Migrant families arrested in Texas being flown to California for expulsion
In March, more than 170,000 people were apprehended along the southern border
When Gabby Fajardo and her son Gerard, five, sneaked across the US-Mexico border near Brownsville, Texas, last month, they could have continued their journey into the US undetected.
They turned themselves over to authorities, however, hoping for a fresh shot at asylum after an initial application was rejected.
Instead of hearing her claim, Ms Fajardo said border agents took her to an overcrowded detention centre in Donna, Texas.
She and her son were then put on a plane to San Diego, California, 2,500 kilometres away, and deported to Tijuana, Mexico.
She initially thought she was being allowed to remain in the US to await her asylum claim.
“I was very happy and excited because I thought we were going to be processed, they were going to bring us in front of a judge, and we were all happy, everyone was happy,” Ms Fajardo told The National.
“Then, when we saw we were going to get on a bus to continue on our way, I read a sign that said ‘currency exchange’ and I got scared because the currency exchange places are only on the border. Then I saw the wall. And I started to cry.”
Ms Fajardo is one of thousands of asylum seekers who have illegally crossed the border from Mexico into the US since Joe Biden became president in January, creating his first major crisis and one that critics have been quick to pounce on.
In March, Customs and Border Protections (CBP) agents apprehended more than 170,000 people along the southern border. That number was expected to be similar again in April, continuing an upward trend dating back to late last year.
This spike has created a challenge for the Biden administration which has struggled to set up emergency sites to deal with the migrants, many of them young children and teens.
In March, the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, bordering much of south-eastern Texas, stopped accepting returning migrants with young families who had crossed into the US due to the many dangers they could face upon return, including extortion, kidnapping and murder.
As a result, the US has started flying people to places bordering other Mexican states that have not instituted such a policy.
“They tell them that they're being paroled into the United States, that they're being processed and they don't tell them that they are being sent back to Mexico,” said Erika Pinheiro, litigation and policy director of Al Otro Lado, a law firm that helps migrants and which is representing Ms Fajardo.
“A lot of people that we encounter here say they don't even know what country they're in … they're just so disoriented.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration imposed Title 42, a programme that allows the US government to expel people who have recently been in a country where a communicable disease was present. According to WHO data, Mexico has recorded more than 2.3 million Covid-19 cases.
To the dismay of many Democratic supporters, the Biden administration has continued using the programme to prevent people from entering the country.
“Biden has kept the policy and actually done some things to make it even worse, and that's unfortunately the situation that Gabby was caught up in,” Ms Pinheiro told The National.
Tijuana struggling to keep up
With no family or connections in Tijuana, Ms Fajardo and her son ended up at an overcrowded shelter.
“It was a blessing from God just to have a roof over our heads because it’s very hard to be somewhere that you don’t know, that’s not yours, that’s not your country, where you feel uncomfortable,” she said.
The thousands of migrants being deported into Tijuana face increasingly perilous and squalid conditions. With camps now full, many end up on the street.
“Of all this population of expelled, deported people that are arriving, very [problematic] conditions are increasing,” said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, the immigration liaison for the city of Tijuana.
A CBP spokesman acknowledged that migrants picked up in the Rio Grande Valley were being processed at other places along the border, but he would not comment on how many or frequent the flights were.
“Several Border Patrol sectors have seen an increase in encounters. In order to process individuals as safely and expeditiously as possible, other sectors along the south-west border are assisting by processing these subjects at their facilities,” the officer told The National.
Mr Perez Canchola has been involved in migrant issues since the 1970s and he said what’s happening in Tijuana is as bad as anything he has ever seen.
“This type of immigration is more dramatic, [the people are] more vulnerable, because it involves whole families, children travelling alone to escape the violence of the security crisis,” he said.
“There are also assaults here, battered women, assaulted women, migrants have been kidnapped. This has created a very complicated situation.”
Thanks to help from friends, Ms Fajardo and her son managed to return to Matamoros, Mexico, where she has a support network, while she awaits news of her asylum claim.
Sara Ruthven of The National provided Spanish-English translation for this piece
Updated: May 10, 2021 10:48 PM