‘Free store’ in Mexican border city providing aid to stranded Venezuelans

By Guadalupe Peñuelas

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Oct 25 (EFE).- Residents of this Mexican city across the border from El Paso, Texas, have set up a “Gratis Tienda” (Free Store) where hundreds of stranded Venezuelan migrants can obtain warm clothing and other basic supplies.

When Venezuelans are detained by United States authorities and sent back to Mexico under a new migrant enforcement process, the clothing they are given leaves them unprepared for temperatures that drop to nearly 6 C (43 F) at night.

“We need footwear, a sweater, a jacket. When we turned ourselves in to the authorities, we lost everything. We’re not used to people giving us bad looks. That’s why we came here … We want to be presentable,” David Contreras, a Venezuelan migrant, told Efe.

He said he is pleased with the items on offer at the “Gratis Tienda,” adding that the clothing taken from Venezuelan migrants at the border should be sent there.

These migrants have been stranded at the border due to a policy shift in the United States, which until a few weeks ago had allowed Venezuelans arriving at the US-Mexico border to enter the country and apply for asylum.

That changed on Oct 12, when the US Department of Homeland Security announced a two-pronged plan to tackle a dramatic increase in irregular migration from Venezuela in recent years.

Under new “joint actions with Mexico,” up to 24,000 Venezuelans with a US sponsor are now eligible to apply for a humanitarian parole program and be granted temporary permission to work in the country.

But under an expansion of Title 42, a US pandemic-related policy that has allowed border agents to quickly expel migrants to prevent the spread of Covid-19, undocumented Venezuelans who arrive at the border will be detained and sent back to Mexico, which has agreed to temporarily receive them.

Prior to Oct. 12, Venezuelans had been encouraged to make the long journey to the US, secure in the knowledge that the lack of formal diplomatic relations between their leftist-led homeland and Washington meant they could not easily be sent back.

But since that date, hundreds of undocumented Venezuelans now are living in tents along the Rio Grande (which serves as a natural border between the US and Mexico) and keeping warm thanks to blankets they have obtained through initiatives like “Gratis Tienda.”

“It’s a tough situation we’re in. From one day to the next, they made the decision to not let us cross,” Venezuelan migrant Jesus Alberto Acosta told Efe. “If we’d known ahead of time, we would’ve traveled sooner or would’ve gone back.”

He added that the weather in Ciudad Juarez is much colder than what Venezuelans were accustomed to back home.

“Our lips are cracked, the cold burns our skin. We don’t have a roof right now. Here in this place they give us clothing, the Mexicans have given us food and water. We’re waiting for some good news,” Acosta said.

Despite the harsh conditions, Ciudad Juarez has been the border city of choice for many migrants from Venezuela, a country hard-hit by US sanctions that has been mired in a years-long economic crisis.

“We came to Juarez because it’s the busiest border crossing. They grabbed us there in the United States and put us in a uniform. The cold is tough on us. Kids come (with us). We made tents to protect ourselves,” Venezuela’s Yeremi Moises told EFE.

Julio Cesar Morales, coordinator of “Gratis Tienda,” says Venezuelan migrants “look for jackets, pants and backpacks, mainly.”

Ciudad Juarez is a place of transit but also a “noble” city that provides support to the migrant population, the activist said.

Even so, he lamented that the shelters in that border city are overcrowded and noted that “those who leave Venezuela and return are seen as traitors to the nation. They’re in a tough situation.”

Since Washington implemented its new migrant enforcement process, an estimated 200 mostly Venezuelan migrants are arriving per day in Ciudad Juarez, according to Chihuahua state authorities.

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