Changing Faces of Immigrants Crossing through Ciudad Juárez and into the United States: Reflections on Migrants, Culture, and Crime
Ciudad Juárez, Mexico has been a focal point for international migration into the US for decades. Over the last twenty or thirty years, the majority of people crossing the border and seeking to reside in the US were Mexican nationals. In approximately 2010, migration from Mexico hit net zero, though it subsequently increased, and about five years ago we started to see much greater diversity of people attempting to cross the US border without authorization or through the asylum process, at least in terms of people publicly visible in the streets, parks, and other public spaces of Juárez and other Mexican cities. Beginning in 2018, there was suddenly a large presence of Guatemalan, Honduran, Cuban, and later Venezuelan migrants, even though Mexican border crossers still made up about half of the overall unauthorized immigrant population. The Cubans especially stood out and made an impact on the civil society of Juárez. This research article is an ethnography based on recent on the ground visits to northern border cities such as Ciudad Juarez. These recent visits are contextualized within decades of borderland fieldwork I have conducted in the region. The article examines the impact of recent migration demographic changes from the cultural perspective of the Juarenses, considers the security implications of recent migration patterns, and the structural vulnerability of migrants.
Author conducting an interview with a Haitian immigrant in Cd. Juárez.
Photo by Victor Vazquez, University of Texas El Paso. Used with Permission.
Previously, Mexicans and Central American migrants, to a degree, passed through without much attention being paid to them because they kept a low profile or shared common cultural styles and linguistic patterns with the local people, although migrant tent camps for the first time emerged adjacent to the two main international bridges connecting Juárez and El Paso. But now, abruptly, you had Caribbean people who spoke with a very distinct accent in Spanish--markedly different from that of Chihuahuans or other northern Mexicans. Moreover, the Cubans stood out phenotypically because many had Afro-Caribbean features, compared to the predominantly mestizo or “white” Juarenses, and wore clothing obtained in Cuba. In addition to distinctive linguistic and cultural styles, many of the Cubans brought with them an open nationalism expressed in the display of the Cuban flag, claims that they were favored immigrants in the US, and in some cases a bold entrepreneurial spirit. Soon Cubans opened multiple hair salons and restaurants and prominently displayed the white, blue, and red Cuban flag on Avenida Juárez itself in the heart of downtown. Quickly, the aromas of ropa vieja, patacones, black beans and rice, picadillo and batidos de papaya blended in with the ever-present smell of tacos de carne asada and burritos de papa y queso menonita on the main street of Juárez.
The Cubans were viewed as a group quite distinct from the Juarenses and they sometimes loudly proclaimed that difference through angry criticism of what some perceived as the rampant crime, decadence, and poverty of Juárez and Mexico generally. Many local Mexicans returned the hostility toward the Cubans who they viewed as brash and arrogant. Paradoxically, Cubans were appreciated for the money they spent in local stores, restaurants, bars, and hotels in the downtown sector. Most of the Cubans temporarily occupied cheap rooms in rundown hotels such as the Hotel Bombín and Hotel Ursula. Rundown tenements, worn-out cafes, and fleabag hoteles de paso revived with the sudden influx of foreign money. They also occupied and claimed ownership of multiple abandoned buildings in decaying downtown Juárez (these have later been occupied by Haitians). Although US tourism to the old honkey-tonk downtown all but died because of the violence of the “drug war” of 2008-2012, the migrants took advantage of the cheap deals in the many small businesses and tenements which remained and breathed life into Colonia Bellavista and the surrounding inner city.
At the same time, anti-Cuban sentiment and discourse slowly began to grow in Mexican tabloid journalism, political rhetoric, and popular sentiment, in part fueled by several flag-wearing Cuban demonstrations demanding asylum on the Paso del Norte International Bridge and the banks of the Rio Grande. Several Cubans were involved in minor criminal incidents and at least two were murdered in downtown Juárez. In contrast, to the open enmity sometimes expressed by average Juarenses toward Cubans, the mostly indigenous Guatemalans appeared to receive sympathy from the Juárez population, were largely ignored or were seen as innocuous. But just as suddenly as the Cubans arrived, within a span of about two years almost all of them were gone. When the pandemic restriction on migration known as title 42 began to ease, Cubans were allowed to enter and seek asylum, causing many to continue their journey to the US.
