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Cold, hungry and determined: Families climb freight trains to reach US border


By David Culver, Karol Suarez and Rachel Clarke, CNN

The freight train screeched to a halt and a few hundred people hoped that a new phase of their life was about to begin.

One father, Leuman Varela, told CNN he, his wife and their four children had spent four days and nights on top of the train, traveling hundreds of miles as they fled from their native Venezuela.

“This is for the brave, this is tough,” he said, his young son, Luca, on his shoulders. “Putting your family in danger is hard, but God has been with us — he has been helping us, to give us strength.”

The people on top of the freight trains have no shelter from the day’s blazing sun and the night’s brutal cold as they travel north from southern Mexico to cities along the US border.

“We’ve been hungry, cold, hot, but here we are chasing the American dream, for a better life for our family,” Varela said.

As they clambered down from the tanks and rail cars in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, many of the people smiled with apparent relief to get their feet back on solid ground. They were some of the thousands of people arriving with the hopes of entering the US, some aware that a pandemic-era immigration restriction called Title 42 is set to end, others not.

But one mother was afraid — her leg shaking as her husband and teenage sons pleaded impatiently with her to get off the train. They held her hand and were there to catch her when she finally climbed down a metal ladder in her pink plastic sandals.

Her son, Leonardo Luzardo, said it had been a long, cold night atop the train, feeling like their bodies were turning to ice.

“It seemed like we were going to freeze,” he told CNN. “Our feet frozen, frozen, — the whole body frozen.”

Luzardo, from Chile, said he and his family would stay the night in Ciudad Juárez, which straddles the border near El Paso, Texas, and planned to cross into the United States the next day.

“We’ll try to take a shower and get ready so we’re not that dirty.”

Some aid groups and shelters do offer food and facilities, but a hose spewing water near the tracks was a welcome sight for a group of women who stopped to quench their thirst and wash their hands and faces free of the dirt from hours on top of the train.

The Varela family from Venezuela said they, too, would head to the border after a night’s break in their journey. They had managed to register with the CBP One app launched by US Customs and Border Protection to allow people a chance to get an appointment for an entry interview — at least if they had access to the internet and were lucky enough to find an available slot.

The Varelas did not have an appointment, but they protected a printout of an automated email reply in a plastic bag and hoped it would be enough to help them enter.

The renewed focus on the border has centered on the lifting of Title 42 and the end of the policy that allowed the government to quickly turn away certain migrants at the border, originally with the aim of stopping the spread of Covid-19.

Some families told CNN they had been waiting months for the right time to enter the US, setting up makeshift tent encampments on the streets of this border city.

“I want to cross, but not illegally,” said Janeysi Games, who reached Ciudad Juárez with her husband and daughter after taking a series of trains.

A fire in Ciudad Juárez several weeks ago has made matters even harder, she said.

“We’re waiting to see how we can get an appointment through the CBP app,” she said as she washed clothes with her daughter under a blanket tied to a wall to create some shade. “We were at a building that caught fire and I lost my documents and my cellphone, so I don’t know how to get the appointment.”

For the new arrivals on the freight train, there is still another 25 miles to the border.

And ahead for those planning to cross away from border posts, are coils and coils of barbed wire, recently laid down by the Texas National Guard in the area before a section of border wall.

Two women approached the wire as CNN watched. One used a jacket to pull back the barbs as the other clawed her way through the dirt underneath. When both were through, they embraced and walked off together, likely to hand themselves in to US border authorities.

Snagged and torn clothing in the wire showed they were not the first to get through. And with more and more people arriving all the time in Ciudad Juárez, they will not be the last.

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

CNN’s Evelio Contreras and Carlos Martinelli contributed to this story.

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