBP One appointment rather than risking deportation. García said he had noticed a slight uptick in new arrivals in recent days, with about 180 migrants at his shelter by Saturday.

“About 26 more are on their way here,” he said. “And more will be coming.”

Karen Piamo, a 27-year-old woman from Venezuela who arrived at a shelter in Ciudad Juárez with her husband and three children, was also feeling helpless.

“We were at the river already when I saw the news,” Piamo said. “I wanted to cry.”

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