JUÁREZ — It was August 2021 in Palín, Guatemala, and Mario Gonzalez was tending the counter at his wife’s butcher shop when a pickup truck pulled up and four men got out. Three of them held guns. Gonzalez recognized them as bodyguards for a local political candidate. The fourth man wore a suit and was a stranger to Gonzalez.

“He said, ‘What are you still doing around here?’” Gonzalez recalled during an interview on Monday from the Juárez shelter where he now lives. “‘I could dump your body and no one would ever pick it up. This is the second time we’re warning you. There won’t be a third time.’”

Gonzalez, 41, was only in the shop to lend a hand. His main job in Palín and nearby Guatemala City was as a “stringer” or freelance journalist for international news organizations and agencies such as CNN Español, Reuters and Xin Hua, often reporting about government and politics. He also worked for a local television station.

After that threat, Gonzalez felt he had no choice but to do what others before him have done: He fled his native country in hopes of seeking asylum in the safe haven of the United States. 

But after an arduous journey from Guatemala to El Paso, Title 42 policies dashed his hopes.

Mario Gonzalez, a Guatemalan journalist, shows his Reuters press badge at the Juárez shelter where his family is staying while they wait to apply for asylum in the United States, a process delayed due to Title 42. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In the El Paso-Juárez border, Title 42 has left thousands of immigrants living in shelters in Juárez waiting for the opportunity to present their asylum case to a federal judge. 

Gonzalez and his family remain among them.

The journalist clearly remembers the threats that drove him to the borderland. The first came as he walked home from work on the night of July 28, 2021. In that incident, according to a police report Gonzalez showed El Paso Matters, two men on a motorcycle pointed guns at him and told him, “You are going to get out of Palín, or we will make you disappear. We will rape your wife, and we know you have a daughter.”

Gonzalez believes both threats came from a candidate for local office who was angry about the coverage the television station was giving his incumbent rival.

Gonzalez had received messages that threatened extortion in the past, “but I did not take them too seriously,” he said. “But it’s different when they are face to face, and they don’t want to steal or ask for money, they want to kill you. So I didn’t want to wait to see what would happen.”

Frightened, Gonzalez went to the local police to report the threats. Although he knew which political candidate some of the men worked for, he was reluctant to name him for fear of reprisal.

“If I said the name, I knew I wouldn’t make it out of there,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. “I wouldn’t even be able to walk home safely. (Politicians) have a lot of money. If you damage their image or reputation, as a politician, they think nothing of eliminating you.”

He went home and waited for three days, afraid to leave the safety of his gated community. Finally, he and his wife decided to go to the United States and seek asylum.

“Before deciding to come, I did research, and I know that my case, because I am a journalist, falls under one of the five causes (for asylum) that the United States gives,” Gonzalez said.  “I came very confident that it would be possible for us to enter.”

Guatemalan journalist Mario Gonzalez displays one of the police reports he filed in Guatemala in 2021 after armed men threatened his life. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Gonzalez, his wife and 6-year-old daughter crossed the river from Juárez and turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Paso in the early hours of Oct. 28, 2021. The agents immediately took them to detention, but, in accordance with Title 42, did not interview them or read any of the documentation that Gonzalez had brought as proof of the death threats.

Instead, they were expelled back to Juárez that same morning before dawn.

“Border Patrol never looked at any of my documents,” Gonzalez said.

For now, Gonzalez and his family have not been allowed to present their case to U.S. officials for an initial screening or make any progress toward a resolution. He has made numerous phone calls to immigrant advocacy organizations and has twice trekked to the midpoint of the Paso del Norte International Bridge in an attempt to present his case to officials. Each time, he is told that Title 42 stands in the way.

A public health provision enacted under the Trump administration, Title 42 allows the United States to rapidly expel migrants to Mexico and other countries under the premise of avoiding the spread of COVID-19 – greatly reducing access to asylum protections granted by U.S. law.

Guatemalan journalist Mario Gonzalez peers out of the small room in a Juárez shelter where he has lived with his wife and daughter since October 2021. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The Biden administration planned to rescind the provision on May 23 after the Centers for Disease Control determined that the order was no longer necessary as the pandemic had significantly improved.

Rescinding the provision would have allowed asylum seekers like Gonzalez to present their case for asylum.

But a federal judge in Louisiana on May 20 blocked the end of Title 42, ruling in favor of several states challenging the plans to rescind the order. The Justice Department plans to appeal the ruling.

Despite his disappointment in not being able to obtain asylum, Gonzalez has offered his skills to help promote and raise money for the Juárez shelter that has housed his family since October. He shot and edited a promotional video for the shelter and he designed a logo.

“I am active, I don’t want to be in a place just waiting. I understand that the United States looks for people who will be useful in their community,” said Gonzalez, who is also fluent in English. “With my experience and what I know how to do, I know I could be useful in many ways.”

In a Juárez shelter, Guatemalan journalist Mario Gonzalez sits with his 6-year-old daughter while she watches videos on his phone. “This isn’t what I wanted for my family,” Gonzalez said. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Gonzalez does not plan to attempt to cross the river again even if Title 42 is lifted in the near future. He is afraid that doing so would jeopardize his asylum claim and he wants to give his daughter the best shot at a safer life in the United States.

“I tell her that one day she will have a beautiful bedroom and we will go see the princesses at Disney World,” Gonzalez said. “The trauma has stayed with her. It is very hard to see, because it’s not what I wanted for my family.”

Corrie Boudreaux is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at UTEP and a freelance photojournalist in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region. She specializes in photography as a tool to explore insecurity,...