Lidia, a woman from Guatemala, hugs her daughter and cries after they are expelled from the United States into Mexico. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

CIUDAD JUAREZ — This border city is struggling to shelter the growing number of migrants who are expelled from the United States through the Paso del Norte Bridge daily, many who arrived on flights from south Texas. 

“I’m with my wife and two daughters,” said Jerry, 25, a father from Honduras whose girls are ages 6 and 8. “We crossed the river on our own and the Border Patrol grabbed us. We were in custody for three days, and then they tossed us over here.” 

“We don’t know anyone, we don’t have family, only God is with us,” he added.

El Paso Matters does not publish the full names of migrants to protect them from possible retaliation.

Central American women with their children stand on the Paso del Norte Bridge in Ciudad Juárez looking toward El Paso. They were part of a group that crossed the border in South Texas who were then flown to El Paso and sent to Ciudad Juárez. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)

Multiple people in the dazed, disheveled group of mostly parents with children from Central America asked this reporter where they had been taken.  Those with cell phones made frantic calls, trying to speak loudly above the chorus of crying children.

The Biden administration is grappling with a huge logistical and humanitarian challenge on the Southwest border, where about 5,000 unauthorized migrants are crossing on average every day.

About half of the migrants are allowed to stay in the United States and ask for asylum, and the rest are turned back to Mexico, according to a senior Border Patrol official who spoke on condition of anonymity to reporters on Friday.  

But some areas on the border in Mexico have refused to take the migrants back, so U.S. authorities are flying them to where Mexican officials will accept them. 

That’s led to confusion for families dropped off on the busy Paso del Norte Bridge connecting El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, including about 40 migrants ushered across the border to the Mexican side by U.S. immigration agents one day last week.

The group was more than 800 miles from where they had originally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into South Texas a few days earlier. They say they were put on a plane but not told where they were going. They landed in El Paso, were bused to the international bridge and returned to Mexico.

As the father from Honduras asked to borrow a cell phone to call relatives in Georgia, his 8-year-old daughter crouched down and vomited on the pavement. A street vender on the bridge watching the scene handed out free water for the children. A mother sat on the ground outside Mexico’s immigration office and breastfed her baby.

“There’s no space in the shelters,” says Daniel Martinez, a worker with the Bienestar federal agency in Mexico. “We want to help all of them because we see the situation with the families, but we have to prioritize women with children.”

Bienestar is charged with helping vulnerable Mexican families but now also provides migrant aid. Martinez and two co-workers tried to calm these migrants and convince them to leave the bridge. 

Lidia, a Guatemalan woman, crosses into Juárez with her 1-year-old daughter along with other migrants who were expelled from the United States under Title 42 on March 24. These migrants entered the United States in El Paso. Many others have been expelled to Juárez after crossing in South Texas and being flown to El Paso by the U.S. government. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Mexico is struggling to handle the large number of Central American families quickly expelled after crossing into the U.S. under Title 42, a health order meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus. 

In the state of Tamaulipas which borders South Texas, Mexican authorities have stopped accepting families. In recent weeks, migrants in Border Patrol custody in the Rio Grande Valley have been flown to El Paso. Many are then expelled to Ciudad Juárez.

Flights carry as many as 135 people per plane from one end of Texas to the other, with multiple flights arriving daily.

“Our priority is to process them and expel them into Mexico under Title 42; however, we work very closely with the government of Mexico and they also have capacity issues that we have to consider,” Gloria Chavez, the Border Patrol sector chief in El Paso, said in a statement.

The Border Patrol is working with Ciudad Juárez to manage the number of people sent to that city.  

“We were tricked,” said Suri, a 27-year-old mother who traveled from Guatemala with her toddler and crossed into South Texas last week. Back home in Guatemala, she said she heard  that the U.S. border was open. 

“Then we get here,” she said, “and they’re sending everyone back — mothers with kids, everyone.”

She was among the migrants flown to El Paso and sent to Ciudad Juárez recently. Others in the same group that was expelled also had heard the border was open before setting off.  Most paid what they refer to as “guides,” which are actually smugglers, to get them to the U.S. border.

Misinformation is helping to spur this surge in migration from Central America, as smuggling networks reassure people looking to make the trek north.

“You’re going to be able to get in; this is exactly what they are telling them,” said Guadalupe Correa Cabrera,  an expert on organized crime and immigration at George Mason University. “We have been monitoring social media outlets, such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram.” 

Migrants who were expelled from the United States gather at the foot of the Paso del Norte Bridge in Juárez to receive their belongings, including documents such as passports, that were taken when they were picked up by Border Patrol. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Biden administration has tried to counter that narrative with radio ads in both Spanish and indigenous languages, telling would-be migrants in Central America that the border is closed because of the pandemic and warning them not to “put their families at risk.”

But critics say it’s a mixed message because the administration is allowing unaccompanied migrant children and some asylum seekers to cross.  

Meanwhile, smugglers are aggressively marketing to Central Americans who are desperate to escape poverty, violence and corruption in their home countries. The smugglers show them testimonials from people who say they reached the United States and are doing well.

“Social media allows people to know that others have been able to make it, and this is the selfie. I am here. I am in the States. I’m in this city,” Correa Cabrera said.

But there are no selfies by migrants stranded on the Paso del Norte Bridge — like Ana and her 5-year-old son, Rudy. She said she fled El Salvador after gangs killed her husband when they could not pay an extortion fee.

“They killed him, and now what am I and my son supposed to do?” she asked tearfully.

She said she was turned away by U.S. officials after she crossed into El Paso last week. Ana came back to the bridge to see if Mexican authorities could help her find a temporary shelter. She had been living on the streets in Ciudad Juárez with her son, relying on her faith and the kindness of strangers who gave her snacks for her son.

“I know God is great, and there are always good people on our path,” Vasquez said.

But her 5-year-old is impatient, she said. “He keeps asking, ‘Mama, when can we go home?’”

Cover photo: Lidia, a woman from Guatemala, hugs her daughter and cries after they were expelled from the United States into Mexico on March 24. She crossed the border in El Paso. Many others being expelled to Juárez crossed in South Texas and were flown to El Paso by the U.S. government. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners....