JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – John Torres watches a steady stream of people going in and out of a building with a big white sign in Downtown Juarez and wonders if he should join them.

The 27-year-old out-of-work street vendor left his native Venezuela last month and is hoping to join friends working in Denver. He needs a paycheck soon so he can send money to his children and his mother who stayed behind in South America.

“I want to work, of course. Be productive. I hope people understand we came here to work, to work hard,” Torres says while leaning against a wrought iron fence along 16th of September Avenue in Juarez. “I was a merchant in Venezuela but all of that is gone. The government took merchants out of the streets. The streets are so empty they inspire fear.”

But to get to Denver, Torres learned he needs to apply for asylum through a U.S. government mobile app called CBP One. The instructions are in English and Spanish – Torres’ native language – but he is struggling to understand them.

John Torres, a Venezuelan migrant (Border Report photo)

“We are in that process now, working on those papers,” Torres said, speaking in the third person. “It’s a bit hard, but if one does not try … Nothing is impossible, right?”

The building across the street from Torres is the local headquarters of the United Nations International Organization for Migration. IOM Juarez office chief Tiago Almeida said Venezuelans in transit are not the only ones having a hard time with the app – which is the required venue for Venezuelans, Haitians, Cubans, and Nicaraguans to initiate the asylum process to the United States.

“Doubts are common every time a new procedure comes up. People come here with many questions. We offer reliable information in a safe space,” Almeida said as blue-shirted OIM staff screened those wanting to enter the building. “We always worry about people trying to take advantage of the migrants.”

The IOM leader in Juarez said some migrants have complained about people offering to help them with the CBP One application – for a fee. That is fraud, he said.

Tiago Almeida, IOM Juarez office chief. (Border Report photo)

“Yes, we have problems with that, more so now that we have so many vulnerable people on the streets,” he said. “They come with promises to help them cross into the United States for a fee, they pose as lawyers and other professionals offering to help with CBP One, which is free. Our advice is for migrants to come to us or other organizations here in Juarez to help people in a situation of mobility.”

It’s hard to gauge the extent of this illegal activity because migrants tend to share such experiences only with people they trust, and they seldom file formal complaints.

UN agencies bring migration expertise to Juarez

Protecting migrants from scams is just one facet of the UN’s work in Juarez – which along with its U.S. neighbor El Paso, Texas, became the epicenter of mass migration into the United States during the latter part of 2022.

The agency set up shop in Juarez three years ago just as the Trump administration sent all but the most vulnerable migrants to wait in Mexico for a resolution to their asylum claims under the Migrant Protection Protocols program.

Then came two years of death and lockdowns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was then that the IOM began to make a difference, Juarez officials have told Border Report.

The agency coordinated with local authorities to rent an abandoned hotel. They recruited medical volunteers from among the migrant community, including four Cuban doctors. The so-called “filter hotel” quarantined more than 4,500 new arrivals to Juarez — whether migrants on their way to the United States or those expelled under the Title 42 public health rule.

The former Flamingo Hotel in Juarez was being used as a medical quarantine facility for newly arrived migrants sent to Mexico by the United States. (Border Report file photo)

The Cuban doctors moved on to their destinations and IOM replaced them with its own medical staff. When the filter hotel closed at the end of last year, the IOM sent its medical professionals to visit each of Juarez’s 30 or so migrant shelters.

“We are looking for a new place for our medical staff to continue to support the shelters. Because medical care implies privacy, we do not want to make it public where we are going to be,” Almeida said.

IOM was the first UN agency to come with a mission to Juarez, but others followed. UNICEF, the United Nation’s children’s agency, followed. UNICEF supports a shelter in Juarez for unaccompanied minors who have not yet made it to the United States or who were expelled.

“Mexican minors continue to be expelled and it is a concern that some of them break a cycle,” he said, referring to Mexican unaccompanied children who fall prey to smuggling organizations. These minors — teens aged 14 to 16, mostly — are recruited as “guides” by the smugglers, leading groups of migrants over the border wall or across mountains or deserts. Some find themselves expelled over and over again, and that’s the cycle social workers hope to help them break.

“Migration flows are very dynamic,” said Almeida, who previously worked the Brazil-Venezuela border for the UN. “Our goal is to provide a comprehensive humanitarian response in all situations possible.”