By David Culver, Karol Suarez, Tara John and David von Blohn, CNN
Nine-year-old Rubi Mota can’t remember the last time she was in a classroom.
She and three family members left Venezuela in July with their beloved dog, Linda, in tow, making the treacherous journey thousands of miles through South and Central America in a bid to reach their dream destination: the United States.
From an encampment in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, Rubi describes the past five months as an adventure. “Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala,” she told CNN in mid-November, listing all the places she had been.
Her father, Francisco, is less sanguine. The family has attempted to cross the border twice, only to be expelled by US officials. They were later kicked out of the encampment by Mexican police during clashes that burned down their tents, and are now living in a tiny rental in Ciudad Juarez.
When CNN caught up with them over the weekend, Francisco said he worries about child trafficking and the power of the cartels. It is why, come Wednesday, when a controversial Trump-era border policy was due to expire, he had planned to attempt to cross to the US for the third time.
Known as Title 42, the policy allows US border agents to immediately turn away migrants who have been crossing the southern border illegally since March 2020, all in the name of Covid-19 prevention. There have been nearly 2.5 million expulsions — mostly under the Biden administration, which has been bracing for an influx of arrivals if the authority lifts.
But on Monday, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts temporarily halted the sunsetting of the border expulsion policy until the justices decide on an appeal filed by Republican-led states. That means expulsions may continue.
The order does not necessarily reflect the final outcome of the case, but it leaves many migrants like Rubi and her father in limbo, while providing US authorities some breathing room from the expected surge in crossings.
El Paso’s mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of emergency over the weekend in response to the rising number of people arriving in the community and living in unsafe conditions. On Monday, he said the city would “continue to proceed as if” Title 42 was being lifted, adding that “there is probably over 20,000” migrants amassed at the border in Mexico. “We will continue to be prepared for whatever is coming through,” he added.
His counterpart in Ciudad Juarez, Perez Cuellar, has also noticed an uptick in arrivals in recent weeks. “This is a city of migrants,” he told CNN, speaking of the border city about 7 miles from El Paso town.
But this time the travelers aren’t here to stay. “They are coming just (to cross) the border. So, I think right now it’s more a problem for the US government because everybody is going there,” he added.
Cuellar is concerned that the migrants might become vulnerable targets of organized crime and he is offering newcomers shelters in the city, once known as the country’s murder capital before a crackdown a decade ago.
All the migrants CNN spoke to at the border were Venezuelan, and experts say deteriorating economic conditions in that country, food shortages and limited access to health care have pushed many to leave Venezuela.
In 2021, a United Nations special rapporteur blamed Western sanctions on the country — put in place to pressure President Nicolás Maduro’s regime — for exacerbating Venezuela’s rapidly declining economy.
There are now about 7.1 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants outside the country, according to UN data, and the vast majority live in Latin America and the Caribbean. The growing Venezuelan community in the US has become a draw, say experts; in September, the US Border Patrol apprehended more than 33,000 Venezuelan citizens, up about 30 percent from the previous month, according to the agency’s most recent data.
‘They can expel us’
The Gutierrez family, who are Venezuelan, have had better luck than most, crossing the Rio Grande River, which separates the border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, in November. US border agents brought Joribel Gutierrez, her husband Franklin and their 5-year-old son in, no questions asked — a sign of an overwhelmed border crossing, they say.
After seven days of immigration detention in El Paso, they were granted conditional release, said Joribel. The family is now living in Indianapolis, close to Joribel’s brother, and waiting for a January court hearing to determine their future in the US.
They are staying in an apartment belonging to her brother’s friend, but the family has not left the place in weeks. “There’s still the fear that they can expel us. We don’t want to do anything bad that’ll call attention,” she said in Spanish.
After sacrificing so much to leave Venezuela, Franklin said the aim is to find work, “move forward” and create a future for their children — adding that Joribel is pregnant with their second child. “From here, we can help our family (in Venezuela),” Joribel said. “The salary there is $10 biweekly, that is $20 per month where a chicken costs $12 … the situation there is tough,” he added.
Joribel realizes they are luckier than most, even if their future in the US is yet to be determined, saying she heard stories of fellow border crossers being deported to Mexico City or Tijuana. “I really feel sorry for a lot of those people because just like us, they have been fighting, having a hard time, and they have also lost family members because in the jungle many of those people lost children and (mothers, fathers) — I mean, it’s difficult.”
Venezuelan Rafael Rojas is one of them. He crossed the Rio Grande hours after Joribel, but instead of a welcome, he was handcuffed and deported some 700 miles away to the coastal city of Tijuana.
Rojas’ journey to get to Mexico was arduous, crossing the infamous 37-mile stretch of jungle known as the Darien Gap, which brings migrants through Colombia to Panama.
The history of that crucial passageway out of South America is rife with reports of robberies, corpses, mutilations, and rape. In interviews during his journey, Rojas told CNN he had witnessed tragedy throughout. Communicating with CNN for the last time by text on Sunday, he said he won’t stop trying to cross into the US.
Back in Ciudad Juarez, Rubi tells CNN she has her heart set on going to school in New York, explaining in Spanish: “I want to learn English.”
Going back to Venezuela is not an option for her family as Francisco had left his job in the Venezuelan army. “I … practically (deserted), fled and I can’t set foot in Venezuela,” he said.
Even though they have made the difficult decision of leaving their dog behind with a caretaker in Mexico, Francisco is certain his family’s future — a better one — is on the other side of the border.
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