AGUA PRIETA, Sonora — With her two children in tow, Ruth Alvarado left an abusive partner and fled from Guatemala in July in the hopes of seeking asylum in the United States. When she arrived in Texas after crossing the Rio Grande, the reality was a lot harsher and quite different than what she was led to believe.

Once across the border, the Alvarado, 28, was told she would not be allowed to apply for asylum and she would be sent back to Mexico via Agua Prieta under this country’s Title 42 stipulations.

Her compatriot, Cristobal Mejias, left Guatemala under different circumstances, but after being abandoned in the desert by his human smuggler — known as a “coyote” — Mejias found himself back into Mexico late Tuesday evening through Agua Prieta, denied the asylum he was seeking as well.

They are not alone. In the last two to three weeks dozens of undocumented people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the majority in family units, have landed at the doorstep of CAME — Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus, or Center for Migrants in Exodus — in this Sonoran city that borders Douglas.

The arrival in the last few months of undocumented families has been so steady that CAME had to move to a larger facility in Agua Prieta that belongs to the Catholic church. The new shelter can accommodate up to 100 people. Two weeks ago, there were 90 migrants at the facility, the largest group thus far, said director Beto Ramos.

Ramos, who runs the shelter in conjunction with Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian binational border ministry in Douglas, said Alvarado and her children are among 48 undocumented people who were sent by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to Mexico through Agua Prieta after they attempted to seek asylum in Texas.

The migrants had crossed into Texas through Reynosa, which is located on the southern bank of the Rio Grande in the international Reynosa–McAllen metropolitan area, directly across the Mexico-U.S. border from Hidalgo, Texas.

Many of the migrants arrived about two weeks ago, Ramos said. But Alvarado and her children Gabby, 4, and Jeffrey, 9, have been at the shelter since late July.

“They are all here under Title 42,” Ramos said late last week at the shelter.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, the Trump administration in March 2020 activated Title 42 of the United States Code Section 265, in order to allow “Customs and Border Protection officials to prohibit the entry of certain persons who potentially pose a health risk, either by virtue of being subject to previously announced travel restrictions or because they unlawfully entered the country to bypass health screening measures. To help prevent the introduction of COVID-19 into border facilities and into the United States, persons subject to the order will not be held in congregate areas for processing and instead will immediately be expelled to their country of last transit.”

The increase in migrants expelled to Mexico under Title 42 at Ramos’ shelter mirrors the situation along the entire Southwest border, statistics released Friday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection show. Expulsions along the entire border increased between August and September, from 93,117 to 100,558. In the Tucson sector — which includes Cochise County — the Title 42 kickbacks also rose, from 13,136 in August to 14,453 in September.

While U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show a decrease in the encounters Border Patrol agents had with single adults in those same areas between July and August, there was an increase in the agents’ encounters with families attempting to seek asylum.

Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels said Friday the number of undocumented migrants crossing into Cochise County remains steady based on the images being captured by the Buckeye cameras located along the border that are monitored by the Sheriff’s Office.

“Last Friday at 5 a.m., we flew a drone over the desert south of State Road 92 and we saw 160 migrants,” Dannels said. “Since Jan. 1, we’ve (the cameras) seen 27,695 migrants. It’s not letting up (in our area).”

Alvarado said she will try once again to seek asylum. Her relatives in Guatemala cannot support her financially and she says a friend in Mesa is willing to sponsor her and her children if she is able to make it to the U.S.

Ramos said once the migrants at the CAME shelter have secured a place to go — whether it’s back to their country of origin or making another attempt at seeking asylum — they leave the facility.

“But we’re not going to put anyone out on the street,” he said, pointing to Alvarado and her two children as an example.

Like Mejias, Alvarado said she was told she would be able to enter the U.S. without hassles once she declared she wanted asylum.

“But that’s not what happened,” she said last week, sitting on a wooden bench at the shelter, her two youngsters by her side.

“With much fear I abandoned my country,” she said. “I was told that if I went in through Reynosa I would be able to seek asylum and stay in the U.S.”

She said she paid coyotes in quetzales — Guatemalan currency — and was driven through Mexico to Reynosa. They crossed the Rio Grande and were stopped by Border Patrol.

“I entered illegally,” she said. “We were placed under a bridge in Texas for two days and two nights and it was cold. We were not treated well. We were told that it was our fault because we had chosen to enter the U.S. illegally.”

From there, Alvarado said she and the children boarded a bus and were taken to an airport. They took a flight to Arizona and were transported to Agua Prieta. She said she has no idea where she landed in Arizona.

Mejias, 21, said he arrived in Agua Prieta on Tuesday night after being dropped off by federal agents at the border under Title 42. He was being processed at the Centro de Recursos Para el Migrante (the Migrant Resource Center), also run by Ramos and Frontera De Cristo.

Even though it was warm outside when he agreed to be interviewed by the Herald/Review, Mejias was still wearing the fluorescent orange hoodie that came with the camo backpack and matching carpet booties that are standard issue given to migrants once they pay their human smugglers to bring them across the border. Ramos said the hoodies are bright orange so the coyotes can see their charges in the desert at night. Other men sitting near Mejias had identical gear.

The coyotes paid by Mejias and two other Guatemalan men he met in the desert did not stick around to ensure their clients made it across the border into the U.S.

“They abandoned us,” Mejias said, a look of fatigue in his bloodshot eyes. “They knew that there were Border Patrol nearby and they took off.”

Mejias said he was lost for four days and came upon the two men who were sitting at his table.

“We had never met but we had to count on each other to get out of there,” he said. “It was frightening because we saw a lot of animals out there at night and we were scared.”

He said he would take another chance at seeking asylum. Like Alvarado, Mejias says he was sold a bad bill of goods by his human smuggler.

“It’s not what I thought,” Mejias said. “All we want to do is work so we can help our families. We will do anything. And if we don’t know how to do it, we’ll learn.”

Ramos said that once migrants are sent to Agua Prieta, they are taken to the resource center.

“We ask them what they want to do, it’s up to them,” he said. “If they want to go back to their country, they can do that. If they want to stay at the shelter, they are welcome to do that until they attempt to seek asylum again.”

Back at the shelter, just three blocks from the resource center, a lunch bell rings for the 48 migrants who are there. Many of them mill about the courtyard or along the open corridors near the dormitories. There is a public park across the street filled with equipment for youngsters, but the migrant children are not allowed outside. A giant sliding metal door locked from both sides keeps them shielded from Agua Prieta.

“We have been attacked before by some of the locals,” Ramos says. “We have to keep the door locked at all times.”