MEXICO CITY — Back in 2019, Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz received a call from a leader of the powerful Cartel del Noreste.
“Nobody is going to stop us. No pastor or church is going to stop us,” the cartel leader told the Baptist pastor.
Ortiz had been picking up immigrant families and asylum seekers from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, across the border from Laredo, Texas, and driving them to shelters. In doing so, he was interfering with the cartel business of kidnapping migrants and extorting their family members for thousands of dollars.
“You can do whatever God lets you do. Let me do what God lets me do,” Ortiz said he told the cartel leader. “All we are doing is providing these families some shelter and humanitarian help.”
The two men came to a truce of sorts. The pastor made a deal with the devil, but he felt it was the only way he could continue doing his work and stay alive. Other advocates have paid a high price for getting in the way of the cartel business around migrants.
Under the agreement, the cartel got free rein on migrants stepping foot in Nuevo Laredo for the first time — Ortiz wouldn’t interfere with those potential kidnappings. Sometimes, when he was transporting people, cartel members surrounded his van and forced the migrants out of the vehicle, abducting them. The pastor could only stand by. But generally speaking, he was free to provide housing and transportation to asylum seekers who had already fallen prey to the kidnappers, and survived.
That deal came at the height of the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) policy introduced by former President Donald Trump. Some 70,000 asylum seekers were sent back to Mexico to wait while their U.S. immigration cases were decided under that policy, also known as “Remain in Mexico.” Places like Nuevo Laredo were so dangerous for migrants that many fled to nearby cities, although they had to return for their court hearings.
President Joe Biden ended “Remain in Mexico” shortly after taking office, closing the chapter on a policy his wife said made asylum seekers “targets for extortion, sex-trafficking, and kidnapping.” But thousands of asylum seekers are still being returned to Mexico under a different Trump-era policy continued by Biden. Known as Title 42, the emergency measure allows for the mass expulsion of unauthorized immigrants trying to enter the U.S. under the justification that they pose a public health risk.
Every day, hundreds of migrants are still being sent to Mexico’s most dangerous border cities, including Nuevo Laredo, leading to yet more kidnappings by the Cartel del Noreste and other criminal groups.
“Even today, they operate without any fear of police or the federal government,” Ortiz said. “The soldiers can see them. The National Guard can see them. Anybody can see them and nobody does anything. They go into immigration buildings. They are kidnapping everybody, whoever they can.”
The trend continues as the Biden administration announced a new multi-agency effort Tuesday to go after smuggling networks that charge migrants thousands of dollars to sneak them into the U.S. Migrants turn to smugglers in desperation to get into the U.S. undetected, but can often fall victim to other criminal dynamics on the road north. In January, a group of Guatemalans ended up massacred just 14 miles south of the U.S. border, along with the smuggler they had paid to take them north.
“These criminal organizations put profit over human life. They routinely prey on migrants taking vast sums of money from them in exchange for empty promises to get them safely to the U.S.,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on a call with reporters, adding that the government will go after smugglers and their associates with “every authority in our arsenal,” from revoking their visas to freezing bank accounts and other financial assets.
But Mayorkas insisted that expelling migrants to Mexico under Title 42 “is necessary in a COVID-19 environment” and rebuffed the suggestion that the policy is sending people into the hands of criminals. “It is a public health imperative to not only protect the American public but also to, and importantly, protect the migrants themselves.”
The reality on the ground suggests otherwise. One Honduran woman who reached the U.S. with her husband and one-year-old daughter was sent to Nuevo Laredo on April 6 under Title 42, and kidnapped the same day. “My daughter cried all night long and I think that’s what saved us,” she wrote in a text message. “They asked us if we had family in the U.S. and we said no. At 7 a.m. they let us go and dropped us off in front of the shelter. We are terrified of leaving here.”
The family has since moved to a smaller shelter in a safer city three hours away.
Most single adults apprehended at the U.S’s Southwest border are being expelled to Mexico under the policy, and around a third of migrant parents traveling with children. Those turned back are not processed, or given immigration paperwork to come back another day, or even technically deported — they are just sent to Mexico. Decisions over who stays and who goes seem arbitrary. Title 42 has become another version of the extinct Remain in Mexico policy, immigrant rights advocates say.
Human Rights First published a report this month saying it had identified at least 492 attacks and kidnappings against asylum seekers sent back to Mexico since Biden took office. The real number is likely much higher because such crimes rarely are reported to the police. U.S. immigration officials are also expelling migrants in the middle of the night - the report mentions a group of 100 people who were expelled to the Mexican border city Nogales at 1 a.m.
“Despite his frequent pledges to reverse President Trump’s cruelty at the border, President Biden is continuing a policy that is wreaking havoc: it endangers children, drives family separations, and illegally returns asylum seekers to danger,” Human Rights First said. “Rather than protecting public health, the expulsion policy threatens the health and safety of asylum seekers and migrants.”
Criminal organizations in Mexico have made around $800 million on migrant kidnappings alone over the past decade, according to a VICE World News investigation. Money-transfer companies received a cut on nearly every transaction through fees and exchange rates.
Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, said he believes the Biden administration is continuing to rely on expulsions because deporting people to their home countries would require detaining them for at least a few days — amplifying the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in U.S. detention centers. “It would be a bigger deterrent to use deportation instead of Title 42, but they seem genuinely worried about the consequences of putting people in confined spaces,” he said.
But, Selee added, the policy is “outliving its usefulness” as it fuels repeat attempts to cross the border illegally into the U.S., since there are little consequences for migrants to try again. Nearly 30 percent of the 172,000 migrants apprehended at the border in March had previously tried to cross, according to the Biden administration.
The Mexican government has accepted the mass expulsions, while also deploying troops to southern Mexico to stop the flow of people trying to enter the country from neighbouring Guatemala en route to the U.S. But the desperation fueling migration is outweighing government efforts to slow it. Back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota ravaged Central America last fall, leaving tens of thousands of people already facing desperate circumstances because of the pandemic without a place to live or even farmland to grow crops.
“This migration flow is now new but the profiles of the people migrating has been changing. We see families migrating with very young children. Unaccompanied children migrating,” said Laurent Duvillier, a spokesman with the U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. “They have lost everything. They have no job. No house. No future. The children aren’t in school so they have nothing to lose.”
The number of migrant children in Mexico increased ninefold from the beginning of the year to the end of March, according to a UNICEF analysis, from 380 to 3,500. That number includes Mexicans and Central Americans trying to reach the U.S., children expelled under Title 42 with their parents, and unaccompanied minors — the only group being consistently allowed into the U.S.
In Nuevo Laredo, the shelters are full. Ortiz said the three shelters he runs are currently hosting some 240 people, half of whom are children, many of them just toddlers.
The pastor said he has tried to talk to American officials about the dangers facing asylum seekers in Nuevo Laredo, but “they just don’t say anything.”
“They know what’s going on but they don’t care,” he said.