Mairani Rubio Padilla, her son Tadeo and Hazel Lucia Flores Rodriguez look up towards a window at the Libélula women’s shelter in Tijuana, Dec. 9, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

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Mairani Rubio Padilla’s belongings from nearly a year-and-a-half of moving from shelter to shelter in Tijuana fit in just one backpack, a purse and a cloth tote bag.  

In the 30-minute car ride from the Libélula women’s shelter in eastern Tijuana to the pedestrian crossing known as El Chaparral at the U.S.-Mexico border, Rubio Padilla held her 3-year-old son on her lap, tucked snugly into the cover of her jacket. 

Why This Matters

For nearly three years, Title 42 has blocked asylum access to migrants who seek protection in the U.S. from violence and persecution in home countries. Mairani Rubio Padilla was let into the U.S. as an exemption, but thousands more still wait in dangerous and difficult conditions in Tijuana.

Out of thousands of migrants, many with similar stories of fleeing and waiting for months for any news of what comes next, Rubio Padilla and her son, Tadeo, are among the few migrants for whom a narrow door to the U.S. suddenly but briefly opens.  

She crossed in December as an exemption to Title 42, a federal health policy that the Trump administration began using in March 2020 to prevent, officials said, the spread of COVID-19 by halting the flow of immigrants into the United States. Many criticized it as a strategy to prevent migration into the country. 

Mairani Rubio Padilla and her son Tadeo hold a toy airplane at the Libélula women’s shelter in Tijuana, Dec. 8, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

About 200 migrants have been allowed into the U.S. per day from Tijuana as exemptions to the policy under an agreement with U.S. immigration authorities, according to Enrique Lucero, head of migrant affairs for the city of Tijuana.  

When Rubio Padilla left her home in Michoacán in July 2021, she faced a life or death decision, she said: pay an expensive fee to cartels running her hometown or end up dead. She chose to flee.  

She hopes a future in the U.S. could bring better circumstances for her son. 

inewsource reporters visited Rubio Padilla at the shelter she most recently lived at in Tijuana. Listen to part of that interview in Spanish.

“Give my son a better future. The one (future) that maybe I could not have. Give it to him, so that when he grows up he says, ‘I’m going to thank my mom for giving me an education, for making me someone in life,’ ” Rubio Padilla said.   

A view of the outskirts of Tijuana is shown from a window at the Libélula women’s shelter, Dec. 16, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

She stayed at two migrant shelters in Tijuana before finally ending up at Libélula, a women’s shelter that opened in October.  

The 12 days Rubio Padilla spent at the Libélula with her son passed slowly. On a Friday in December, she and other women at the shelter made pupusas, an endeavor that took up most of the afternoon. 

Mairani Rubio Padilla makes pupusas with, from left, Militza Arredondo Morales and Dora Alicia Rodriguez at the Libélula women’s shelter in Tijuana, Dec. 9, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

When she first arrived in Tijuana, she was scared that the cartels in her hometown would come looking for her. She said she hardly spent time outside of the shelters she lived in for fear of violence in Tijuana. 

Rubio Padilla was one of thousands on a list of migrants waiting to get into the U.S. as exemptions to Title 42. Those migrants live among 30 shelters in Tijuana, where they wait indefinitely without knowing when they will be able to cross. 

Then finally, on Dec. 11, she received the news she had been hoping for. The door to the U.S. was opening for Rubio Padilla and her son the following Monday. 

Mairani Rubio Padilla carries her son Tadeo as she leaves the Libélula women’s shelter in Tijuana to enter the United States through a Title 42 exemption program, Dec. 12, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“Finally! Finally! They answered me!” she said. 

Rubio Padilla speaking in Spanish

“More than anything, one suffers in the shelters, one suffers in every shelter that you go to. And I say well, now I’m going to arrive at a place where my son will be, more than anything, more peaceful.”  

That Monday, Dec. 12, she was to arrive at El Chaparral by 6:30 a.m. with her son. She spent the rest of the day preparing to leave behind her home country and the city she spent many months in. 

By 5:30 a.m. Monday morning, her life was packed into a backpack, small purse and shoulder tote bag. Her son, Tadeo, was still sleeping, dressed in his red and blue spiderman costume. 

Tadeo woke up at 2 a.m. that morning in excitement for their journey. Whenever Tadeo saw a plane pass overhead, Mairani said he would say, “Now mommy, now we’re going to hop on (a plane).”

Rubio Padilla speaking in Spanish

“He was like ‘Now mommy! Now mommy! We’re leaving, get up already!’ And he ended up falling asleep, but yes, he felt excited,” Rubio Padilla said. 

The shelter director, Gloria Sánchez Arellanes, arrived soon after to take Rubio Padilla and Tadeo to El Chaparral. With Tadeo still sleeping, Rubio Padilla shuttled her belongings down to the car with her son carefully resting on her shoulder. 

Sánchez Arellanes has brought migrants with permission to enter the U.S. to El Chaparral to cross about 20 times, but it’s always emotional, she said. 

“That purpose that they have to get across and (to) be a part of that. The truth is that, it fills me with emotion,” she said. 

Mairani Rubio Padilla walks with her son Tadeo and other asylum seekers into the El Chaparral pedestrian crossing at the U.S.- Mexico border in Tijuana, Dec. 12, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The sky was just beginning to lighten when they arrived at the crossing area. A dozen or more families were already forming a line against the wall surrounding the port of entry, and more arrived after Rubio Padilla. 

Soon the line of families filed forward toward the building that marked the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. 

Hopeful migrants talked in hushed tones, barely audible above the sound of suitcases rolling over the asphalt. Rubio Padilla held Tadeo’s hand the whole way, as they zig-zagged through the port of entry’s walkway toward the U.S. 

After being processed by U.S. immigration authorities, Rubio Padilla and Tadeo stayed for a few days at a respite migrant shelter in San Diego. Those shelters typically house documented migrants after they arrived in the country and find them transportation to their sponsors. 

Mairani Rubio Padilla and her son Tadeo wait at San Diego International Airport for a flight that will reunite them with family in the United States, Dec. 14, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Within a few days, Rubio Padilla and her son left San Diego International Airport to reunite with family in the Midwest. 

Zoë Meyers contributed to this report. 

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...