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'Living in anarchy': Migrants wait in Mexico one week before the end of Title 42

A growing number of people are waiting in limbo, with some not familiar with the Covid-era policy — but just dealing with squalid conditions in hope of crossing the border.

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — In a city long ravaged by cartel violence, a makeshift tent camp has sprung up right next to a migrant detention center that went up in flames months ago, killing 40 people and sparking a fierce investigation of Mexico’s migration system.

Now boarded up, it’s a haunting reminder of how dangerous this humanitarian crisis is. 

Children play in the streets next to the stench from portable toilets. A young girl could be seen scrubbing her clothes in a bucket of water.

A week before the U.S. is expected to lift the Covid-era border restriction known as Title 42, a growing number of migrants are waiting in limbo — and posing a significant challenge for the Biden administration as it tries to hold off the influx.

A man from Guatemala who provided only his first name, Adair, said the hardest part of waiting in Juárez was trying to survive without a place to use a restroom or a shower.

He said he’d almost been assaulted trying to cross Mexico — and was considering crossing into the U.S. with his wife and 2-year-old son before next week.

It’s not clear how many of the migrants in Juárez understand the implications of lifting Title 42. Some who spoke with NBC News, including Adair, said that they’d heard vaguely about the policy but that it didn’t factor into their decision to cross the border.

Adair, whose journey from Guatemala took over 3½ months, explained why he wanted to cross the U.S. border.

"Because I have faith in God that he’s going to help me," he said in his native Spanish. "And he knows that I’m going for opportunity, for good, not bad. I’m not going to cause harm. I’m going to work. To give my kids a better future ahead."

Migrant advocates say the people who make the grueling trek to the U.S. are often fed misinformation by social media, friends in their home countries or even human smugglers who exploit them by giving them false hope they’ll be immediately granted asylum in the U.S.

The mayor of neighboring El Paso, Texas, Oscar Leeser, said Thursday he expected 15,000 migrants — 10,000 to 12,000 already camped in Juárez and a caravan of 3,000 on the way — to make their way from Juárez over the border in the days after the end of Title 42.

Weeks ago, the governor of the Mexican state of Chihuahua had said up to 35,000 migrants were in Juárez, a number that was later disputed by the Juárez’s mayor.

“There is no doubt the immigration system is broken,” Leeser said. El Paso officials plan to use vacant schools to temporarily house migrant families starting next week.

As a pickup truck carrying supplies pulled up next to the tents, migrants rushed to get in line for a bottle of juice or water. Juan Angel Guerrero, 52, from Venezuela, said he was frustrated there hadn’t been more international aid.

“We — the immigrant community — are living in anarchy,” he said. “And we’re waiting for your government, Mr. Biden, to give us an opportunity.”

Alicia Vazquez, one of the volunteers from Juárez who brought the supplies, said she just wanted to help.

“It’s a heartbreaking thing seeing all these people,” she said. “We wish we could do more for them.”

Betty Camargo, who assists immigrants in Juárez and El Paso as part of the Border Network of Human Rights, said the Biden administration’s decision to deploy 1,500 active-duty troops to help with administrative tasks at the southern border was disappointing and sends the wrong message.

“Why not send 1,500 attorneys? That’s the necessity here,” she said. “Why not send 1,500 social workers?”