They couldn’t work out quite where they were or where they were headed when the guards told them: “Keep going”.
They walked forward, as instructed, across an unfamiliar bridge and then suddenly they were in Mexico. Or, more accurately, back in Mexico. But 800 miles from where they had arrived in America.
In a chaotic situation at the southern border, US Customs and Border Protection agents are escorting migrants across the bridge that links downtown El Paso, Texas, with the adjacent city in Mexico, Ciudad Juárez, and expelling them from the US before they even know what’s happening.
One young mother just sat directly down on the sidewalk on the Mexican side of the international bridge linking the two cities and clutched her breastfeeding child to her as they huddled in cold, late March weather.
The child, no more than 18 months old, wearing a pink sweater and wrapped in a blanket first fed, then slept in her arms, unaware of the moments her bewildered mother would let a tear roll down her face.
At one point the woman covered the little girl’s hands with socks to stop her from crying due to the cold wind, despite the fact that the mother didn’t have a jacket of her own.
The sight is all too familiar in Juárez where dozens of migrants are being unceremoniously ejected from the US daily via a health protocol put in place by the Trump administration, known as Title 42, where migrants can be expelled to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the US.
Some undocumented people who cross the US-Mexico border are being admitted to the US to begin the asylum process, mainly unaccompanied minors and – theoretically – parents with very young children.
But most adult migrants and families currently being apprehended in the US are being expelled, though often not before being taken on a confusing and winding journey by the authorities on the American side.
“I came through Reynosa, I went to the wall and immigration picked us up,” 25-year-old Joel Duarte Mendez, who had originally traveled from Honduras, explained.
Reynosa is at the eastern end of the Texas-Mexico border, 754 miles from the cities of Juárez and El Paso at the extreme western end.
After crossing from Reynosa into Texas, Mendez and his two-year-old son, Hector, were briefly detained.
“Then they had us on a plane, then from there they put us on a bus and they just threw us here,” he said, pointing at the international bridge linking El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
American border agents had lined up the group of people after they got off the bus, took them part way across the bridge and then “they told us to ‘keep going’,” Mendez said.
He clung to Hector, the boy wrapped in a jacket obviously fit for his father, who was braving the cold weather in a T-shirt.
“I came with my son to give him a better life,” Mendez said.
Their trip from Honduras to the border took 12 days, he said. He owned a coffee farm and a home in Honduras, but both had been destroyed when massive hurricanes hit the country last November.
With the climate crisis believed to be causing stronger hurricanes, Mendez and Hector have effectively become climate refugees.
He used what was left of his money to pay for the trip, he said.
“We thought they were letting people with children five years and younger enter [the US], so I said, ‘this is my opportunity to go’ and, well, that just simply wasn’t the case,” he told the Guardian, dejectedly.
Title 42 was the last big piece of Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda that all but closed the US-Mexico border to the undocumented in the pandemic.
Joe Biden’s administration has rescinded Trump’s so-called Remain in Mexico policy, where migrants were forced to wait in often-dangerous border towns in Mexico while their claims for asylum from violent countries were processed in the US, sometimes taking years.
But for those without legal cases already underway in the US, Biden is continuing to use Title 42 while the pandemic lingers. Many crossing the border now are not even being officially processed into a border patrol or a Department of Health and Human Services facility, nor being turned over to family in the states to await a date with immigration court. They are just expelled into Mexico.
Mendez and the breastfeeding mother were among a group of approximately three-dozen migrants, almost all of them parents with young children, whom the Guardian saw being ousted from the US in recent days.
In Juárez, they were escorted into a gated area right off the bridge by the Mexican authorities, where journalists were not allowed to interview them.
But tears were visible, and many looked confused. The last mother in line had a young boy in her arms and another small child walking in front of her, both children were crying, while tears began streaming down the woman’s face when she realized she was in Mexico.
The group spent more than an hour in the gated area, before it was opened and several families spilled onto the streets of Juárez, left to fend for themselves.
Those who had contacts in the area asked for directions to taxis or called someone to pick them up, but others just sat on the street, unsure of their next move.
One father, who was not prepared to share his name, explained that since crossing briefly into the US they had never been told where they were or where they were going.
“We were there in the detention center waiting supposedly for them to contact a family member of ours [in the US] so they could come get us or send for us, but no, they lied to us,” he said.
The other father said: “It’s completely false that they would let us enter with small children.”
There are conflicting reports about why migrants are being transported from one end of the Texas border to the other, ranging from accounts about emergency shelters being full on either side of the border, especially because of Covid-19 restrictions that have closed many or shrunk capacity, to cruel tactics simply to deter migrants with an extra dose of desperation.
Nearby, another family: three children huddled around their mother, the father pacing back and forth. He confirmed that they had received no information from the agents who expelled them.
“Imagine what we go through from Honduras to get here: walking, hitchhiking, feeling hungry, suffering with our children,” he said.
“They took our photos, our fingerprints, kept us for three days, and then sent us here without signing anything.”
Mendez said he thought things would be different under the Biden administration.
He has a brother in Charlotte, North Carolina, who had been expecting to pick him and Hector up, when Mendez called him with the bad news.
“He reprimanded me for making the journey,” Mendez said. “I told him I had no other choice, I didn’t want us to starve.”
Now, he was stranded in Juárez, thousands of miles from home, with no money to return.