At the U.S.-Mexico border, desperate migrants have sights set on Canada

A man in Juarez, Mexico, stands facing the northern U.S. border. Entry into the U.S., be it legally or otherwise, remains extremely complicated and word has spread among migrants that Canada is likely a significantly better landing spot. (Paul Hunter/CBC - image credit)
A man in Juarez, Mexico, stands facing the northern U.S. border. Entry into the U.S., be it legally or otherwise, remains extremely complicated and word has spread among migrants that Canada is likely a significantly better landing spot. (Paul Hunter/CBC - image credit)

The gruesome, sobering video is played back on a cellphone for those sitting nearby. Once seen, it is impossible to forget.

Onscreen, a crocodile is drifting along a river in the Panamanian jungle with a half-eaten human leg hanging out of its mouth, a lifeless foot perched just above the giant reptile's droopy eyes.

It was shown to CBC News by Venezuelan migrant Nelson Ramirez, as he and his wife, Yescee Urbina, wait for guidance on finding food and shelter at a migrant aid office in Juarez, Mexico. Their remaining worldly possessions sit at their feet — two small, scuffed knapsacks of clothing.

Nelson shows the video so the world can understand the degree of desperation held by so many migrants fleeing strife in Central and South America. Migrants who will risk even crocodile-infested waters to escape their home countries and find a better life farther north.

"I really felt that at any moment that could happen to me," said Urbina, as she stared again at that video. "We were terrified."

Jennifer Barr/CBC
Jennifer Barr/CBC

Like so many such migrants now massing at the U.S.-Mexico border, their immediate goal is to find a way into the United States. But the couple's long-term target, as with countless others who've made it to Juarez, is Canada.

Why Canada? Entry into the U.S., be it legally or otherwise, remains extremely complicated and word has spread among migrants in Juarez that Canada is likely a significantly better landing spot.

If they can get there.

'Please give us a chance'

Ramirez, who worked in sales in Venezuela, and Urbina, who was a criminal lawyer, paid smugglers $5,000 US to transit them to Juarez — partly on the roof of a boxcar and partly on foot through those jungles of Panama.

The couple also showed photos of the decaying bodies of other migrants who'd died along that route in earlier treks north, their remains left behind.

"Some were children," said Ramirez, sighing.

The two have no idea how they will now get any farther north — but they remain hopeful. They know they cannot go back to Venezuela, fearing for their lives because they oppose the current Venezuelan government.

WATCH | Why migrants are making a dangerous run for Canada:

"I was physically threatened," Ramirez told CBC News. "Because I belonged to the wrong party."

"What would we tell the people of Canada?" he added. "We fled our country because we had to. Please give us a chance in Canada."

Left behind in Venezuela are their four children. Ramirez and Urbina say they hope they will be able to join them later, once they reach safety.

When asked about them, Urbina breaks down in tears as Nelson puts his arm around her.

"I don't even know what to say," she said, wiping at tears.

It's this kind of misery Enrique Valenzuela sees all the time.

He is executive director of the Center for Migrant Attention in Juarez, the only multilevel, state-run aid centre in Mexico and the place Nelson and Yescee have come to for help.

He says he sometimes sees 400 to 500 people a day here.

Paul Hunter/CBC
Paul Hunter/CBC

"It is heartbreaking," he said. "We hear all kinds of stories every day. Heartbreaking stories of people who have gone through hardship just to get to this point.

"It's our mission to work together to help."

Pandemic changed U.S. response

The broader numbers are staggering.

Gang violence, drug cartels and political corruption together continue to leave countless with little choice but to flee their home countries, even though they know the journey itself will be life-threatening and that eventually getting anywhere beyond the U.S.-Mexico border is extremely complicated.

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

In fiscal 2022, U.S. authorities made 2.4 million arrests at the border — an all-time record.

Most were quickly sent back to Mexico under what's known as Title 42, a historically rarely used part of U.S. law that allows for the expulsion of migrants seeking asylum on the grounds they represent a health risk.