The posters of the Malecón of Havana and the Cuban flag removed were from little cafes and barber shops in Juárez—as the Cuban population either gained access to the US through El Paso ports of entry or the Chihuahua desert, sought an easier path into the US through other border towns, or gave up in frustration and returned to the Caribbean Island.
Simultaneously, a new Caribbean migrant group joined the mix: Haitians fleeing extreme poverty, high crime, and natural disasters in their homeland. Many Haitians came not from Haiti itself but from Brazil (where they built soccer stadiums for the 2014 World Cup), Chile, and other South American countries where they had previously sought economic refuge. Although this almost exclusively dark-skinned, Creole-speaking population was even more noticeable than the Cubans, their reception by local people was much more positive. The very real hard luck stories of the obviously penniless Haitians, many of whom, in their own words, had crossed through eleven countries and the jungles of Panama on foot in order to get from South America to the US-Mexico border, were more readily appreciated by the local residents. The sympathy toward the Haitians was reinforced by their willingness to dive into hard labor jobs in downtown construction projects, sell fruit and vegetables on the street, and work as clerks and waiters in stores and restaurants. They were also admired for their polyglot language abilities which often included Creole, standard French, Portuguese, Spanish and some English. But eventually, the Haitians, like the Cubans before them, mostly left Juárez through successful formal asylum claims in El Paso or elsewhere. Others reached their desired dangerous destinations via clandestine crossings through, over and under walls, fences, tunnels, rivers, barren hilly lands, or in hidden compartments in cars and trucks. Still others moved to different border cities or are unaccounted for.
Increased Diversity in Migration
Overlapping with the successive waves of Caribbean and Guatemalan peoples were an increase in arrivals of Brazilian, El Salvadoran, Colombian, and Nicaraguan migrant groups, as well as untold numbers from across the globe as various crises, especially that of COVID-19, made life impossible for the poor in dozens of countries. Although the nationalities and faces of immigrants in Juárez have quickly changed over the last few years, several issues have remained constant: 1) massive corruption within the Mexican immigration bureaucracy, military, and police forces. These officials have facilitated the flow of often undocumented migrants through the country in exchange for large bribes; 2) the growth of predatory criminal gangs, such as the Mexicles, and cartel cells focused on the trafficking and gross exploitation of migrants (often in cooperation with corrupt elements of the police); and 3) grotesque suffering of the migrants at the hands of the aforementioned groups as well as abuse by US immigration authorities. Additionally, there have been numerous “accidental” drownings, death from falling off border walls, or deaths from exposure in the desert as migrants attempt to bypass the capricious, often cruel, and constantly shifting US asylum and other immigration laws.
The emergence of divergent new streams of migrants from different countries has provoked a mixed reaction from the residents of Juárez that I have spoken to and observed. On one hand, there has been a constant effort by individuals and organized groups to provide the poverty-stricken migrants with food, shelter, and, in some cases, jobs. On the other hand, it is very common to hear nationality-oriented xenophobic comments about the language, customs or behaviors of the various migrant groups. Moreover, there is a common sentiment that non-Mexican migrants appear to be privileged in the US asylum process over Mexican migrants with equally valid claims.
Currently, the most populous and visible migrant group in Juárez are the Venezuelans who began arriving to the city in large numbers a bit more than a year ago. Most arrive with very few resources, job skills, connections in the US, or cultural capital that will help them navigate the Byzantine U.S. immigration maze, and its criminalizing discourses, in particular the ups and downs of Title 42. Nor do they have the money to return to Venezuela. For now, they are stuck, shipwrecked in Juárez with few options but a lot of hope. Many do not have the papers required to work legally in Mexico. Consequently, vast numbers of Venezuelans wander along Juárez Avenue and nearby streets during the day, or cluster in the main downtown parks and plazas and other public spaces, especially around the Juárez Cathedral and the Paso del Norte Bridge. Dozens beg for donations from the drivers of cars lined up in the streets leading into the El Paso international crossing. The spectacle of their poverty and desperation attracts sympathy and scorn in roughly equal measure. It is common to hear poor residents of Colonia Bellavista describe the Venezuelans as “huevones” who won’t work, expose their small children to extreme hardships, obtain scarce resources that instead should go to the poor of Mexico, or dirty the already rundown, decrepit neighborhood.
