CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- When Irwing López made it to Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border in January, the 35-year-old construction worker thought he had survived the worst and was steps away from his goal.
He'd traversed jungle and raging rivers, and evaded Mexico’s notorious cartels, traveling thousands of miles from his native Venezuela. But then he found himself in a purgatory between U.S. immigration policies that pushed him back to Mexico and the unrelenting pursuit of Mexican immigration agents.
And on Monday, López was reminded just how fragile his situation is. His friend and fellow Venezuelan Samuel Marchena was detained by immigration agents and hours later became one of the 39 migrants who died in a fire at a detention center.
López, who sleeps in a shelter and washes windshields at stoplights for cash, said he won't give up trying to enter the U.S., but he recognizes he's not welcome in this sprawling border city that has grown tired of migrants in its community.
“My dream has become a nightmare,” López said recently, waiting to weave between cars at a light.
Tensions have simmered between migrants and residents in Mexican border cities for several years, with large camps set up near crossings by those who can’t afford housing or cling to unrealistic hopes that U.S. authorities will suddenly admit them. In Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.5 million estimated to have as many as 25,000 migrants, constant new arrivals facing an indeterminate wait were already the subject of heated debate. The deadly fire and accompanying attention have only added to the strained situation.
Many border residents take pride in their cities as beacons of diversity and hospitality, but challenges mounted after the U.S. introduced a practice under which migrants were forced to wait in Mexican border cities for an appointment to enter the U.S. to seek asylum or other legal status.
An opaque system of waiting lists for a chance to apply for U.S. asylum managed by nongovernmnetal groups or individuals topped 55,000 names in 11 Mexican border cities in August, according to a report by the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, Austin.
Additionally, a Trump-era policy that ended last year resulted in more than 70,000 people waiting in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court.
And since March 2020, the U.S. has returned migrants from several countries, largely Guatemala and Honduras, to Mexico under a rule designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In January, the Biden administration introduced a glitch-plagued app to exempt migrants from the pandemic-era rule, known as Title 42, and it is now scheduling about 740 appointments per day along the border.
López has found the application, called CBPOne, to be complicated and frustrating, but U.S. authorities have scheduled about 63,000 appointments through the app since Jan. 18.
U.S. authorities have already returned López to Mexico twice after he crossed the border without an appointment. Once they allowed his sister, her husband and cousin who he had traveled with from Venezuela to remain in the U.S.
“Right now, this is a border of uncertainty, insecurity,” said the Rev. Javier Calvillo, director of the Casa del Migrante shelter. Like many, Calvillo fears fallout from the fire could aggravate the existing chaos, which he blamed on a lack of coordination among local, state and federal officials.
In early March, hundreds of migrants crossed one of the international bridges here on the false rumor that U.S. authorities would let them enter. The incident shut down traffic for hours on a vital link to El Paso, Texas, angering residents.
Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuellar started asking Juarez residents to stop giving money to panhandling migrants, warning that his patience was running out. He insisted there was room in the city's shelters and work available for migrants who want it, leaving no need for them to clog intersections.
“We’re going to have a stronger posture in this sense, taking care of the city,” he said March 13. “A crucial moment has arrived to put a stop and have a breaking point ... because they can affect the city’s economy and thousands of Juarez (residents).”
After the fire, critics accused the mayor of being behind the roundup of some of the migrants detained that day. In response, Pérez Cuellar softened his rhetoric to say the city would bolster efforts to tell migrants about opportunities for work and shelter. He said city police could not legally take migrants to the immigration detention center and that he did not know of migrants' complaints that police often took their possessions and extorted them.
Mexico has arrested five people on charges of murder and causing injury: three immigration officials, two private security guards and the migrant they accuse of setting fire to mattresses in the facility. They say they plan to arrest at least one more.
Estrella Pérez, a 24-year-old nurse and Juarez resident, said she was sorry about what happened, but didn't disguise her unhappiness with the increase in migration through the city, especially of Venezuelan migrants. She said they're not looking for work.
She accused migrants of “invading” the streets and bridges. Despite the tragedy of the fire, she said, “there are going to be few people who change their perspective of them,” adding that people are no longer willing to tolerate new arrivals.
On Wednesday, Belen Sosa of Caracas, Venezuela, plodded with her husband and a teenage daughter across a dusty clearing in Ciudad Juarez overlooking the Rio Grande and the U.S. border fence.
She described the indignations of living in limbo while seeking an appointment to apply for U.S. asylum and said migrants live in fear of detention and harassment as they search for odd jobs.
The family weighed whether to turn themselves in to a cluster of U.S. Border Patrol agents Wednesday and risk immediate removal, as hundreds of migrants flocked to a gate in the border fence. Sosa previously worked as a forensic technician in a morgue in the Venezuelan capital.
“People are tired of the mistreatment,” she said. “They want to make us out to be delinquents. Migrating isn’t a crime. What crime are we committing?”
Luis Vázquez, owner of a hamburger stand in the city, conceded that many fellow residents are fed up with migrants, again emphasizing the outsized presence of Venezuelans who tend to be more visible and vocal than the Central Americans moving through the city. But he said ultimately the city’s history as a border crossing would win out.
“What Juarez has is that it has always helped people, and never left them alone," he said "And with this opportunity, many of us are going to help them.”
Yannerys Vian, a 31-year-old Venezuelan, carefully maneuvered her pregnant belly between cars to sell candy at an intersection.
The deaths in the fire made her angry, but not ready to quit. She said she left Venezuela in September after her young daughter died from lack of medical attention. She set out for the U.S. with her husband and 3-year-old son, making it to Juarez in December.
On Wednesday, she joined the migrants crossing again on the rumor the U.S. would let them enter. Many turned themselves over to authorities at an opening in the border fence, but Vian balked, fearing the she'd be passed back to Mexico, which would in turn send her family farther south, erasing the gains they made.
“What happened filled me with hate, with anger," she said. “What they did to those people was a crime, but I won’t give them the satisfaction of sending me back.” __
AP writers Morgan Lee in Ciudad Juarez and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.