NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Guatemalan mother facing death threats fled to El Paso with her son

Marleny, a migrant from Guatemala who fled her country last year, stands outside of the trailer home where she lives with her son near San Antonio.
Nick Wagner
The Texas Tribune
Marleny, a migrant from Guatemala who fled her country last year, stands outside of the trailer home where she lives with her son near San Antonio.

For two years, immigration officials have turned away migrants at the border 1.7 million times under an emergency public health order called Title 42, which will end late next month.

EL PASO — After Marleny demanded police in her home village in southern Guatemala arrest the men who had killed her father and two brothers, she said she got an anonymous note at her house, telling her if she didn’t stay quiet, she would join the men in her family.

The 32-year-old housekeeper said she was terrified, and told her boss — whose home she had cleaned for two years — about the death threat. The woman loaned Marleny $4,000 so she could flee to the United States, Marleny said.

The money was only enough to take one of her two sons with her, so she left her 18-year-old with his grandmother, telling him she would send for him when she could get more money.

In September, she packed a small blue backpack with surgical masks and clothes, told her 13-year-old to do the same, and began what would become a monthlong trip to El Paso that ended when they crossed the Rio Grande and surrendered to Border Patrol agents.

Marleny — who asked to be identified only by her first name out of fear that her son in Guatemala could be endangered — and her son were quickly sent across the international bridge to Ciudad Juárez under an emergency public health order called Title 42 that allows immigration officers to immediately remove migrants from the U.S. without allowing them to request asylum.

“I was in shock because at this point I only had 30 pesos [roughly $1.50] left over and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. Mother and son would live in a Juárez shelter for months, waiting.

For the past two years, hundreds of thousands of immigrants fleeing violence, political instability and natural disasters in Central America and other countries have arrived at the Texas-Mexico border seeking refuge, only to be turned away under Title 42, which was launched March 2020 with the aim of preventing the spread of COVID-19. The order has been used 1.7 million times to expel migrants — many of them are removed multiple times after making repeated attempts to enter the U.S.

The order has been a lightning rod politically, with migrant advocates and many Democrats hammering the Biden administration for continuing it and claiming it delivers migrants into the hands of criminals in Mexican border cities. New York-based Human Rights First said it has identified nearly 10,000 cases of kidnapping, torture, rape and other violent attacks on people expelled to Mexico under Title 42 as of March 15.

Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it plans to drop the order on May 23 — which drew immediate backlash from many Republicans who claim President Joe Biden has failed to control the southern border and that ending Title 42 will lure even more migrants.

“President Biden’s open-border policies are an unmitigated disaster for national security,” said Gov. Greg Abbott. “His recklessness has forced the State of Texas to take unprecedented steps to fill the gaps — including deploying Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and over 10,000 Texas National Guard soldiers.”

Texas has led the legal fight against the Biden administration’s immigration policies, filing numerous lawsuits that have led to judges overturning or altering those policies — including the administration’s attempt to exempt children from being expelled under Title 42. A federal judge in Fort Worth blocked the exemption.

A lawsuit spearheaded by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton forced the Biden administration to reverse course and resume the Migrant Protection Protocols, a Trump-era policy known as “remain in Mexico” that makes asylum-seekers wait in Mexico as their cases go through U.S. immigration courts.

The court rulings renewed a wave of national pressure on the Biden administration from lawmakers and immigrant rights advocates to end the use of Title 42.

Department of Homeland Security officials have said they could expect up to 18,000 encounters a day with immigrants at the border once Title 42 removals end — compared to the current average of 6,000 a day.

To deal with the expected increase, Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said he has sent 600 law enforcement personnel to help detain and process migrants and will send more as needed. Mayorkas also said migrants will get vaccinated for COVID-19 after they’re detained.

He warned potential migrants that the end of Title 42 doesn’t mean everyone arriving at the border will be allowed into the U.S. “Let me be clear: Those unable to establish a legal basis to remain in the United States will be removed,” he said.

On a phone call with reporters last week, DHS officials also said some arriving migrants could be placed in the “remain in Mexico” program.

Marysol Castro, an El Paso-based lawyer who agreed to represent Marleny and her son, said that while “remain in Mexico” isn’t ideal, it gives migrants a chance to seek asylum unlike those expelled under Title 42.

Shaw Drake, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said expanding the use of “remain in Mexico” will continue sending vulnerable migrants to dangerous Mexican border towns.