In reporting these comments, I pass no judgment on their accuracy, but simply convey the symptoms of growing social tensions. These tensions recently boiled over in a violent clash between Juárez municipal cops and hundreds of Venezuelans and Colombians at the Hotel Ursula, a large, formerly respectable inner-city hotel that now is a raggedy place for short-term trysts between prostitutes and johns and a dormitory for masses of migrants.
Ostensibly the police and immigration authorities were checking the South Americans for papers accrediting their legal residency in Mexico, but the mostly Venezuelan hotel occupants viewed these actions as a human rights abuse. They occurred in the aftermath of a bloody incident in which Juárez city cops broke into a densely crowded Catholic Church building adjacent to the Juárez Cathedral and without warrants arrested and brutalized several Venezuelans in incidents that were heavily covered by local media and transmitted widely on social media. At the Hotel Ursula, Juárez police with guns drawn wrestled with hundreds of South and Central American migrants who tossed rocks and broke police car windows, until a standoff ensued, and the police withdrew. The same day (8 March 2023) this incident occurred I observed a line of mostly Venezuelan migrants scuffling among themselves to move forward into the Mexican immigration office building located at the Stanton Street/Lerdo International Bridge. As the migrants fought with each other, one woman complained that she had been waiting in line for seven hours since the early morning was now being displaced by newcomers. Simultaneously, an unmarked Mexican soldier or policeman stood “guard” in a menacing stance about thirty feet away with a pistol strapped to his belt.
Other scenes of migrant despair were evident at the Paso del Norte Bridge. Everyday, groups of thirty or more unauthorized migrants are deported, walking against the flow of northbound pedestrian traffic back into Juárez by US agents. On this particular day, small groups of deported migrants, still without shoelaces from having them confiscated at a US detention facility and clutching zip-lock bags of deportation documents, formed units of four clustered around their fronterizo coyotes (border human smugglers/traffickers). While the coyotes chattered away on cell phones in border Spanish to their fellow immigrant smugglers⏤planning another attempt to cross the border illegally⏤the freshly deported migrants also spoke on phones in Guatemalan or Venezuelan Spanish, presumably informing their relatives of the current status of their odyssey. All of this took place in full view of Mexican soldiers, police, and immigration officials. None of this activity is considered abnormal or even noteworthy to the throngs of border people coming and going at the foot of the international bridge and bustling Avenida Juárez.
What did attract much public and media action was an attempt by hundreds of Venezuelans to storm the Paso del Norte Bridge on 12 March 2023, after a rumor spread on social media that they would be allowed to enter the US without an official appointment. Frustrated by the inefficiency of CBP One (a US Customs and Border Patrol − CBP mobile application designed to channel asylum applications), and their seemingly hopeless plight in Mexico, the angry South Americans jostled for hours with CBP officers dressed in riot gear who blocked the bridge with barricades and razor wire. As tensions between migrants, border residents, and US officials grow, the direction future events may lead is unstable and unpredictable.
Migrant Camp in Cd. Juárez 2021; Near US-MX Border.
Photo by Victor Vazquez, University of Texas El Paso. Used with Permission.
