As Biden prepares to visit the southern border, a humanitarian crisis looms in Mexico

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Migrants traveling in a group of more than 1,000 people from countries such as Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic cross the Rio Grande in Juarez, Mexico, to seek political asylum in the United States on December 11 . 2022. (Herika Martinez/TBEN via Getty Images)

Sitting on train tracks a few hundred feet south of the US border, Nathalie Gonzalez, 23, pulled her 4-year-old daughter a little closer. The night was coming. She had no idea where they would sleep.

They had traveled 3,000 miles from Venezuela seeking asylum, slogging through jungles, hiding in freight trains and begging for food on the streets. They had finally arrived in this chilly industrial city in northern Mexico, where all that now separated them from the United States was a stream of river, a line of National Guard troops, and the new patchwork of American immigration policies that had left them stranded. here.

“It’s so close,” Gonzalez said, staring at the El Paso skyline. “But so far.”

A woman and child watch uniformed men behind loops of concertina wire across a river channel

Texas National Guard troops in El Paso prevent migrants from entering a popular crossing area along the bank of the Rio Grande on Dec. 20, 2022, as seen from Juarez, Mexico. (John Moore/Getty Images)

As President Biden prepares for a visit to El Paso on Sunday, his first trip to the border since taking office two years ago, here’s his legacy: Thousands of people from some of the world’s most oppressive countries are stranded in Mexico because of its expansion of a Trump administration policy that allows border agents to immediately deport migrants without considering their asylum applications.

While hundreds of thousands of migrants from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere have been swiftly deported in recent years under Title 42, a rule invoked by ex-President Trump that allows the government to impede foreigners’ entry during a health emergency public health, from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and a handful of other countries were generally allowed to enter the US, given temporary work permits and given asylum hearings.

Their homeland was simply too unstable or too politically at odds with the United States for agents to coordinate mass deportations.

But as a wave of migrants from those countries overwhelmed U.S. border towns in recent months, leading local officials to plead for federal aid, the Biden administration began sending Venezuelans who arrived at the border back to Mexico without giving them asylum hearings.

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On Thursday, Biden expanded on that policy by saying people from Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti would also be immediately returned to Mexico.

A migrant Jaider holds his puppy as he looks across the Rio Grande to El Paso.

Colombian migrant Jaider, 18, holds his puppy Trucha as he looks across the Rio Grande toward El Paso on Dec. 19, 2022. He said he had carried the dog all the way from Colombia. (John Moore/Getty Images)

“Don’t just show up at the border,” Biden said in a speech announcing the new approach. “Stay where you are and legally apply from there.”

Biden also announced a new path to legal entry for people from the four countries, saying as many as 30,000 of them a month would be allowed into the US if they applied from their home country through an online application, a US-based find a sponsor. , passed a strict background check and bought a plane ticket.

But many criticize the plan as unrealistic, with Sen. Robert Menendez (DN.J.) saying it “will exclude migrants who are fleeing violence and persecution and who lack the ability or economic resources to qualify. “

The wave of change has left people like Gonzalez, her daughter and others who had already embarked on the journey to the US few options. Gonzalez said she now sees no choice but to try to sneak into Texas illegally.

“We’re scared. We don’t want to do it this way,” Gonzalez said. But the thought of staying in Mexico – with its drug gangs and extortion – terrifies her. And back home in Venezuela, she said, “The minimum wage is $30 a month and my daughter has nothing to eat.”

Biden said this week that he hopes his administration’s new plan will “significantly reduce” the number of people trying to cross the border.

Immigrants wrapped in blankets gather around a fire

Immigrants keep warm by a fire at dawn after spending a night along the U.S.-Mexico border fence in the El Paso area on Dec. 22, 2022. (John Moore/Getty Images)

He announced the plan amid mounting pressure from officials in cities like El Paso, where thousands of migrants have camped out on sidewalks in freezing temperatures in recent weeks. El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser, a Democrat, has declared a state of emergency. With local shelters overcrowded, the city is offering sleeping accommodations for migrants on city buses.