“Instead, [the Biden administration] should work toward their promise of ending it,” Drake said.

Stolen cattle leads to deadly feud

Marleny said the feud that claimed three members of her family began with a dispute over cattle.

She was 13 when someone stole some of her uncle’s cattle, she said. Soon after, her uncle confronted the cattle thieves and was fatally beaten. His wife was convinced that her own brother — Marleny’s father — was responsible because he was in the area when her husband was killed, Marleny said.

Marleny said some of her uncle’s relatives then killed her father as revenge.

Eventually, neighbors who witnessed the beating told the aunt that Marleny’s father wasn’t involved, Marleny said. But the murders continued as her uncle’s family — fearing revenge killings in the future — fatally shot Marleny’s oldest brother eight years ago, then killed her 29-year-old brother in August.

She said she and her mother went to the local police after the latest killing, demanding they finally arrest the men who had murdered her father and brothers. Soon after, she said she found the note underneath a rock in front of her door: “Hey big mouth, we saw you coming out of the [police] office, you're going to regret it. If you keep going we're going to kill you and your kids worse than the death of your brother.”

That’s when she decided to flee with her son, she said.

“He kept asking me why we were fleeing, but I didn’t want to tell him I was in danger of being killed,” she said. “I didn’t want to traumatize him more.”

“It’s not that I wanted to come [to the U.S.] illegally, but I just couldn’t stay in Guatemala,” she added.

Marleny and her son took a bus into Mexico, where other Central American migrants connected her to smugglers who charged $650 a person to smuggle them across Mexico in a tractor-trailer. The smugglers packed more than 100 other migrants, including children as young as 2 years old, into the trailer for the long ride to the U.S. border, she said.

The trailer was stifling, she said, and many of them had trouble breathing. Her son passed out, Marleny said, and she began to scream because she thought he was dying.

“I was crying and yelled out, ‘If he dies, I will never forgive myself,’” Marleny said.

Others told her to stay quiet because her screams could alert Mexican police, and a group of men began CPR on the boy and waved rubbing alcohol under his nose, eventually reviving him, she said.

After a 12-hour ride, Mexican police cut the trip short when they pulled the truck over in Veracruz and took the migrants to jail, where Marleny and her son spent a couple of days before they were released and continued their trip by bus to the Texas-Mexico border.

When they finally reached the border and surrendered, U.S. immigration agents fingerprinted and photographed her and put them in a line back to Ciudad Juárez, where strangers directed them to a migrant shelter run by a local pastor.

There, other migrants gave her the number of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which connected her with Castro, an attorney with the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, which provides legal representation to asylum-seekers in El Paso.

After interviewing her new clients, Castro realized Marleny and her son had grounds to request an exemption from Title 42 because her son had a health condition that needed treatment she couldn’t get in Mexico — a deformed bone growing out of the boy’s chest.

Marleny said she had taken her son to a hospital in Guatemala for the problem, but the doctor said it was a deformity. But as time went on, the boy complained that the bone kept growing, she said.

In December, Castro called Marleny to tell her that U.S. immigration officials agreed to give her son a medical exemption and let both of them into the U.S.

“I couldn’t believe it. I excitedly told the other women in the shelter and I cried and they just hugged me,” she said. “My poor son, he was just so happy, too.”

“They are suffering a lot”

She and her son traveled to Boerne, north of San Antonio, where they are living with the grandparents of someone they know from their home village. She plans to file an asylum petition once she can afford to hire a lawyer, she said. She said she hasn’t been able to afford to take her son to a doctor to properly diagnose the abnormal bone growth.

Marleny said she talks to her older son in Guatemala every day, promising him that she will get him to the U.S. But she said she worries about him making the same dangerous journey that she took.

She can’t legally work and doesn’t know when she’ll be able to pay for another lawyer to file her asylum application. She said she has waited five months already for a work permit from U.S. immigration officials.

“I feel guilty,” she said. “[My son] stayed behind with my mother and he doesn’t have a dad to keep him company, so I’m just sad for leaving him behind.”

She hopes the end of Title 42 means the friends she made at the Juárez shelter will get the same opportunity to request asylum, she said.

“I hope they let a lot of people in because they are suffering a lot,” she said. “In Mexico, the women I met at the shelter are still there, and they write to me how they want to come in. I just feel so sad for them."