Children’s laughter masks parents’ broken dreams at Juarez gym turned into migrant shelter

Immigration

Mexican officials worry about effects of long journeys, stress on migrant kids

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – They traveled from Central America on foot, by bus and even hitching rides on cargo trains. But once they reached the U.S. border, American authorities put them on an airplane to El Paso and expelled them to Mexico.

Now, these Central American families are left with few choices as they ponder their future inside a gym-turned-shelter in South Juarez.

“When we arrived in the U.S., we turned ourselves over to immigration. They didn’t treat us too well. They didn’t tell us we were to be deported. They just brought us (to El Paso) and dropped us off in Juarez,” said Juan Romero, a Honduran national.

Romero, his wife and child are among thousands of migrants who have crossed into the U.S. through South Texas recently. They were hoping the Biden administration would grant them asylum, but instead find themselves expelled to Mexico under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Title 42 public health order.

A boy plays in the Kiki Romero Sports Complex migrant shelter after he was deported from the U.S., in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Mexico said it is planning to set up 17 shelters for underage migrants along the country’s southern border, as well as some along the northern border with the United States, amid a wave of child migrants coming from Central America. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

So many migrants are being flown to El Paso from the Rio Grande Valley and expelled to Mexico that the City of Juarez had to turn a sports complex into a shelter three weeks ago.

More than 1,600 migrants have passed through the shelter in the past 16 days. Most adults appear shell-shocked at being turned away from the United States. Some of them, including their children, are experiencing stress and physical illness, said Rogelio Pinal, who oversees the Kiki Romero shelter.

“The ones who suffer the most are the children. Most of them come here sick and with emotional stress. They don’t know what’s going on. All they know is they’re going from one place to the next,” Pinal said. “They get stomach illnesses because the food here is different to what they are used to in their countries.”

A girl talks to a family at the Kiki Romero Sports Complex migrant shelter after she was deported from the U.S., in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Mexico said it is planning to set up 17 shelters for underage migrants along the country’s southern border, as well as some along the northern border with the United States, amid a wave of child migrants coming from Central America. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

Pinal blames that not so much on the parents but on the smugglers. “They are being given false information. They are being told that if one parent comes alone with the children their claim will be accepted and they will be able to get into (the United States), which is not true,” he said.

That’s a message that federal authorities in Mexico and the U.S. are trying to convey, but apparently with little success. Migrant “encounters” or apprehensions have shot up to 20-year highs in the past month despite the Department of Homeland Security’s repeated statements that “the border is not open.”

Mexico is also struggling. Cities in the state of Tamaulipas across the border from South Texas are largely unable to take back families with small children, and places like Juarez scrambling to find new accommodation for those expelled.

Taking care of the children

Small children run across the basketball court of the Kiki Romero sports complex, while older kids play soccer on the artificial turf outside. Mothers wash clothes on sinks next to a row of port-a-potties near a chain-link fence.

Migrant children lounge on the turf of a sports complex turned into a migrant shelter in south Juarez. (photo by Julian Resendiz)

The shelter is next to a police station, and police officers like Laura Valadez occasionally drop in to spend time with the children. This week, she brought along a puppet named “Officer Bear” and put on a show for the kids. Twenty minutes later, half a dozen migrant children took turns hugging the puppet and the police officer.

“They have gone through difficult situations. We want to bring them a moment of happiness because we know they are locked up here all day, so we try to give them a moment of joy,” Valadez said.

But while the children play, the parents brood.

Victor, a father of three from Olacha, Honduras, lamented that U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not give him a chance to state his case for asylum while in detention in McAllen, Texas.

He says he was the victim of criminals twice in the past year in his hometown.

“I was coming back from work and a person was waiting for me, thinking I had money, he was in a motorcycle and shot in the right foot,” Victor said. “I ran for 1,500 (feet) until someone helped me.”

The head of household said a previous attack also involved a criminal on a motorcycle. On that occasion, he was able to bat away the man’s gun and run away. He lamented that his country is not a place where hard-working people can feel safe and he held back tears at the thought of going back home empty-handed.

A Honduran couple comforts their small child at a south Juarez shelter. (photo by Roberto Delgado/Special to Border Report)

Pinal said despite the high volume of migrants coming to the shelter, the shelter is not yet overcrowded.

“They get COVID testing upon arrival and when they leave. They can stay here up to a week and seek long-term lodging at church-run shelters or the federal facility. Or, we can get them a discounted bus ticket to Mexico City. Most have made the decision to leave,” Pinal said.

Some migrants, however, said they’re not ready to go back.

“We are short on resources. We have no means to return to our country,” Juan Romero said. “A friend from Monterrey (Mexico) wants to help us. We want to try going there for a while because things are difficult in our country.”

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The mission of BorderReport.com is to provide real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico. The information is gathered by experienced and trusted Nexstar Media Group journalists hired specifically to cover the border.