Aboard ‘the Beast’ on a Journey to America

The migrants climbed into the rusted wagons of a freight train three days ago, hoping this would be the last leg of their seemingly endless journey to America.

Now, with the Chihuahuan desert sun bearing down, exhaustion gave way to optimism: They were closing in on the border. A cheer erupted. Adolescents waved at the passing cars.

“Viva Mexico!” someone shouted.

Masses of people have been rushing to the border in recent weeks, as a pandemic-era health restriction that the United States used to quickly expel migrants who crossed the border illegally expires. People were coming by bus, mostly, and sometimes by plane.

But in Ciudad Juárez, right across the border from El Paso, Texas, they are increasingly arriving on a freight train so dangerous it is known either as “the beast” or “the train of death” because so many migrants have fallen off and lost limbs or been killed.

Most riders on Monday were from Venezuela and had traveled for months to reach Mexico, traversing multiple countries and a brutal 70-mile long stretch of jungle connecting Central and South America. Along the way, some were robbed and kidnapped.

They boarded the train in secret in Mexico City, and said it was the only way they knew they could make it north. The metal walls of the train got so cold at night it was hard to sleep, and so hot during the day that touching them with bare skin was painful.

There was no respite from the desert sun, so mothers hunched over their children or made makeshift shelters using whatever they carried to keep the heat at bay.

As the Juárez city limits came into view at midday Monday, spirits rose. A young migrant couple who met on the road leaned in for a long kiss. Toddlers squealed, perhaps sensing the sudden lightness of their parents.

As soon as the wheels ground to a halt in the center of Juárez, the migrants clambered out, throwing their backpacks to their fellow travelers who were already on the ground. A few men helped a father to carefully lower his sleeping baby.

Like most migrants arriving these days, they are hoping their stay in Mexico will be brief.

Some migrants say they’ve heard the border will be open when the pandemic health rule, known as Title 42, lifts on Thursday night. Others believe the opposite, that it will be completely shut. Neither is accurate, and yet regardless of their view, many people believe they have no time to waste and are heading directly toward the United States.

Shelter operators in Mexico say many of their beds have emptied out in recent days. People shower and grab a bite to eat but then are on their way to the border. Abandoned houses once filled with migrant tents are now mostly vacant.

Two local pastors who help house migrants, Juan Fierro and Miguel González Ponce, estimated that the number of people living in encampments on the streets of Juárez had plunged by something like 80 percent over the last few weeks.

Some migrants who had been on the train boarded a public bus they believed would drop them near a specific section of the border, where others had gathered. Instead, they were deposited a two-hour walk away.

A 13-year-old girl named Caroline said she just wanted to see her mother, who had migrated to New York City months earlier. A young mother, Dailimar, 18, carried her infant daughter and walked alongside her mother and a half-dozen other family members.

A boy named Miguel, 7, bounced his way along the gravel path, responsible for carrying a plastic bag filled with crucial cargo: his baby sister’s diapers. His parents were each carrying his younger siblings and other belongings in their arms.

“Mom,” Miguel asked, his little arms gesturing wildly toward the border fence in the distance, “are we going to the United States?”

It turns out, they really were going to the United States — or onto American soil, at least. The migrants eventually found the crossing point they were looking for and, like hundreds of others, just walked over the border.

The Rio Grande, which divides the United States and Mexico, is shallow and calm in parts of Juárez, making it easy to navigate. Once people reach the middle of the river, they’re technically in the United States.

American authorities have put concertina wire across the river bank, but migrants have cut holes in it, and have massed in large groups on the U.S. side.

They, like U.S. officials, have no idea what exactly will happen when Title 42 expires. For now they’re staying put, sleeping on the ground, stuck between the border and the massive wall that still stands between them and almost all of America.

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