Life can become monotonous at the migrant shelter in Juárez where Cesar and Carolina live with their nine-year-old son, Donovan. So they wanted to make sure their baby shower felt special and celebratory.
Other residents helped them decorate, blowing up light blue balloons and pasting construction paper pacifiers to the walls. One led party games, like a race to see who could chug agua de jamaica, or hibiscus iced tea, the fastest from a baby bottle.
Carolina, who is due in late February, wore bright lipstick and a lacy blue dress.
“We’re very excited for the baby’s arrival,” she said. “He’s a blessing from God. My son is happy because he’ll have a little brother, someone to play with.”
“The first thing I want to do, when he’s a little bigger, is teach him how to walk,” Donovan said. “And also spoil him. Give him a kiss on each cheek. Give him a goodnight kiss when he lays down in the crib.”
The coming baby has been a source of joy, during such an uncertain time.
The family fled Nicaragua nearly two years ago, after a government crackdown on political opposition. Cesar said he was attacked by paramilitaries twice, and left when they started circling his house.
They hoped to gain asylum in the U.S., but immigration officials sent them back across the border to wait out their court proceedings in Juárez, under the Trump administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” program.
“We’ve suffered so much here,” Cesar said. “They never should have put us in this place. It’s unjust and inhumane.”
Now, they are celebrating news that the Biden administration is starting to unwind “Remain in Mexico.”
Beginning this Friday, the federal government will gradually allow some asylum seekers into the U.S., to continue pursuing their cases. Many have been waiting in dangerous border cities for up to two years, with their hearings on hold during the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials will start processing people at the San Ysidro port of entry in California on Feb. 19, then expand to Brownsville, Texas on Feb. 22 and El Paso, Texas on Feb. 26.
“I’m very, very happy and I want to thank President Joe Biden with all my heart for giving us the opportunity to move forward,” Cesar said. “I can finally give my son a new start, so that he can go to school.”
But there are still many questions. The Department of Homeland Security said it will allow in some 25,000 people who still have active cases in U.S. immigration court, out of the nearly 70,000 who were originally placed in the “Remain in Mexico” program.
Cesar isn’t sure if his family is part of that group and included in this first phase. Their asylum request was initially denied, and they’re currently appealing the decision.
There is also the question of when they can cross into the U.S., if they do qualify.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NPR the goal is to process up to 300 asylum seekers a day. Those who have been in the program the longest will enter first.
“At the same time, however, we will be sensitive to acute vulnerabilities, individuals who are suffering especially, and seek to accelerate them as well,” he said.
Advocates have called for the government to prioritize vulnerable groups, including LGBTQ asylum seekers, those with medical conditions, non-Spanish speakers, and pregnant women like Carolina. Still, details are sparse.
“We’re a little anxious,” Cesar said, because the baby is due next week. They’re nervous about what type of medical care Carolina will receive, and what the baby’s future will look like.
As an escape, Cesar draws intricate portraits: of his wife, his firstborn son and a beloved niece who still lives in Nicaragua.
Carolina calls her portrait a beautiful gift.
“Sometimes when I’m feeling sad I look at the picture my dad drew of me,” Donovan said. “I remember him drawing it, and it makes me happy.”
Cesar’s latest drawing is a horse, mid-gallop, its mane blowing in the breeze.
“It’s a free horse, with the wind in its face,” he said. “I drew it thinking of myself, because one day, I’ll be free too.”
Mallory Falk is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Mallory at Mfalk@kera.org. You can follow Mallory on Twitter @MalloryFalk.