Héctor González left Cuba just before Christmas, hoping to claim asylum in the US. After flying to Nicaragua, González and his wife travelled overland through Mexico and crossed the Rio Grande with at least 200 other Cubans in the early hours of 8 January.
Exhausted but relieved to have made it safely to the US, González and the others filled out the forms and had their fingerprints and photographs taken by border officials in Eagle Pass, Texas. As they waited inside an immigration detention centre, spirits were high.
“I thought we’d made it, everything seemed normal. We were getting the chance to make new lives,” said González, 52.
But it wasn’t normal. A couple of days later, the vast majority of the group – which included women and children – were taken back over the border to a Mexican immigration facility in Piedra Negras.
Although nobody explained what was going on, four days earlier the Biden administration had announced plans to expand a widely condemned Trump-era policy allowing border officials to summarily expel migrants and would-be asylum seekers from Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba.
American authorities did not specify a start date for the latest crackdown, but over the next few days, the Cubans were split up and bussed hundreds of miles south to different cities across Mexico.
González was driven 500 miles south-west to the state of Durango with around 40 others. After spending a night in detention, they were bussed another 200 miles south-east to neighbouring Zacatecas state – and given a letter which said they had 20 days to leave Mexico.
Meanwhile, his wife was among a group dropped off 200 miles further south in San Miguel de Allende, while others were taken down to Acapulco, one of the most dangerous cities in the country.
A week later, González was among dozens of desperate people – including infants and children – from Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, Angola and Afghanistan camped outside the headquarters of Mexico’s refugee agency (Comar) in the country’s capital, unsure what to do or where to go.
“This is a huge blow for us. When we left Cuba this policy wasn’t in place, and then from one day to the next things changed. We’ve been caught in the middle of two policies, it seems totally unjust,” said González. “We need to find a way to work and wait it out in Mexico, things change in America all the time.”
The options are limited and confusing for thousands of people like González who were already en route to the US when the rules abruptly changed. As it stands, he has just a few days left to leave or seek asylum in Mexico – which if granted would make him ineligible from seeking refuge in the US where he has family and friends.
But the US isn’t working alone to make it virtually impossible to seek asylum in America. Mexico and other Latin American countries have also changed their rules repeatedly without warning.
“Mexico does not have policies independent of the US. They work together to make life as confusing and difficult as possible for people who need help,” said July Rodríguez, a migrant advocate and founder of Apoyo a Migrantes Venezolanos (Support for Venezuelan Migrants). “We fear this isn’t going to stop. Expelling people at the border is going to continue.”
Denying Nicaraguans, Haitians and Cubans their legal right to seek asylum in the US is the latest iteration of a pandemic-era crackdown, which began with the Trump administration using an obscure public health law, known as Title 42 to justify closing the border to mostly Central American and Mexican refugees and migrants.
It comes after a similar move against Venezuelans in October which resulted in thousands of people – including some who had already started the asylum process in the US – being dumped in cities across Mexico.
From a US perspective, the policy has been a success leading to a significant drop in Venezuelans seeking asylum at the border. In Mexico, advocates accuse the government of once again pandering to US demands. “There is no coherent policy, just containment,” said Paulino Martínez, a lawyer at the Mexico City shelter Cafemin.
As the sun set and the line grew outside the refugee agency – which only accepts 80 new cases each day – a volunteer turned up in a sedan with blankets and hot meals to help folks get through the chilly night until doors opened.
Among them were Afghan women escaping the Taliban’s stranglehold, sisters from Angola fleeing homophobic violence, and 20 or so Haitians who until the global cost of living crisis, had been getting by in other Latin American countries.
Étienne Baptiste, originally from Jacmel in southern Haiti, spent five years in Santiago, Chile, working as an industrial machine operator while saving to study civil engineering.
But with inflation topping 13% in Chile, Baptiste bought a plane ticket to Mexico City on 2 January, with plans to travel overland to the US border. Baptiste said he tried unsuccessfully to get a refund from the travel agent after the US banned Haitians, so decided to risk it.
“I couldn’t make enough money to support my family or pay my tuition fees. I want to be something more and have a better life,” said Baptiste, 32. “I want to enter the US legally, I’ll wait as long as it takes, but the visa problem in Mexico is very confusing.”
Baptiste has applied for an appointment to enter Biden’s new visa program using the CBP One mobile app. It’s been hailed by the homeland security secretary as a “safe and orderly” pathway into the US, and is available for a limited number of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Venezuelans with American sponsors, unexpired passports and enough money for commercial travel.
But if and when Jean gets an appointment from the CBP, it’s unclear he’ll be able to attend. Mexico used to issue temporary visas for migrants so that they could travel to the border without fear of being deported, but this has been scrapped. Jean was only given a 10-day visa at Mexico City airport, and will not be able to buy a bus ticket once that expires. If he gets a bus ticket on the black market, he risks being extorted, deported or worse.
Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Institute for Women in Migration in Mexico City, said: “It’s a catch-22, you can’t get where you need to go safely, and that’s the plan.”
*names have been changed to protect identities