Uncertainty and Desperation in Nogales: Asylum-Seeking Families Wait for Title 42 to End
The border city has become a hub for forcibly displaced Mexican families.
Border policy is fragmented. Asylum, despite being the law of the land, is all but a dream for most. Every border town up and down the line tells a different story. But as the August summer sun sears the desert, the desperation is palpable as people wait, hope and pray.
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Uncertainty and Desperation in Nogales: Asylum-Seeking Families Wait for Title 42 to End
In 2018, armed men showed up at María’s restaurant in a small town in the state of Guerrero in south central Mexico. When they demanded a weekly cuota of 1,500 pesos, the 33-year-old paid them. “I had no choice,” she told me. “Anyone who has a business pays. If you don’t, the threats start. They kidnap people. They kill them.”
María, a mother of three, struggled to stay in business while paying the weekly extortion. Then another criminal group arrived demanding 3,500 pesos a week. “We were existing on the leftovers from the restaurant, and it was difficult,” she said. “I told them we didn’t have the money.”
But the armed men didn’t care. “They took someone from my family, and, well, I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
María and her three children fled their village. “We went to Mexico City,” she said. “But it was more of the same. If we could say that the military or the government protects us, it would be something, but they are all the same. Organized crime is everywhere. There is no law, no protection.”
María, like many other families, fled the state of Guerrero because the situation there grew more volatile and dangerous. She brought her children to the border city of Nogales, Sonora, where some have waited months or years for the U.S. government to lift Title 42 so that they can request asylum. The Trump administration implemented the health statute in March 2020, closing ports of entry to migrants, using Covid-19 as a pretext.
Since then, families fleeing violence—most of them Mexican—have arrived in Nogales where they are waiting for Title 42 to be lifted. In January, The Border Chronicle wrote about the transformation of Nogales, which has a population of about 265,000, into an unacknowledged refugee camp where Mexican and Central American families live in shelters or cram into one-bedroom apartments or homes in the city’s most marginalized areas. There is no official estimate of how many refugees have arrived in Nogales, but the number is in the several hundreds, estimated Joanna Williams, executive director of the Jesuit-run Kino Border Initiative, which operates a migrant outreach center in the city.
Williams, who has worked with the migrant population in Nogales since 2015, said the population that her organization serves has changed dramatically. Most of them used to be economic migrants, typically single men from Mexico, deported by Border Patrol. Now they are mostly asylum-seeking families like María’s. At least 87 percent of the migrants the shelter served in 2021 had fled because of violence, Williams said. And of those, nearly 60 percent were Mexican, mostly from the states of Guerrero and Michoacán.
“Most of them come here through word of mouth,” she said. “A cousin or someone else from their town passes along the word that we treat people well here.”
Roberto, 44, has been in Nogales for nine months with seven other family members, including his three children. Also from a small village in Guerrero, Roberto said he and his brothers tended mango orchards and kept cattle on 26 hectares of land they’d inherited from their father. Four years ago, however, a criminal group arrived and demanded they make weekly extortion payments. The men kept demanding more money. Gun battles routinely broke out between warring cartel groups in the middle of the day, he said.
Roberto and his brothers tried to wait out the violence, thinking it would get better, but it didn’t. “Today my town is a ghost town,” he said. “They burned our mango orchards and took our cattle,” he said. The armed group also burned down several houses in his town, including his own. “We came here,” he said, “with nothing but the clothes on our backs.”
In 2006, former president Felipe Calderon unleashed the military to battle drug cartels. The strategy, undertaken with the U.S. government under the U.S.-funded Plan Mérida, was to target and dismantle the cartels and arrest their kingpins. Instead of destroying them, however, it created more volatility, leading organized crime to fragment into smaller regional mafias that work in tandem with larger organizations like the hyperviolent Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which is battling the Sinaloa Cartel for territory in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán and surrounding areas, using local mafia groups as foot soldiers. The military and police often work hand in hand with organized crime, as do local politicians, making the situation untenable.
