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These migrants rushed to cross the border before Title 42 lifted. But in the US they’re facing a new set of worries

<i>Jeremy Moorhead/CNN</i><br/>Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez thanks Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville Pastor Carlos Navarro and volunteers preparing food for the growing number of migrants arriving in his city.
Jeremy Moorhead/CNN
Jeremy Moorhead/CNN
Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez thanks Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville Pastor Carlos Navarro and volunteers preparing food for the growing number of migrants arriving in his city.

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN

Diocelina Querales cranes her neck as she tries to catch a glimpse of the faces behind the tinted windows of a bus that just rumbled in.

In a matter of moments, she shakes her head.

“Nada,” she says. Nothing.

Only men are on this bus that’s just arrived from a US Customs and Border Protection facility; her daughter-in-law and granddaughters aren’t.

Querales, 50, has been hovering around this street corner near Brownsville’s bus station for days, searching for them.

She says she crossed the Rio Grande with 10 other family members earlier this week. Some clung to an inflatable mattress. Others swam. All of them worried this could be their last chance to make it into the United States.

When they reached the other side of the river together, Querales says they felt elated and breathed a deep sigh of relief. They were among the thousands who’ve crossed in recent days as fear over policy changes at the border fueled a spike in the number of migrants who took their chances crossing the Rio Grande before Title 42 expired.

But Querales’ family wasn’t together for much longer.

And she soon found herself among many migrants who’ve recently arrived in this border city, confused and uncertain about what’s next.

While politicians and pundits debate border policies on the national stage, emotions are running high for migrants sorting out their next steps near Brownsville’s bus station. Some are searching for loved ones. Others are lining up to buy bus tickets or working to earn money to reach their next destinations.

The vast majority of them are from the same place — a fact that isn’t lost on Querales as she surveys the scene on Thursday.

“Venezuela was left empty,” she says as she looks at the crowd of people waiting on the sidewalk beside her.

A pastor helping migrants sees himself in their faces

Pastor Carlos Navarro drives down the streets of Brownsville with the windows of his church van rolled down.

As soon as Navarro spots a group of people walking with blue tote bags slung over their shoulders, he shouts out words of welcome: “Bienvenido a los Estados Unidos!”

The tote bags are given to migrants when they arrive at Brownsville’s welcome center after being released from Customs and Border Protection custody. Navarro knows without asking why these migrants are here, and what country they’re likely to be from.

“What part of Venezuela?” he asks as he drives past.

“Maracaibo!” a man responds gleefully, looking surprised. Navarro sings a refrain from a beloved song about the Venezuelan city.

For years the church Navarro leads, Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville, has been offering aid to migrants after they cross the US-Mexico border. It hasn’t always been easy; Navarro says one time protesters picketed outside his church when they learned about its humanitarian work, accusing him of encouraging illegal immigration.

But Navarro says he’s committed to helping the new arrivals, who he points out have been released from custody by authorities and given permission to remain in the United States to make their cases in immigration court. He sees assisting them as an important opportunity to spread his faith. And he also sees himself in them.

Navarro fled to the United States in 1982 after a military coup in Guatemala.

“I understand the context and I understand the background, what they’re leaving, why they’re leaving, why they’re coming, and what their aim (is) when coming here to the States,” he says. “I understand … not taking a shower for two or three days or four days, no shoes, no underwear. I see that. I was there. I was on the other side.”

Navarro sees the exhaustion on many migrants’ faces when he helps distribute donations in downtown Brownsville. And he’s doing what he can to brighten their spirits.

Today he’s passing out Bibles as volunteers from his church distribute lunches. And he waves a large Venezuelan flag as he makes announcements to the group. The crowd roars with applause and laughter.

Brownsville began to see arrivals starting to spike as desperation and confusion spread about two weeks before Title 42 was lifted, according to Navarro. The pastor says in recent days he’s seen more migrants than ever arriving in his city.

Normally, volunteers distribute lunches in this tree-filled plaza for the city’s homeless population. But now, Navarro says, there are even more people who’ve come seeking help.

“There’s a new term in this city,” Navarro says. “Homeless migrant.”

She was shocked to learn her daughter had been sent back to Mexico

Diocelina Querales is one of them, though she hopes not to be for long.

She’s been spending the night on sidewalks here since her release from immigration custody on Tuesday.

Querales, like many of the migrants who spoke with CNN in Brownsville, says devastating economic conditions are among the factors that forced her to leave Venezuela. She worked for years as a gym teacher, then turned to selling what she could to make ends meet, then to taking care of others’ children. But it wasn’t enough to get by, she says.

