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One way out: How the perilous quest for asylum becomes a migrant’s 'safest option'

Yessenia’s youngest daughter is now 11, an age that should be carefree, filled with friends and laughter. But a problem when her older daughters reached that age forced them to leave their home in Honduras and embark on the perilous journey north.

“I left because they wanted to rape my daughters, the youngest ones that I have here with me,” said Yessenia, 36, two years after leaving home. “When the gang members see a cute young girl of 12, 13, 14 years old, they want to take her. And if you don’t give them what they want, they threaten you and say you have a certain amount of time to leave.”

Their journey took them to Tapachula, Chiapas, on the Mexico-Guatemala border, where they spent a year and a half before moving on to several other cities in Mexico, each time facing more of the same kinds of threats they had fled before. A man in Tapachula gave her the same ultimatum after she denied him the same thing gang members wanted in Honduras.

She and her four youngest daughters now live in the cramped conditions of a migrant shelter in Puerto Palomas, a small town in the Mexican state of Chihuahua on the U.S.-Mexico border. They have no family in the United States to help them financially or increase their chances of crossing over to the safety that lies less than half a mile away.

Stories like Yessenia’s are all too common among people forced to flee increasingly violent Central American countries like Honduras, according to Brigitte Gynther, program coordinator at School of the Americas Watch, an organization that monitors the effects of U.S. policy and military intervention in the region. 

She detailed how the United States’ endorsement of the 2009 coup of democratically elected President José Manuel Zelaya led to the extreme levels of insecurity and instability that continue to drive people out of the country to this day.

“If you look at the numbers of migrants from Honduras before the coup and afterwards, it’s just night and day,” she said. Data compiled by the Brookings Institution corroborate this claim. 

While anti-immigrant narratives in the United States attempt to explain the migrant crisis as one of migrants being “pulled” north by the prospect of taking U.S. jobs, Gynther described a situation in which U.S. policy in the region created an “extremely violent and repressive situation” that in fact pushes people out in search of safety.

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“If it weren’t the safest option to leave and risk your life crossing all of Mexico, people wouldn’t be going,” she said. 

And Mexico is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for both migrants and Mexicans.

Antonio and his multigenerational family of eight also reside in the maxed-out Palomas shelter. Of Mixtec origin from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, they were forced to leave their hometown after a harrowing incident left Antonio wounded and his brother and nephew dead. 

“We had to leave because bad people started trouble with me. They shot me,” said Antonio, 53, his dark eyes staring hollowly out from beneath a red baseball cap with a black New York Yankees logo. 

“I can’t live [here in Mexico] anymore because there are bad people like that everywhere, so I was forced to bring my whole family with me, even the little ones. I can’t leave them. If they see them, they’ll kill them.”

His son Ricardo pulled up a photo on his phone of a wounded Antonio in the back of a pickup truck next to the lifeless bodies of his family members. Antonio lifted his hoodie up over his shoulder to reveal a gnarly scar. 

“The bullet is still in there,” he said.

Antonio cannot leave the shelter to find work while they wait out a solution, believing the men who attacked him to have followed him and his family to Chihuahua.

The ultimate tragedy of their situation is that while they believe the attack was motivated by a dispute over land rights with residents of a neighboring town, they aren’t actually sure why Antonio was shot. 

“That’s what we don’t know, what the problem was. We think people from the other town over wanted to claim part of ours as their own,” said Antonio.

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As policies like “Remain in Mexico” (MPP) and Title 42 keep more and more people with legitimate claims to asylum south of the border, migrants face increasing threats to their safety from organized crime, as well as the ever-present danger of the elements when crossing the border illegally. 

The International Organization for Migration (OIM) recorded the highest number of deaths of migrants crossing border since it began keeping count in 2014. It also recorded the single deadliest incident for migrants in that period when 54 died in a truck crash in Chiapas in December.

Despite the dangers of the journey north, migrants remain determined to make it to safety, seeing a life in the United States as the only way out of nightmarish conditions in their home countries. 

And rather than stemming the tide, the combination of MPP and Title 42 — a Trump-era program that denies entry to migrants based on an obscure provision of U.S. health law — is actually working to attract more. 

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel and border issues specialist at the American Immigration Council, noted the “cruel irony” that people have turned themselves in at the border asking to be put in the MPP program, even though it means they must return to the same danger they were fleeing.

That’s because “for some people MPP offers a better chance of asylum than they would have under Title 42, which is zero.”

Because of the dangers that await them on the other side of the razor wire-topped fence that surrounds the shelter in Puerto Palomas, Yessenia and her daughters remain within the confines of the shelter night and day. Each day their situation appears to grow more hopeless.

“Had I known that my children were going to have to live through the same kind of violence [in Mexico] that we saw in Honduras,” she said with resignation, “we would have just stayed there.”

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A young boy seeking asylum waits in Nogales, Sonora in April, 2021.

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