As temperatures dip near or below freezing, scores of Mexican refugees huddle in makeshift tents of layered plastic sheeting at the foot of the Santa Fe Bridge connecting Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, with El Paso, Texas. Many are small children.
A small figurine of the Virgin of Guadalupe watches over as these people wait and wait and wait to argue their cases for political asylum in the United States, but this holiday season features no colorfully wrapped packages beneath a Christmas tree nor heart-warming songs of mariachi singers.
Some say they’ve been waiting two months already. Like others before them, they recite a litany of aggression and atrocity that drove them from their homes: relatives murdered, extortion by gangs and forcible recruitment of the young – teenagers - into the criminal underworld. Many contend, too, that even at governmental levels, the line between officials and outlaws melds into one obscure but powerful, suffocating structure.
"We are fleeing delinquency," they exclaim.
Many in this group encamped along a narrow side street are former residents of Guerrero and Michoacan, states long embroiled in narco-violence. For these southerners accustomed to warmer climes, the borderland’s deep December chill presents a real challenge. El Diario de Juarez reported that the temperature on Dec. 18 plummeted to 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Like their recent predecessors, the campers complain of a lack of support from the Mexican government. Two men say they must pay five pesos to access the bathrooms on the Mexican portion of the Santa Fe Bridge and 50 pesos to take a shower in nearby hotels.
There are portable bathrooms installed at a similar encampment outside another international bridge a few miles down the road, but not here.
Food and clothing, however, are provided by good Samaritans from Juarez, El Paso and other U.S. places, especially from Christian churches. "Really, the local people have behaved beautifully," an asylum seeker says. As the man talks, smiling folks swoop through the camp, delivering fresh burritos. If it weren't for the civil society solidarity, he says, hunger would prevail.
In contravention of U.S. asylum law, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) guards posted on the Santa Fe Bridge, two men say, have on multiple occasions prevented them from entering El Paso -- about "30 times" one said. The guards justified their actions by saying there was no room to accommodate the asylum seekers at the time.
So instead, they are part of a "metering" system in which the CBP calls families and individuals in small groups to come make their initial asylum claim. According to the Santa Fe Bridge group's spokesperson, 67 families and 250 persons are currently on their list to cross.
A man who said he’d been at the bridge two months already said nobody had been called that day, that one family was permitted the day before and not a single soul the day before that.
Many people previously at the encampment gave up and returned home, he added. A group of women complain that of those who did make it across, children, including toddlers, were asked inappropriate questions, given the kids’ ages, about violence by U.S. immigration authorities.
In recent days, according to a pair of men, about 50 people from the Santa Fe Bridge encampment who had been permitted to enter the United States were deported back to Juarez. The asylum hopefuls report that some admitted into the United States wound up with family members, while others were held in immigrant detention centers in El Paso and New Mexico -- sometimes for weeks at a time.
Dashing along the line of rudimentary tents, a young man says he was released from a New Mexico detention center after a judge decided he had no "credible fear" and he agreed to a voluntary departure instead of appealing the case. For now, he's waiting for his brother to be released from immigrant detention.
What will the siblings do?
"We don't have family here,” the rejected asylum seeker says. “They're all over (in the United States). My brother and I will return alone."
The U.S. officials have given him no real option, he says, even though the cartels pose a danger in the particular neck of the woods he fled.
He makes a prediction based on his experience with the U.S. asylum process: Many more deportees are going to trod through the streets of Juarez soon.
He gives the new deportees a moniker: “No Credible Fears."
As Julian Aguilar pointed out in a recent Texas Tribune article, the sending of migrants back to Mexico stands in contrast to the Trump administration's travel warnings to U.S. citizens about Mexico. The White House is reportedly contemplating designating the cartels as terrorist groups.
An updated State Department travel advisory from Dec. 17 warns U.S. travelers not to visit either Guerrero or Michoacan, places from which many of the refugees stranded in Juarez hail. Similar warnings stand for Tamaulipas, Colima and Sinaloa.
So in other words, the same lands that are unsafe for U.S. citizens to visit is safe for Mexican citizens to go home to, according to the varied pronunciations of federal officials.
At a Dec. 17 meeting in Juarez, Mexican municipal, state and federal officials and unnamed migrant advocates discussed consolidating the interview wait lists from the three international bridges in the city where refugees are camped out.
In a press release, Rogelio Pinal, chief of Juarez’s municipal human rights department, said that children’s exposure to the cold and health conditions were likewise discussed.
According to Pinal, the camps’ population has dropped to 650. Some of the asylum seekers have reportedly found lodging with relatives or friends, or at hotels if they can afford the rent, so they’re being spared having to camp out at the bridges.
Separately, on Dec. 18 El Diario cited a senior Chihuahua state migrant official saying that time has run out for the campers at the bridges and authorities would place the asylum seekers in migrant shelters.
“They can’t be (there) any more, for the safety of the children,” the paper quoted Enrique Valenzuela of the Coespo state migrant agency as saying.
Until now, many refugees at the Santa Fe Bridge have opposed moving to those shelters because of their distance from the international bridges and fears of losing their place on the waiting lists.
A fellow who's says he's left everything behind -- job, property and home -- and waited patiently for his turn for an asylum interview, claims he will weather the bitter winter. He vows not to agree to voluntary departure, to struggle through the entire legal process and endure detention if that’s what it takes.
"We are looking for protection, not to live the good life, as they say," he insists. "The American Dream doesn't exist."
New people are still trickling into the refugee camp, but at far lower numbers than in recent months, he says. But he also estimates that the situation could change once the winter passes and more people undertake a risky asylum odyssey.