Despite uncertainty, what does stand out is the extreme vulnerability of the migrants on the Mexican side of the border. Here this research aligns with the works of Jeremy Slack, Howard Campbell, and others on the structural vulnerability of migrants to organized crime and security force abuse. The precarity of their condition was described vividly by one of my Juárez informants. He had taken a trip to Torreón, Coahuila, a ten-hour drive from Juárez, to undertake a medical procedure. On his return trip to Juárez he travelled by bus at night with his son. On the bus were a group of nine Peruvians who chatted amiably with the other Mexican travelers. The Peruvians carried legal immigration papers justifying their Mexican trip. Yet just outside of Chihuahua, Chihuahua, on the main highway to Juárez, the bus was forced to stop at an improvised illegal checkpoint. Armed men, dressed like members of Mexico’s Guardia Nacional, entered the bus, and immediately targeted the Peruvians, who they dragged off and forced to kneel on the ground by the highway. The heavily armed men then stripped the Peruvians of their documents, money, and cell phones, and threw them into vehicles and drove away with them despite the protestations of the victims who loudly argued their right to be in the country. The Mexicans on the bus who had befriended the Peruvians, fought with the armed men but were told to shut up and stay put otherwise they would be taken away also. The kidnapping of the Peruvians was never reported in the local press and who knows what became of them. This is in line with human rights documentation of violence against migrants who are sequestered in Mexico and border cities awaiting the opportunity to apply for asylum.
This abusive incident, just one of thousands that occur constantly, exposes the defenselessness of the Latin American migrants in Mexico as well as the clear impunity of criminal coyotes backed by corrupt law enforcement and military authorities. The outrageous government-supported criminality of the migrant “business” was made apparent to me on a recent trip I took by bus from El Paso to Chihuahua. Southbound, I was not once checked by Mexican immigration authorities. Our bus sailed through the immigration checkpoint at the Kilometro 20 without stopping or even slowing down. No one’s papers were checked. Nothing. Any amount of contraband guns or other merchandise would have had free passage. On the way back, on a typically, sunny Chihuahua afternoon, my bus joined a line of hundreds of other buses, cars, and trucks that were reviewed at the military checkpoint outside Juárez. In spite of the more thorough surveillance of northbound traffic toward the U.S. border, seldom if ever are undocumented migrants detained at the checkpoint. Knowledgeable inside sources explained to me that that is because the “gypsy” buses hauling thousands of migrants, with bribes prepaid, come through at night by the dozens and get to Juárez without incident unless waylaid by coyotes from rival smuggling groups who may “steal” the migrants. Other immigrants travel precariously on “la bestia,” the northbound cargo train to the border.
In this impressionistic ethnographic account, I have hoped to convey a sense of the immigration drama taking place in Juárez and other Mexican border cities and the security implications. This is a constantly evolving story, one that is heavily overdetermined by larger political and economic decisions taken in Washington, DC, Mexico City, and the capitals of the migrant-sending countries discussed previously. On the ground one observes the great diversity of the Latin American and Caribbean migrant population that is often viewed from afar as a homogenous Spanish-speaking mass of downtrodden souls. Yet, not only are there differences among the migrants from a given nationality, but also there are significant differences between groups of migrants from the various “Latin” countries, and differential views about these nationalities among the Mexican residents of border communities. These differences have important consequences for how migrants are treated in northern Mexican border towns, even before they reach US authorities and their differential gaze. This has implications for their structural vulnerability to corrupt law enforcement agents, organized crime, and community backlash. As spring and summer approach, it is evident that the vast migrant flow will only expand. It is high time that both the US and Mexico take stock of their roles in the migrant situation and work cooperatively to rationalize and humanize an extremely dangerous and chaotic process that leaves many casualties in its wake. Immigration and security scholars will need to pay close attention to these issues.
 Jeffrey Passel, D’Vera Cohn, and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero—and Perhaps Less,” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. 23 April 2012, p. 66, https://www.immigrationresearch.org/system/files/Pew--Net_Migration_from_Mexico_Falls_to_Zero.pdf; Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “Before COVID-19, More Mexicans Came to the U.S. than Left for Mexico for the First Time in Years,” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 9 July 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/07/09/before-covid-19-more-mexicans-came-to-the-u-s-than-left-for-mexico-for-the-first-time-in-years/.