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The city had braced for even more migrants last month, when Title 42 was due to be lifted, following an order from a federal judge who ruled it was used arbitrarily and was no longer justified as a pandemic health measure.

About 19 Republican-led states appealed to the Supreme Court, and the court ruled that Title 42 would remain in effect until the Supreme Court ruled on a case. Even if eventually lifted, the new Biden policy will continue to apply to Venezuelans, Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians.

While the new guidelines may ease stress on American communities, they are already putting pressure on Mexican cities.

In a Mexican government office under a bridge connecting El Paso to Juarez, Enrique Valenzuela stood before a crowd of disheveled migrants recently deported from the US and told them a difficult truth.

“They don’t want you there,” Valenzuela said of US officials. “They want you here.”

Barbed wire separates migrants from members of the Texas National Guard.

Migrants converge on the banks of the Rio Grande on the US border with Mexico on Tuesday, December 20, 2022, as members of the Texas National Guard cordon off a hole in the US border wall. (Morgan Lee/The Bharat Express News)

Valenzuela, a burly man dressed in a flannel coat, has been helping coordinate migrant aid for the Mexican state of Chihuahua for the past five years. In that time, he has seen multiple versions of US immigration policy aimed at keeping as many migrants in Mexico as possible, and believes part of his job is to help migrants face reality.

Juarez, he told them, was a town full of people from other parts of Mexico who came to do factory work. “We are all grandchildren of immigrants,” he said.

“You’re here now,” he said. ‘You have to try to find work. You have to integrate into society.”

The migrants looked at him warily. A young man wore a placard around his neck that he had used to raise money for his trip to the US. It read: “Help us achieve our dream.”

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When one of the recent returnees asked how they could find a place to stay, Valenzuela said there were shelters.

“We have seats today, right?” he asked a young assistant.

She shook her head no.

“Are we full yet?” he said with a look of disbelief.

She nodded. Valenzuela sighed and vowed to call the local pastors to see if there were any seats left in churches.

“We are on the verge of another emergency,” he later said in an interview. Again, he said, Mexico would have to struggle “with decisions made in the United States.”

Unlike some previous changes, the new enforcement rules appear to have Mexico’s blessing.

Under the new plan, Mexico agreed to accept deportees from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti, which it had failed to do in the past.

Biden’s announcement came just days before his first official visit to Mexico, where after his event in El Paso he will fly for a two-day summit with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Immigration is one of many issues, including climate change, manufacturing, security and trade, that leaders are expected to discuss.

The discussions will take place in Mexico City, far from many of those whose lives they may affect. Like Leonela Murillo Leal, 20, who asked for alms one recent afternoon in downtown Juarez with a baby on her hip as she tried to keep her two older children from running into the road.

To keep them entertained for a few minutes, she used the few pesos someone had just given her to buy popsicles.

She and her husband, José Arteaga Farrilla, 31, left Venezuela five years ago, at a time when the country was beset by food shortages, soaring inflation and bloody street protests calling for the ouster of left-wing dictator Nicolas Maduro. They joined hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who fled to Ecuador and later settled in Chile, but said they could not find enough work and faced xenophobia.

When they heard Venezuelans were allowed to enter the US, they headed north, at one point 70 miles on foot through the Darien Gap, the dense jungle that connects South and Central America.

“The kids had a fever and diarrhea,” Murillo said. “We saw dead people. It was ugly.”

“A lot of people told us we weren’t going to make it,” Arteaga said.

But they had. The family crossed into the US from the town of Piedras Negras on December 21 and were promptly returned across the border. They were held there for nine days in a Mexican immigration facility, over Christmas and New Years. When they got off, they boarded a freight train to Juarez.

They had heard that Biden was coming to the border there for a visit. Rumors circulated that he would make a benevolent announcement. “We are waiting to see what the president says,” Arteaga said. “Some say he will let people in.”

“No,” interjected one of the men the family was traveling with. “He does not do that.”

“Well, I’m not going back to Venezuela,” Arteaga said. “I wouldn’t even go back if they flew me.”

“Me neither,” said his wife. “At least here I can find a crumb of food for my child.”

Times staff writer Hamed Aleaziz contributed reporting.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.