Images of Confusion, Then Anguish: Migrant Families Deported by Surprise

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When 149 migrants were escorted onto a bridge by U.S. Border Patrol agents, they had no idea where they were being taken. Many collapsed, crying, when they learned they were back in Mexico.

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — They came in groups of 30, children dangling from adults’ arms, escorted on Thursday afternoon by United States Border Patrol agents across the Paso del Norte bridge until they reached the halfway point. Then, they were handed off to Mexican authorities.

“Where are we?” one father asked a journalist with The New York Times.

“Ciudad Juárez,” came the reply.

The father, who hadn’t been told by U.S. officials where he and the rest of the group of migrants were being taken, looked bewildered.

“Mexico,” the journalist clarified.

Faces contorted from confusion to anguish. Many of the parents started sobbing, tears of frustration falling on the children they cradled.

“They cheated us!” yelled one parent.

“They promised they would help us!” wailed another.

Most of the 149 migrants being taken across the bridge on Thursday had crossed into the United States from Reynosa, a border city in northern Mexico, where they had been detained by U.S. Border Patrol officers. They were then flown 600 miles to El Paso, Texas, where they were put on buses, driven to the border and walked to the bridge.

None were informed they were being sent back into Mexico.

As they walked across the bridge connecting El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, it dawned on them that everything they had risked on their journey — their lives, the well-being of their children, the loans they had bankrupted themselves to take out to be smuggled into the United States — was falling apart.

Below, Elvin Bautista Pérez, 26, from Honduras, with his daughter, Mía, 5, trying to reach his family by text after being deported.

Vilma Iris Peraza, 28, struggled to carry Erick, her 2-year-old child, pant-less in a dirty diaper, and her daughter Adriana, 5.

Adriana was standing in a pool of vomit at the top of the bridge, as Mexican officials surrounded them, the braids that Ms. Peraza had so diligently woven into her daughter’s hair a frizzy mess. The mother had wanted her daughter to look her best for their new life in America.

Ms. Peraza tried to comfort Adriana and give her sips of water as Erick wiggled in her arms. Finally, she collapsed on the bridge, hugged her children and wept.

“We couldn’t get through, my love,” Ms. Peraza told her husband on the phone, when she was finally able to connect. “Here we are in Mexico, all crying. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

The family, from Copán, Honduras, had tried to cross days before to reunite with Ms. Peraza’s husband in Nashville. They had been a family divided ever since he had left two years ago to work in Tennessee. Smugglers had charged them $12,000 to cross — equivalent to almost three years’ salary in Honduras — savings that now amounted to nothing as they sat huddled together on the bridge.

“I just want to reconnect with my husband to give our children a better future,” Ms. Peraza said. “In my country, there is a lot of poverty, nothing can be done.”

It had taken many of the migrants a month or more to complete the dangerous trek from Central America to the United States.

The perilous journey was worth it, many had reasoned, as long as they could settle in America. They did not want to leave their homes, but their countries had broken under corrupt governments that neglected them and allowed gangs to rule the streets.

Now they were in Mexico and had only bad options: give it all up and return home or try to illegally cross again. Both choices left them at the mercy of Mexican criminal networks.

Another migrant asked a Times journalist about the situation in Juárez, one of Mexico’s most dangerous border cities.

“How is this town?” he asked. “Is it safe to go out?”

Migrants being loaded onto vans to be taken to shelters in Juárez.

Elvin Bautista Pérez, 26, clutched his daughter as he struggled to get reception on his phone to tell family members the disappointing news.

He and Mía, 5, had left their home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in January, setting off for the United States.

Mr. Bautista said he never had wanted to be an immigrant, had never wanted to leave his family to learn a new language and new customs. He had found a way to live with the poverty and corruption that wracked Honduras ever since he was a child. But then two powerful hurricanes slammed into Honduras within as many weeks, leaving him jobless and homeless in November.

“They deceived us because in the United States they never told us that they were going to deport us,” Mr. Bautista said.

Ms. Peraza, below, with her children.

Mexican officials ushered the migrants off the bridge and into their offices, where they were registered and told they’d be placed in shelters until deported back home.

But the shelters were for those whose limits of despair had been reached. Among the crowd of migrants, there were still the hopeful, those who had not run out of money or the determination to try to cross again. Instead of filling out the government forms, they slipped out of the chaotic offices onto the streets of Juárez.

A yellow sports car appeared out of nowhere, and a family was ushered into the back seat. They had called their coyote, or human smuggler, to pick them up right at the government offices. Once everyone packed into the car — as flashy as the coyotes are brazen — the family sped off, to attempt the perilous crossing once again.

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