EL CEIBO – Hundreds of Central American migrants — many families with young children — expelled by the United States on flights deep into southern Mexico have been dropped this week at this remote jungle outpost on the Guatemalan border.
They walk into Guatemala with children in their arms and their few possessions in plastic bags, pause to put the laces back into their shoes, disoriented by their sudden arrival in a third country in 24 hours. In part, that is the point. The new U.S. measure aims to dissuade them from trying to reach the U.S. border again.
In El Ceibo, they find little more than roadside diners, a small, overwhelmed shelter and suffocating 100-degree heat. Many are not from Guatemala. There are Hondurans and Salvadorans. Some start walking south, hitchhiking or looking for a bus if they have money. The next small community is 11 miles (18 kilometers) away and in between is only jungle interrupted by ranchland. Others say they will head north again.
“What we’ve seen here is the suffering of these people,” said Andres Toribio, who runs the Bethlehem Migrant Shelter in El Ceibo. “They don’t know where they’re being left. They don’t know what Peten is like. It is a huge territory. People think they’ll be in a city in 20 minutes, but Santa Elena is the closest city and it’s 108 miles.”
He said since the U.S. started the flights his shelter has been strained by the new arrivals on top of the usual deportations made by Mexican authorities. He estimated he had seen 4,000 migrants expelled from Mexico here in the past eight days.
“We have capacity for 30 people. Yesterday we received 100,” he said. “We’re talking about those that Mexico’s immigration expels and the ones they’re sending on the (U.S.) flights every day, some 500 migrants left here at the border.”
Most are women and children, he said. “We know that in these situations women and children are victims of all kinds of abuse in the street.” Human traffickers were also there giving the migrants bad information to keep them from seeking help so instead they could sell their services, he said.
When the expelled migrants board their flights in Brownsville, Texas they don’t know where they are going. Some think California, others back home. Some said when they got off the Mexican buses, authorities told them buses waited for them in Guatemala to return them to their countries.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas explained Thursday that the new measure aims to make it harder for migrants expelled under pandemic-related restrictions that prohibit them from seeking asylum to return to the U.S. border. Migrants interviewed this week said they were not asked by U.S. or Mexican authorities if they needed protection.
The U.S. has flown Mexican migrants deep into Mexico before to deter them from trying to enter the U.S. again, but this is the first time it is flying Central Americans to southern Mexican cities like Villahermosa and Tapachula.
The administration is starting the flights at 24 times a month, with hopes of ramping up, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. Mexico agreed to support the effort amid strains between the administration and Central American governments and their reluctance to accept more direct deportation flights from the United States.
Maritza Tepata arrived in El Ceibo Wednesday with her two children ages 3 and 8, after starting the day in Brownsville. On Friday, she was working in a diner, washing dishes, scrubbing floors and waiting on customers along with a Nicaraguan migrant. In exchange, she received food for her family, but otherwise was not paid.
She had fled El Salvador because a gang threatened her for not making extortion payments. Tepata, 26, had been trying to reach Los Angeles.
In addition to her children, she had been traveling with her mother, but they were separated by U.S. authorities after crossing the border into Texas. On her flight Wednesday, Tepata said, “I asked how many hours it was from the U.S. to El Salvador, that’s when they told me it wasn’t going to El Salvador, but to Mexico.”
She had paid $14,000 to a smuggler to cross and now faced a debt she had little hope of repaying without reaching the U.S.
United Nations agencies and human rights organizations expressed concern this week over the new U.S. measures. Without screening migrants for what they were fleeing the governments were potentially putting them at risk.
“They didn’t ask me anything,” Tepata said. “I left my country because we were extorted, the father of my children didn’t help me ... I emigrated to give my children a better future.”