“There if we work, we work only to eat. We don’t have enough to buy ourselves a pair of shoes. … That’s why we are coming here,” she says. “Because we know that here you can survive. Here you can live well.”

Now that she’s made it to the United States, Querales doesn’t have enough money to buy a bus ticket to join her son in Chicago.

But at this point, even if she did, she wouldn’t go.

The days since her arrival on US soil haven’t gone how she expected. She’s already learned firsthand how swiftly people from the same family can meet different fates in the US immigration system.

As soon as she got her phone back from immigration authorities when she was released, Querales made a video call.

On her phone’s screen, she saw her 23-year-old daughter Angie crying. Angie and her 2-year-old son Fabian had been sent back to Mexico.

For weeks, Querales had made a point of staying strong to encourage her own mother and other family members to push through on the difficult and dangerous trek from Venezuela. When she learned in Brownsville days after they’d crossed the border together that her daughter and grandson had been deported, Querales started sobbing so loudly that others in the street stopped to listen and offer their support.

“The tears came out,” she says, “and people cried with me.”

Querales says she’s still struggling to understand what happened as her daughter and grandson now wait in Matamoros, Mexico, trying to get an appointment to cross the border at a port of entry using the app officials are encouraging migrants to use.

“People went crazy crossing, crossing, and for nothing, because they are sending people back. How is it possible that they are sending back a mother with a child? They shouldn’t do that,” she says.

Querales has reunited with several other family members who were released from custody. Her mother and brother have been waiting with her.

But as time passes, she’s becoming increasingly afraid her daughter-in-law and granddaughters could be sent back, too.

On Friday, she says she still hasn’t heard from them since they turned themselves in to immigration authorities after crossing the border five days earlier. And she worries shifting US policies could affect their case.

“So many things run through your mind,” she says.

With no way to reach them, Querales says she’s determined to keep waiting for her missing family members to arrive on a bus in Brownsville.

“I have to have faith,” she says. “They are going to come.”

She says crossing the border is like a game of roulette

On the street where Querales has been waiting for word of her loved ones, other migrants swap similar stories.

“Who are you waiting for?” is a common refrain.

CNN has reached out to US Customs and Border Protection about why some migrants released in Brownsville this week are reporting being separated from adult family members in custody, and how common or widespread the practice is.

An agency policy states that officials “will maintain family unity to the greatest extent operationally feasible, absent a legal requirement or an articulable safety or security concern that requires separation.”

“This whole area would be empty if they weren’t doing this separation,” says Macbeth Montilla, 46, who says she lost contact with her longtime partner Arturo after they crossed the border and turned themselves in to authorities. They weren’t legally married, she says, but lived together as husband and wife in Venezuela for 13 years. For days she’s been searching for him.

“We stand here to see who’s coming, asking with a photo of him. ‘Have you seen him? Have you seen him?'” she says. “This is what it’s like all day.”

Across the street is a 33-year-old mother who arrived in Brownsville with her three daughters and successfully reunited with several other family members here after they were released from custody this week.

She says crossing the US-Mexico border is like a game of roulette. Some are allowed to stay, she says, while others are sent back.

Karen, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she’s seeking political asylum and says she faced persecution in Venezuela, says she knows she and her family had no choice but to leave their country.

“I did it for my children’s future,” she says. “Maybe I won’t be anybody, but they will.”

Soon they’ll head to Seattle, a location she says she picked because she expects there to be fewer Venezuelan migrants there competing for resources and jobs.

Karen imagines her daughters — aged 14, 12 and 9 — becoming artists, models or scientists someday. Anything is possible, she says, now that they’re in the United States.

But even here, the dangers of the journey still are all too present.

Last night, shortly after they arrived, she realized her family was staying in the same shelter that had housed the eight migrants who were killed earlier this week when a Range Rover plowed into them as they waited at a bus stop.

“We were scared,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep.”

She tries to comfort her daughter who was deported

The first day Diocelina Querales waited on this street corner for her family members, buses were arriving every few hours.

But now that Title 42 has ended, it seems like far fewer buses are coming. Querales has been fearing the worst.

But on Saturday morning, nearly a week after she reached the United States and lost contact with many members of her family, Querales received some good news: Authorities contacted her son and said her daughter-in-law and grandchildren are being processed for release.

It’s a welcome relief after days of distress, Querales says. But still, she doesn’t know when her family will be together again.

As Querales has been keeping watch for new buses arriving in Brownsville, her daughter has been calling from the other side of the border, crying.

Querales tries to comfort her and make her laugh.

“I tell her that things happen for a reason,” she says.

But when Querales hangs up the phone, she cries, too.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Maya Blackstone and Jeremy Moorhead contributed to this report.

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