Title 42 was applied by the Trump administration during the pandemic. With the Biden administration planning to end the public health emergency declaration on May 11, 2023, the application of Title 42 would end at that same time, potentially reopening the U.S. to streams of migrants.

Jennifer Barr/CBC
Jennifer Barr/CBC

But political opposition to that within the U.S. has led some to push for new steps, which may have the effect of extending Title 42 in practical terms for several more months.

And in late February, the Biden administration announced new and separate rules making it even harder for migrants to claim asylum in the U.S.

Altogether it's left so many migrants now setting their sights on Canada.

'Canada is receptive'

At the tiny Pasos de Fe shelter just outside central Juarez, one of countless such places in the city, there's room for about 50 migrants.

Episcopal Pastor Miguel Gonzalez tells CBC News that migrants here have indeed heard all about Canada, with stories coming back from those who've fled Haiti, for example, and have managed to make it into Canada.

"Their message back is that Canada is receptive to people," he said. "That they are treated well in Canada."


And in one of the multiple crowded sleeping areas in the shelter, Yolver Tamariz, a Venezuelan who fled Caracas last summer, is clear about what he's hoping for.

"My goal is Canada," he said. "I feel there are opportunities there for Latinos that the U.S. doesn't offer.

"I don't want to settle in America. And it's impossible for me to live in Venezuela."

The desperation to somehow keep moving northward from Juarez is on full display daily at the border itself.

At seemingly all hours, there are migrants seen trying to outrun authorities on both sides of the border, first running from Mexican police, then illegally jumping their way across the Rio Grande River into Texas, then trying to get past that looming border wall and U.S. Border Patrol agents staffing the gate.

Dozens of migrants gather at any of the various gates on any given day but are easily stymied from getting any further, at least in places where the wall is monitored.


On the day CBC News came by to watch, there'd been a rumour among the migrants in Juarez that on the other side of the wall would be buses waiting for them with free passage to Canada.

No one knows where the story came from, and it was, of course, completely untrue.

But the desperate desire to believe it was clear.

"Si! Si! Canada!" some shouted.

A few kilometres outside Juarez, in the countryside controlled by Mexico's drug cartels, a carefully cut hole — about one square metre — had been sliced into a section of the border wall, the cut-out part left abandoned in the dirt on the Mexican side alongside emptied water bottles.

On the American side, U.S. Border Patrol agents appear to chase after whoever may have somehow made it through, as one of their vehicles races off into the Texas scrub.

Paul Hunter/CBC
Paul Hunter/CBC

Help must be given, says shelter director

For those who do make it across, there are places in El Paso, Texas, where shelter can be found. One of them, called Annunciation House, has provided such services for nearly five decades.

Migrants seeking a better life in the U.S. and beyond is, in truth, hardly a new circumstance.

Like the shelters on the Juarez side, this one is overcrowded and jammed with bunk beds loaded with migrants seeking asylum — including those carrying crutches and wearing leg splints as they recover from broken bones and other injuries sustained by falling from the top of the border wall as they climbed over it.

Annunciation House director Ruben Garcia takes a big-picture view of the greater challenge in dealing with the desperation by all, noting the worldwide challenge of mass migration and the political pushback against those who are simply trying to escape violence and oppression.


To those who would deny safety and security to them, he poses a few simple questions.

"It comes back to what is our fundamental attitude toward other human beings?" said Garcia.

He underlines that dealing with migrants in dire straits can absolutely be "challenging," but he says it's imperative that help must be given, answers must be found.

"We have to ask ourselves," he said. "How do human beings care for other human beings?"


As dusk approaches back in Juarez and another cold night looms, more migrants gather at a street corner, hoping for handouts of hot food.

Among them is Johanna Jiminez, yet another migrant from Venezuela who fled that country along with her family last September. They now live on the streets in this city, unable to get any farther north.

She, too, isn't aiming for America.

"Canada was always our destination. But we are stuck here."

"Our dream," she said, "is Canada."