EAGLE PASS, Texas – As the sun set over the Rio Grande, about 120 Cubans, Colombians and Venezuelans, wading through the water at the waist, boarded border patrol vehicles that were soon to be released in the United States to handle immigration cases.
Across the border in the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, Honduran families reunited in the city center with cracked sidewalks, narrow streets and a small number of people not knowing where to spend the night because the only shelter in the city was full.
Opposing fates illustrate the dual nature of U.S. border protection under pandemic rules known as Section 42 and named after the 1944 Health Care Act. President Joe Biden wanted to repeal the rules on Monday, but a federal judge in Louisiana issued a nationwide injunction that keeps them intact.
The U.S. government has deported migrants more than 1.9 million times under Section 42, depriving them of the opportunity to seek asylum, as permitted by U.S. law and international treaties, in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But title 42 is not applied evenly among nationalities. For example, Mexico agrees to take back migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. For other nationalities, however, high costs, poor diplomatic relations, and other considerations make it difficult for the U.S. to send migrants to their home countries under Section 42. Instead, they are typically released in the U.S. for asylum or other forms of legal status.
Hondurans in Piedras Negras are asking Cubans who arrive at the bus station for money, knowing that Cubans will not need pesos because they will go straight across the border. While Mexico agreed in April to accept some Cubans and Nicaraguans deported under Title 42, the vast majority are released in the United States
“It was coming out,” Javier Fuentes, 20, said of his overnight stay at a rented house in Piedras Negras. On Sunday morning, he and two other Cubans walked through the Rio Grande and on an asphalt road for about an hour until they found a border patrol car in Eagle Pass, a Texas city of 25,000 where migrants cross the river to the edge of a public golf course.
The night rains raised the water to about neck level for most adults, a possible explanation for the lack of groups numbering in the tens, even more than 100, who visit the area for many days.
“It’s a slow start to the morning,” said a border patrol agent, welcoming Texas National Guard troops who were watching four Peruvians, including a 7-month-old boy who moved in with his parents after squeezing into a rented room in Piedras. Negro with 17 migrants.
When the water dropped to the belt again, about three dozen migrants gathered in a public park by the river, which also attracted locals to Piedras Negras, which considers itself the birthplace of nachos. Babies and young children joined the crowd mostly of Honduras to cross. One woman from Honduras was in her eighth month of pregnancy with obvious pain.
Eagle Pass, a large city of warehouses and dilapidated homes that many major retailers have not noticed, is one of the busiest places in the Del Rio Border Service sector, which includes about 250 miles (400 kilometers) of sparsely populated riverfront. Last year, about 15,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, gathered in nearby Del Rio, which is not much larger than the Eagle Pass. Grain fields are all that separate the city from San Antonio, about a three-hour drive east.
The relative ease of crossing – migrants cross the river in minutes, often without paying smugglers – and the notion that it is relatively safe on the Mexican side have made the remote region a major migration route.
The Rio Grande Valley in Texas has long been the busiest of the nine sectors of the border service on the border with Mexico, but Del Rio has climbed to second place this year. Yuma, Arizona, another place known for relative safety and ease of crossing, jumped to third place in terms of congestion.
Del Rio and Yuma rank sixth and seventh in the number of agents among the nine sectors, reflecting how the border patrol staff has long lagged behind shifts in migration flows.
Other sections of the border are patrolled less than Del Rio, plus for migrants trying to avoid capture, but they are tougher and more remote, said John Anfinsen, president of the Del Rio Sector Council of the National Border Council.
Anfinsen calls the Del Rio sector a “kind of happy environment” for migrants seeking to balance the attractiveness of remote areas with security.
Christian Salgado, who sleeps on the streets of Piedras Negras with his wife and 5-year-old son after fleeing Honduras, said the Mexican border town is “one of the few places where you can more or less live in peace.”
But his excitement over the Biden administration’s plans to repeal Title 42 on Monday faded with the judge’s ruling. “There is no hope now,” he said.
In April, Honduran residents were stopped at the border nearly 16,000 times, with just over half leading to deportation under section 42. The rest could have sought asylum in the U.S. if they expressed fear of returning home.
But the Cubans did much better. In April, they were stopped more than 35,000 times, and only 451, barely 1%, were processed under section 42.
“Cubans come in automatically,” said Joel Gonzalez, 34, of Honduras, who spent three days trying to evade agents at Eagle Pass before being caught and expelled. Agents told him that asylum was no longer available in the United States.
Isis Peña, 45, turned down an offer from a Honduran woman to cross the river. The woman called from San Antonio, saying she had been released without even asking if she wanted to seek asylum. The woman now lives in New York.
The next day Peña tried to cross herself and she did not want to repeat the experience for fear of drowning. After about four hours of detention, the agent told her, “Honduras has no shelter.”
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