TEXAS, USA — Every morning for the past year, Emilsa and her two American-born daughters wake up on a mattress in a storage room inside a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez. For breakfast, they usually eat eggs and potatoes or whatever food people donate to the shelter.
After eating, the 39-year-old from Guatemala will read to her daughters and teach her 8-year-old addition and subtraction and her 11-year-old multiplication and division. For the rest of the day, the girls play with other children while Emilsa socializes with the hundreds of other migrants in the crowded shelter. On Saturdays, she attends Bible studies and a religious sermon at the shelter.
Since the family arrived at the shelter in May 2021, they have been waiting for the Biden administration to lift Title 42 so they can migrate together to the U.S.
Immigration officials have used the public health order nearly 1.8 million times since March 2020 to expel migrants from entering the country, including asylum-seekers.
The Trump administration invoked Title 42 at the start of the pandemic to close the northern and southern borders to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But now some lawmakers want to keep it in place as a tool for immigration control.
“I just want someone to help me get out of here so my daughters can attend school and make something of themselves,” Emilsa said last week as her daughters ran toward her with a box of chocolates and flowers, a Mother’s Day gift.
While her daughters, who are U.S. citizens, can cross the border anytime, Title 42 has blocked Emilsa from requesting asylum in the U.S. She said she fled the Mexican state of Michoacán after local drug cartel members began demanding extortion payments from her while she worked at a water purification plant.
Emilsa, who asked to be identified only by her middle name because she fears that cartel members could find her, is one of hundreds of thousands of migrants living in limbo in Mexican border towns who had anxiously been waiting for May 23 — the day the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would lift the health order, allowing migrants to once again cross the border and request asylum.
But a federal judge in Louisiana could soon halt the CDC’s move and keep Title 42 in place indefinitely.
After Arizona and more than 20 other Republican-controlled states filed a lawsuit last month in federal court asking District Judge Robert R. Summerhays to block the Biden administration from lifting Title 42, the Trump appointee indicated in court documents that he plans to rule in favor of the states. That would likely spark a monthslong legal battle if the Biden administration appeals the ruling to a higher court.
In court documents, Department of Justice lawyers representing the administration have said Title 42 was meant to be a temporary health order.
Democrats and immigrant rights advocates argue that Title 42 should be lifted because it is inhumane and forces asylum-seekers to live in Mexican border towns where they make easy targets for criminals looking to exploit them. They also say Title 42 violates migrants’ right to seek asylum.
“Every day this policy continues, we deny displaced human beings — the majority of them Black, Indigenous, and brown — the right to seek asylum by summarily kicking them out of the U.S. and putting them in harm’s way,” said Karla Marisol Vargas, a senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “An immediate end to Title 42 is necessary to restore access to asylum and fulfill the administration’s promises to welcome all people with dignity, no exceptions.”
The states argued that lifting Title 42 could create chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border by attracting even more migrants and force the states to spend taxpayer money providing services like health care to migrants. Texas, which had filed a separate lawsuit, joined the Arizona-led lawsuit earlier this month.
“The removal of Title 42 will surely exacerbate Biden’s border crisis. Law enforcement officials have been spread thin arresting violent, illegal aliens who have been incentivized to cross our border by Biden’s reckless policies,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement last month.
It’s unclear when the judge will issue a ruling but it’s expected before May 23.
Meanwhile, in Juárez, Emilsa waits with her daughters because they don’t want to be separated.
“For right now, I don’t have anything planned,” she said. “I’m just waiting for a miracle from God.”
Grissel Ramírez, director of the Esperanza Para Todos shelter where Emilsa and her daughters are staying, said the shelter is well beyond its capacity of 180 people. Currently it’s hosting 240 people from countries like Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and other parts of Mexico.
“There are people who arrive at night, and the city can be dangerous at times,” she said. “I don’t kick them out, even if it makes things complicated for us here.”
“I felt like my whole world had ended”
Emilsa said she has sought refuge in the U.S. twice.
The first time was 21 years ago, when she left Guatemala for Minnesota, where her brother was living, because her ex-boyfriend beat her and threatened to kill her with a knife. She said she walked through the Chihuahuan desert into Texas as an undocumented immigrant.