In a May 2022 report, the Australian-based Institute for Economics and Peace found that since 2016 violence has internally displaced more than 117,000 people in Mexico (this is most likely an undercount, based on my experience in covering this issue over many years). Almost half of that number were displaced in 2021 alone. Guerrero currently ranks number one for displacements, followed by Chiapas and Michoacán.
Roberto brought his family to Nogales, he said, because other relatives from his village had successfully requested asylum at the port of entry there in 2019 and now lived safely in the United States. “That was before Title 42, and they were given the opportunity to protect their families, and they are in the United States,” he said. “Back then asylum was still possible. We ask God that the president will end Title 42 and give us the same opportunity.”
Displaced residents from Guerrero and other Mexican states said they are often discriminated against in Nogales, and it’s difficult to find places to live or to find jobs. Another woman I spoke with from Guerrero, Alma, (her name has been changed to protect her identity) said she’d been in the city for two months with her husband and two toddlers. After several days, she said, she rented a room in a woman’s house, which they share with another family from Guerrero. “We are four adults and three children in one small room,” she said. “And the landlady charges each family 1,000 pesos a week for the room, which is expensive.”
Her husband found a job in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant, which pays him $1,500 pesos a week, she said. “There’s just barely enough left over for food.” Recently, their food started to go missing from the pantry, she said. “When I mentioned it to the landlady, she became very angry, and said she would throw us out.”
Alma, like Roberto and María, said she didn’t feel safe in Nogales, fearing she would be kidnapped or robbed. “We only leave to come to the Kino shelter for food,” she said. “Then we go right back home.”
A month ago, Alma said, a group of men pulled a knife on her in the street and demanded money. She grabbed her children and ran to the shelter, she said. “Thank God it was close, so we got away.”
The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty
In April the Biden administration announced that it would end Title 42 in May, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the restriction was no longer necessary at the border. But a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the administration from ending Title 42, launching a lengthy court battle amid a volatile midterm election season in which Republicans are ratcheting up xenophobia and hammering Biden and the Democrats over the border.
Even when the asylum process is working, Mexicans face some of the toughest obstacles in gaining asylum in the United States. Of the little more than 45,000 Mexicans who were allowed to apply in the last decade, only about 6,000 were granted asylum or some other type of relief—just 13 percent.
The many obstacles stoke desperation among the families waiting in Nogales, said Williams. “People want to present legally at the ports of entry. They’re putting a lot of energy and patience into that goal,” she said. “But then there’s always some event that could push them the other direction—like the insecurity grows worse in Nogales or someone threatens them that pushes them to the next level of desperation.”
With no good choices, some parents have hired smugglers to take their children across alone while they risk walking through the desert. A deadly gamble. “These are the kinds of choices that parents are forced to weigh,” said Williams.
With the growing number of migrants arriving in Nogales, many of them children in extremely vulnerable situations, the Kino Border Initiative opened a brand-new migrant outreach center in February 2020. Built with charitable donations from the United States, the expansive facility is located a short walk from the Mariposa port of entry. It contains overnight dorms, a kitchen, classrooms, meeting rooms, and it serves as many as 300 meals on average a day, said Williams. Residents from Sonora often donate food, supplies and clothing to the center as well. “People have responded with great generosity and faith in what we are doing here,” she said.
Williams now faces the unenviable task of both planning for an uncertain future and trying to sway the hearts and minds of Nogales residents to accept the migrants in their city. “We’re hoping we can help persuade them to change local policy so that it’s easier to obtain health care, education, employment, and those basic rights that migrant families are struggling to access,” she said.
“More than anything else, I would like people to put themselves in our shoes and feel what we feel,” María told me. “The fear, the insecurity that forced us to leave our home. Because here we are also afraid. And I don’t want my children to live with fear. I want them to have an education, to get ahead, and to be someone in life. That is my greatest hope.”