When Henry Ruiz* and Raquel Hernandez boarded a bus heading north to America with their two young children, they knew there would be no going back.
It was June 2021, and a few weeks earlier Ruiz, a 28-year-old banana farmer from central Mexico, had been abducted by a group of armed men and taken to an isolated ranch where 15 others – 13 men and two women – were being held.
The assailants were members of an ultra-violent Mexican cartel fighting to take over the local banana industry, and needed to recruit locals as informants and hitmen in order to push out a rival gang and community self-defense force.
Ruiz was beaten with planks of wood and wire, leaving him with two broken ribs, gashes across his back and unable to see out of his right eye. Photos seen by the Guardian confirm the injuries.
According to Ruiz, he and five others were forced to kill and bury the rest of the detainees while gang members filmed the macabre acts. They took Ruiz’s motorbike, wallet and bank details before abandoning him on the road near his home. His bank account was emptied a few days later.
The family fled as soon as Ruiz was strong enough to travel and arrived in Sonoyta, a small border town in the state of Sonora, hoping to seek asylum in the US.
But the border was closed due to Title 42 – an arcane public health order issued in March 2020 by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under pressure from the Trump administration.
“We were traumatised and terrified, with nowhere else to go,” said Ruiz, tearing up while recounting his experiences.
Title 42, which the Biden government has elected to keep in place, has led to hundreds of thousands of people being denied their legal right to seek asylum since the start of the pandemic.
The order effectively replaced Remain in Mexico – another controversial Trump-era deterrent policy also known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – and has used the pretext of Covid to authorize more than 1.4m expulsions at the border in the past two years.
“By and large immigration policy hasn’t changed under Biden, and that’s the problem,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the Washington-based American Immigration.
Across the border, huge numbers of people are stuck – unable to move forward or go back.
Ruiz said: “Title 42 has prevented us from living, everyday I wake up and nothing has changed. But the pandemic is just an excuse, as if people without papers can get Covid and those with papers are immune.”
For the past eight months, the family has lived in a shelter, unable to venture more than a few blocks in fear of being apprehended by Mexican authorities or criminals. Their daughter, a bright shy girl with a big smile who just turned seven, misses school and her grandparents; their one-year-old son recently learned to walk.
“I don’t know whether to cry or scream, we’re stuck and have no idea when this will end,” said Hernandez, 23, Ruiz’s wife.
Sonoyta is an unremarkable desert town with 20,000 people, a booming asparagus industry, and a minor border crossing popular with American snowbird retirees and tourists heading to the beach.
The town also has four shelters where almost 200 Mexicans and Central Americans had been stuck for months or more, hoping the Biden administration would rescind title 42.
But last month, about a third left after immigration attorneys visiting the migrant resource centre told them that the border would likely remain shut unless pending litigation succeeded in exempting families from title 42.
It’s not clear where they all went, but some tried their luck seeking asylum at other border crossings like Reynosa, Tamaulipas (which borders Phar, Texas), where the state governor banned Biden from expelling families with children under seven. Others paid coyotes or smugglers to cross the Sonoran desert – where thousands of people have died trying to traverse the remote, punishing terrain.
“Title 42 has nothing to do with Covid, it’s a terrific vehicle for stopping immigration,” said John Orlowski from Shelters for Hope, a nonprofit which helped set-up the resource centre that provides meals, clothes, internet and medical care. “For people here the situation is worse under Biden: there’s no progress, few exceptions, and no updates.”
In essence, title 42 has prohibited the vast majority of Mexicans and Central Americans from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – the countries which historically account for most migrants and refugees – from being allowed to seek asylum in the US.
Across the southern border, just over half of all arrivals have been turned away and expelled to Mexico or flown home on charter flights since the start of the pandemic, including thousands of Haitian asylum seekers. (Millions of Americans and those with visas enter the country overland and by plane every month.)
But in south-west Arizona, where Trump constructed a 30ft border wall across the Sonoran desert through sacred Indigenous land and protected national parks, more than 80% of people have been expelled without the opportunity to make their case.
“The Tucson sector has one of the highest expulsion rates along the border and the exemptions have no rhyme or reason which leaves people desperate. The Biden administration keeps hiding behind the CDC but the evidence suggests that title 42 has become part of the deterrent policy, and has nothing to do with public health,” said Reichlin-Melnick.
There’s a major US customs and border protection (CBP) station between Sonoyta and Ajo, Arizona – a former mining community now popular with retirees, artists and humanitarian groups.
But desperate people do desperate things, and this area has seen the highest level of desert deaths ever recorded.
On a hot cloudless day last week, the Guardian accompanied volunteers from Ajo Samaritans on a tough hike to drop gallons of water and cans of beans in two remote areas where people are currently passing through.
It was deep into the desert – a two-hour drive from Ajo, followed by a nine-mile round trip on foot through Organ Pipe Cactus national monument and Cabeza Prieta wildlife refuge – with virtually no shade. In the summer, temperatures regularly top 100F (38C).
As migrants are forced to take longer, harder routes to avoid surveillance technology and border patrols, humanitarian groups struggle to keep up and get water to the right places.
But amid the vast desolate cacti forest there were signs of recent human activity: empty energy drink cans, a pair of ripped beige jeans, a black cardigan and several worn out carpet shoes – makeshift denim slippers to avoid leaving footprints. Three gallons of water left by the volunteers a week earlier – their first drop at this location – were gone.
The group came across two degraded bones in separate locations. Each was photographed and sent to the Pima county coroner, the location tagged on GPS, and the spot marked with a dated red ribbon. This was followed by a moment’s silence to reflect on the 3,830 immigrants who’ve died in the Arizona Sonora desert, and the disappeared not yet found.
The coroner later confirmed that neither bone was human. Still, two degraded human remains have been found during water drops by these volunteers in the past fortnight. In January, 15 bodies were found across the desert, most months after they had died, according to Humane Borders and Pima county. In 2021, 226 mostly recently deceased bodies were recovered, a record high.
“This isn’t just about title 42 or Remain in Mexico, it’s the prevention through detention (PTD) policy and continued increase in militarization of the border since 1994, which has forced people further and further into the desert. The PTD legislation is designed to kill people, and since its implementation the number of deaths has increased every year,” said Jo, a seasoned volunteer who asked for her surname be withheld.
In his 2022 State of the Union address, Biden’s promise to reform immigration was met with derision by advocates.
“President Biden is not just carrying out the toxic, white supremacist legacy of the Trump era, but unbelievably in some instances he has doubled down,” said Erika Andiola of the advocacy group Racies, in response to the speech.
Both the White House and the CDC recently relaxed guidance on Covid public health measures as part of the “new phase” of the pandemic, without mentioning title 42.
Avril Benoît, executive director of Doctors Without Borders USA, said: “The Biden administration is promoting a policy of learning to live with the virus, yet continues applying title 42 to turn away people seeking protection in the US… This is an outrageous double standard.”
While the administration asked the supreme court to overturn a lower court decision blocking the end of Remain in Mexico, it has also expanded the pool of immigrants to which the policy applies. The CDC, which exempted unaccompanied children from title 42 soon after Biden took office, said it continues to review whether the order remains necessary to protect the public health every 60 days.
Back in Sonoyta, Ruiz and Hernandez don’t have the money to pay a coyote to try and cross the dangerous desert or even get them to a different port of entry where they may be allowed to apply for asylum. Even if they could borrow the money, there’s no way of knowing if they’d be granted a rare exemption or simply turned away.
Ruiz said: “I had a good job, we were happy. But now we have no choice, we must wait for an opportunity to sit down with someone and explain what happened and why we can never go back.”
*Names have been changed for safety