In Minnesota, she found work at a Mexican restaurant as a cook. After two years, she met a Mexican man who she began dating before they moved in together and had two daughters.
But as the years went by, the couple disagreed on the direction of their relationship and her boyfriend would hit her during arguments, she said. They split up and he moved back to his home state of Michoacán and found a job cutting and hauling lumber.
Six months after he moved back to Mexico, a tree rolled off a trailer and fell on his chest, damaging his heart and lungs, Emilsa said. A doctor told him that if they couldn’t find a donor for a heart transplant, he would die.
He called Emilsa and told her he wanted to see his daughters one last time. Emilsa knew if she went to Mexico, she couldn’t come back to the U.S. because she was undocumented. But she also didn’t want her daughters to miss seeing their father one last time, she said.
She quit her job, packed some clothes for her and the children, and a friend drove her to El Paso, where an immigration officer asked her if she was sure she wanted to cross because she wouldn’t be able to come back, she said. After she crossed a pedestrian bridge into Juárez, her father-in-law picked her up and drove her to Michoacán — a hot spot for drug cartel violence — to rejoin her boyfriend.
“I forgot about all the blows he’d given me and all the problems we had,” she said. “I just wanted him to be happy with the girls in his last moments.”
In Mexico, Emilsa and her boyfriend got married, mainly so she could get Mexican citizenship and legally work. She said they gave up on the process to get Mexican citizenship because Mexican government officials told her she didn’t qualify.
Three years later, in April 2018, Emilsa’s husband died in his bed after his heart stopped.
“I had already felt guilty,” she said. “But at that moment, I felt like my whole world had ended.”
She decided to stay in Michoacán, where she lived with her husband’s family and worked at a water purification plant while her girls attended school. Emilsa said they felt safe at first.
One day after work in 2019, Emilsa said she was walking home through a forested area when she was approached by a group of men who asked if her boss pays the monthly quota. Emilsa said she knew who they were — members of Los Correa drug cartel, which controlled illegal logging and grew marijuana in Michoacán’s eastern forests. She said she pleaded ignorance and the men let her pass.
Weeks later, the same group of men again approached her and said they knew she and her daughters were not Mexican and if they wanted to continue living in the area, Emilsa would have to pay $50 a month — half of her monthly salary.
“If you don’t want to pay to live here, then your daughters are going to pay,” Emilsa said one of the men told her. “If you don’t pay, we’re going to kidnap them — we know they’re American.”
She said she paid them a few times but knew she couldn’t continue for long because she had no money left for her daughters’ school materials.
When Emilsa heard that a local family planned to travel to Juárez so they could cross the border and ask for asylum, she decided to escape. One of her brothers-in-law gave Emilsa $250 to make the bus trip to the U.S.-Mexico border with the other family.
Turned away at the border
When she arrived at the shelter, Emilsa began to call immigrant rights advocacy groups in El Paso, hoping advocates could provide her with legal assistance so she could cross the bridge legally. But after three months, she said she never got a call back.
She said she feared that if she tried without a lawyer, immigration officers would separate her from her daughters. But by August, she was running out of patience and decided to try anyway.
She explained to immigration officers why she fled Guatemala and Mexico and how her daughters are U.S. citizens. The agents said they couldn’t do anything for Emilsa and her daughters because of the pandemic, she said.
Discouraged, they returned to the shelter.
There’s not much for them to do in Juárez, she said. She doesn’t work because she doesn’t have a permit. She worries her daughters have fallen behind in school because she can do only so much and the shelter doesn’t offer classes for children.
In the year she’s been there, she’s made friends with other migrants. Some of them have managed to enter the U.S. because they have medical conditions that fall under an exemption for Title 42. She said others, tired of waiting, decided to enter the U.S. illegally or settle elsewhere in Mexico, and now she and her daughters have been at the shelter longer than anyone else.
She said they feel safe for now but they depend on donated food, clothing and hygiene products.
So they wait, hoping Title 42 will be lifted so she can make an asylum claim, or that an advocacy group can help her find a way to legally cross with her daughters.
“Maybe if it was just me, I wouldn’t be worried about being stuck here,” she said. “But what does worry me the most is that my girls aren’t going to school and learning.”