 Randy Capps, Julia Gelatt, Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, and Jennifer Van Hook, “Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States: Stable Numbers, Changing Origins.” Fact Sheet. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. December 2020, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/publications/mpi-unauthorized-immigrants-stablenumbers-changingorigins_final.pdf; Stephanie Breyer and Maureen Meyer, “Struggling to Survive: Plight of Asylum Seekers at Mexico’s Southern Border Highlights Need for Regional Action.” Washington, DC: Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). 2 June 2022, https://www.wola.org/analysis/struggling-to-survive-plight-of-asylum-seekers-at-mexicos-southern-border-highlights-need-for-regional-action/.
 This essay is not concerned with the thousands of migrants that reside in various forms of shelters run by NGOs, government organizations, and religious institutions. It is based on fieldwork conducted for my recent book: Downtown Juárez: Underworlds of Violence and Abuse. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2021. At least twice weekly field observations and informal interviews since the publication of the book added additional information. However, I am not a migration scholar. This article is meant to report on current trends and raise new issues about who is crossing the border and why, and how they are perceived in Mexico; issues that may be neglected in US-centric research. It is not meant to be an exhaustive, systematic study. Conditions may vary in Tijuana, Matamoros, and other border cities.
 In South America, Venezuelans that make the trek on foot through the jungles of Panama and northward are often referred to generically as “los caminantes.” On the complex trials and tribulations of South American migrants, see: Megan Sheehan “Labouring for inclusion: debating immigrant contributions to Chile.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 45, no. 6, 2022: pp. 1155−1176, https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2021.1986629; and Elizabeth Zenteno Torres & Noel B. Salazar, “Searching for the ‘Chilean Oasis’: Waiting and Uncertainty in the Migration Trajectories of Venezuelan Women.” Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies. 24 September 2021: pp. 1−14, https://doi.org/10.1080/15562948.2021.1980642.
 “Sedena Leaks: Revelan Calderón Tiene Permiso para Portar Armas y que Militares Prometen Imagen del Ejército.” Animal Politico. 11 October 2022, https://www.animalpolitico.com/seguridad/sedena-leaks-calderon-armas-militares-imagen-ejercito.
 David Mora and Emily Green, “Deported to Death” Vice. 23 February 2021, https://www.vice.com/en/article/epd9qk/edgar-lopez-murder-trump-zero-tolerance-immigration-policy.
 Jeremy Slack, “Captive Bodies: Migrant Kidnapping and Deportation in Mexico,” Area. 2015, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2651630; Howard Campbell, Jeremy Slack, and Brian Diedrich, “Mexican Immigrants, Anthropology, and United States Law: Pragmatics, Dilemmas, and Ethics of Expert Witness Testimony,” Human Organization. Vol. 76, no. 4. 2017: pp. 326–335; Jeremy Slack, Deported to Death: How Drug Violence Is Changing Migration on the US-Mexico Border. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019; Miguel Pinedo, Jose Luis Burgos, Adriana Vargas Ojeda, David Fitzgerald, and Victoria Ojeda, “The Role of Visual Markers in Police Victimization among Structurally Vulnerable Persons in Tijuana, Mexico,” International Journal of Drug Policy. Vol. 26, no. 5. 2015: pp. 501–508, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0955395914002333.
 For more on the structure and history of the National Guard force see: Patricia Escamilla-Hamm, “The Guardia Nacional (National Guard): Why a New Militarized Police in Mexico,” Small Wars Journal, 8 December 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/index.php/jrnl/art/guardia-nacional-national-guard-why-new-militarized-police-mexico.
 “Delivered to Danger: Illegal Remain in Mexico Policy Imperils Asylum Seekers’ Lives and Denies Due Process.” Washington, DC: Human Rights First. 8 August 2019, https://humanrightsfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Delivered-to-Danger-August-2019-.pdf.
 These are sometimes called “coyote rips” or bajadores or takedown crews. See Steven Dudley, “MS-13 ‘Coyote Rips’ in Houston Give Migrants Another Headache.” InSight Crime. 9 May 2011, http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/ms-13-coyote-rips-in-houston-give-migrants-another-headache.