Dazed and dejected, Mimi was sitting on park bench in the Mexican city of Reynosa, Mexico, not far from the border with Texas. Clinging to her side was her six-year-old daughter.
The young Honduran mother seemed shocked by how close they had come to their American dream – and the realization that her own words had pushed it out of reach.
About 200 other people who had been turned back at the US port of entry were also milling around plaza – all experiencing different stages of grief.
“I made a mistake,” said Mimi, who asked not to use her real name for fear of retaliation.
A few days earlier, she and her daughter had crossed the Rio Grande river into the US, where they gave themselves up to federal officers and requested asylum.
But when the agents asked her daughter’s age, Mimi – thinking of her daughter’s birthday, just a few weeks away in May – rounded the figure up,
“I feel I messed up – because I said ‘seven’, but she’s only six,” she said.
Officials in the south Texas region across the border have been instructed that families with children of six and younger should be released into the US while they await their immigration court hearings. Children unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian are also allowed to stay.
But families with older children are simply turned round under a federal public health code known as Title 42 – invoked last year by the Trump administration as grounds for summary expulsion because of the supposed health risk posed by migrants during the Covid pandemic.
Advocates say that the use of Title 42 provisions violates US obligations under international law to offer due process to asylum seekers.
And the contrasting application of the code for families with children on either side of the six-year cutoff is forcing life-altering decisions at the border.
Some mothers are choosing to let their children cross the border alone.
María del Carmen Fuentes and her two youngest children fled Honduras in February to escape a local gang which was trying to recruit her 16-year-old son, Rafael. When they reached the US border, Rafael decided to he would make the journey alone, in search of an education and a future he felt he would never find at home.
“I cried,” said Fuentes, her voice broke into stifled sobs as she remembered their farewell.
With her 14-year-old daughter, Marlén Jaquelín, Fuentes crossed into the US first. They were quickly detained, fingerprinted and turned back to Mexico.
Rafael made the journey a few days later – and remains in federal custody. Fuentes’ older daughter already lives in the United States and is waiting to sponsor him, once she is approved by the Office of Refugee Resettlement as a legal guardian.
“He wants to study, and he’s going to help me in case I don’t get to cross,” said Fuentes. “If we can’t get to the other side, we’ll go back to our country.”
Although she knows unaccompanied children are allowed into the country, Fuentes has no plans to send Marlén Jaquelín to attempt the border alone. “Not my daughter. She’s a girl and it’s more dangerous,” Fuentes said.
Migrants, especially women and girls, face violence along their journey. Kidnapping is common throughout the journey; though, extortion, torture, rape and sexual assault also form part of risk. For many women, preparation for the journey includes taking birth controly.
For now, Fuentes and her daughter are living in a hotel room paid by the NGO Sidewalk School, which was originally created to educate children waiting in Mexico under Trump’s now-defunct Remain in Mexico policy. Now however, the organization has shifted its focus to feeding and sheltering migrants.
“This has taken on a whole new thing that none of us were expecting, and the Sidewalk School was not meant to do,” said the group’s co-founder Felicia Rangel-Samponaro.
Sidewalk School is currently feeding 200 people a day in Reynosa, but each day more are arriving expelled from the US or from the south and heading north and the need is exceeding resources. “This is different now only because we are feeding adults and children,” she said. “This has become a crisis.”
Back at the public square, Mimi considered the options and her daughter.
“There’s no one ready to receive her on the other side,” she said. “It has to be a relative with a similar last name.”
In the end, she said, they would probably try their luck at the border again – but what she was certain of was that she would not send her daughter on alone.
“I admire their bravery,” Mimi said, speaking of the mothers who arrived at the same crossroads and chose voluntary separation. “Sometimes it’s not valor, it’s necessity.”
In the same plaza, Marta Cortéz, a newly arrived Guatemalan single mother, carried her four-year-old daughter, Beberlyn as she wondered around a gazebo where dozens of people had camped out.
They had arrived that morning without a plan on how to enter into the US beyond the rumours they had heard from other migrants.
“They said they were crossing with children,” Cortéz said.
Like most migrants, her decision to leave home was driven by a combination of factors, including violence and poverty.
Her family fell apart after her stepfather was killed while he was at work, leaving Cortéz and her daughter without a stable home. The final straw came when she lost her job at a local restaurant, prompting her to head north in search of a new life
“I’m going to see if what happens if I stay here, because I don’t want to go back,” said Cortéz, holding Beberlyn tightly by the hand.
She was still considering her next move as she walked away, disappearing into the crowd of people praying, crying, and reconsidering their options at the border.