JUÁREZ, Mexico — Ilse Medina traveled for weeks from Venezuela and saw three U.S. border states from the window of a Homeland Security bus before she was expelled to Mexico.
She and her husband crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso in mid-October. U.S. Border Patrol separated the couple. Agents released her husband with documents allowing him to travel to Chicago — their hoped-for destination — while she was shuffled to multiple border detention cells across 400 miles before being handed to Mexican authorities in Sonora, without ever being told she would be expelled.
“For three and a half days we were driven around in a bus,” she said. “It’s a psychological trauma.”
Border Patrol is moving around migrants it intends to expel to Mexico in what it calls “lateral transfers” to reduce overcrowding in its holding facilities in El Paso and to keep from further overwhelming Juárez, where hundreds of Venezuelans have been left on the street to fend for themselves and with orders to leave Mexico "by their own means."
"We’re doing it an effort to decompress the Central Processing Center" in El Paso, said Border Patrol El Paso Sector spokeswoman Valeria Morales. The holding facility in Northeast El Paso has been overcrowded for weeks, amid a sharp increase in migration through the region.
But immigrant advocates say the transfers are also a scare tactic designed to disorient migrants and deter them them from trying to cross the U.S. border again.
"They’re going to try to do a lot of dramatic expulsions to create complete despair," said Yael Schacher, director for the Americas and Europe for Refugees International, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for refugees. "They are really banking on this being a deterrent but it’s not clear it’s going to be."
Faced with a sharp and enduring increase in Venezuelan migration, the Biden administration reached a deal with the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador earlier this month in which Mexico agreed to take back Venezuelans expelled under the United States' pandemic policy known as Title 42.
The Biden administration agreed to process up to 24,000 Venezuelans by air via Mexico City in exchange. Those eligible must carry a valid passport and proof they have a sponsor in the U.S. — requirements few of the Venezuelans in the current exodus can meet. And those who have crossed the U.S. border aren’t eligible.
"This effort is intended to serve as a deterrent to irregular migration by providing a meaningful alternative to irregular migration and by imposing immediate consequences on Venezuelan nationals who choose to not avail themselves of the new process," according to a Homeland Security notice published in the Federal Register on Oct. 19.
Venezuelans accounted for 25,130 unique encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border in August and an estimated 33,500 unique encounters in September, according to Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics cited in the notice.
Daniel Medina Poché, 31, and his spouse, 39-year-old Angie Ferrer Rondón, turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents in El Paso on Oct. 18, hoping to seek asylum. They waited for hours under a military green tent at the mobile processing site in South El Paso before being loaded on to a bus. They didn't know where they were going, he said in an audio message sent via WhatsApp.
"They told us they were going to register us in another area," he said. "But most likely they aren't going to register us and they are going to put us somewhere."
Hours later, a pin-drop location showed he and his wife were near Van Horn. The following day, Medina Poché and Ferrer Rondón were returned to Piedras Negras, Coahuila — 7.5 hours from El Paso.
"In Mexico, they only want to hand us over to the coyotes," smugglers, he said in a phone call from the south side of the border, "or as mules for drugs, because that is what they offered us."
"Truly, I am really nervous," he said. "We came for an American dream, not to move drugs."
In Juárez, Medina and dozens of Venezuelan migrants slept on a concrete slab between the railroad tracks and the Rio Grande under blankets donated by good Samaritans in the border city. As dawn broke on a chilly morning Oct. 18, some wrapped the blankets around their shoulders like shawls and stood up to watch the border and worry about their next steps.
Another Venezuelan woman said she had been separated from her spouse and driven far from El Paso before being returned to Mexico.
Morales said she couldn’t confirm how many migrants have been laterally transferred by Border Patrol before being expelled to Mexico since the Oct. 12 accord with Mexico took effect. Most days, two buses depart for Tucson Sector, she said, and Big Bend Sector has stepped in to help process migrants for expulsion or release, as well.
Ismael Bolívar, a 37-year-old Venezuelan who friends called Junior, stood at the river’s edge and mulled his options earlier this week. He hadn’t turned himself in to Border Patrol yet, he said, because his prima, a 27-year-old cousin, had crossed in El Paso and been detained by Border Patrol. She was moved around before being returned to Mexicali, in Baja California.
“I haven't crossed,” he said, shaking his head. "I'm afraid they'll do to me what they did to her."
The shuffling between border holding facilities left Medina scared to try again and confused about why her husband was granted an opportunity to pursue a claim to stay in the U.S. legally, while she was returned to Mexico.
She and other Venezuelans walked along the railroad tracks in Juárez to the point south of where Border Patrol erected the mobile processing site to receive asylum seekers, under the Loop 375 overpass. She watched others skid down the steep embankment, step over stones in the river to climb the other side into the United States and an uncertain future.
“I am afraid to cross again,” she said, watching with a knitted brow. “I had never been detained in my life. I’ve never committed a crime. Being shut up terrifies me. The jails were like one you see in American movies, with the toilet behind a half wall, with 20 women inside, cameras and bulletproof glass. And they didn’t give us any information and we didn’t ask, out of respect."