Still in Mexico: Asylum seekers face increased risks of violence & extortion as they weigh next move
The sun beats down on the houses of Pan De Vida, a shelter for migrants in Rancho Anapra, a barrio of Ciudad Juárez. In between white houses trimmed with blue, kids whizz by on bikes, shouts ringing out over the dust settling across the courtyard. Dogs recline in the shade, tongues lolling.
At the house on the corner, overlooking the yard, is the temporary home of 11 Hondurans, who fled – some just children – towards the United States. After months of travel, thousands of miles, they landed here.
Inside, the walls are painted a light pink, the cabinets and trim a bright seafoam green, the air thick with heat.
Although the restrictions to immediately expel people seeking asylum at the border – nicknamed Title 42 – ended on May 11, uncertainty remains in its wake. Gathered around the teal table, the 11 Hondurans shared their story, one of hope and faith intertwined with pain and fear.
“All of us who are here have been waiting, constantly for them to take Title 42 away,” said Keily Dubón Hernandez. “I believe that all of us still hold on to that hope.”
But the logistics feel overwhelming.
Olga Maldonado, 40, is staying now with her nieces Yulisa and Marcela, their four children, and Marcela’s partner, Kevin. They’re joined by three other women who traveled alone, also from Honduras: Kimberlee Guadalupe Paz. Gladis Mejia Moreno, and Keily.
Olga is concerned the family of eight will not receive a CBP One appointment, which she has been trying daily to schedule for the past two months. Between glitches and app crashes, she said the daily 1,000 slots fill up so fast she can’t get a spot. Since the update, Olga and others reported the app will fail to input information.
“Very frustrating,” Olga called her experience with the app. “You go on and sometimes it’s blocked, the appointments are full.”
Olga and the others said they expect a harder time seeking asylum since the end of Title 42, and are concerned that if CBP One continues to fail, they’ll have to consider seeking asylum in one of the countries they passed through.
“Just imagine having to go back through all of those places and ask for asylum,” Keily said. “All of us do not have the resources to be able to go back, and then return here again.”
‘The uncertainty kills people’
Jeremy Slack, a professor in geography at the University of Texas at El Paso, has been researching the border and migration for two decades, and spent the past nine years in El Paso.
He said the CBP One app could be an opportunity to build a real system that could be orderly, and work at the ports of entry and make sense to people trying to seek asylum. However, that could break down if the bugs continue or if it seems like a lottery system.
“If you’re here and you’re just sort of desperate, you have no appointment, the pages crashing all the time. You might be waiting a week, you might be waiting a year. That uncertainty kills people. In a very literal way,” he said.
Uncertainty is what drives people to take risks, hire traffickers or try and rush across the border, he said, which is a boon to the black market – and puts people’s lives at stake.
“The more you go after the immigrants, the more you help organized crime,” Slack said.
In post-deportation surveys, he has seen what happens when people are removed including the higher rates of violence from extortion, to sexual assault, kidnapping and murder.
“There’s a real problem with making people wait in Mexico, it’s dangerous, super dangerous,” he said.
Closing the border to asylum seekers without appointments raises Slack’s concern for people in Mexico fleeing persecution. He said he’s concerned about a creeping rollback to protect people from imminent violence.
“That is the heart and soul of asylum, so if you take that away, I don’t know what we’re left with,” he said.
‘They’ll kill you if you don’t flee’
The Hondurans described feeling daunted by the process of potentially asking for asylum in Mexico, after describing kidnapping, extortion and other violence.
Yulisa Maldonado, 25, fled San Pedro Sula about a year ago. She lived in La Colonia Rivera Hernandez, selling food to try and pay for her son’s medical operation. Gangs issued death threats and extorted money from the stand. The gangs “knocked down the business,” warning her she had 24 hours to get the money.
She described fleeing at midnight, “I left that day, by five in the morning, I was getting on a bus at the terminal to come (here).”
Yulisa said she was kidnapped in Southern Mexico, along with her 5- and 6-year-old children.
“They took (the kids) to a separate room. They were crying because they couldn’t see me. But I had to do other things so that the (kidnappers) would not do anything to them or hurt them,” she recounted.
When she made it to Ciudad Juárez, she was able, with the help of the shelter, to see a psychologist for herself and the children, who were too scared to eat or go outside of the house after they first arrived.
“I am afraid to be in Mexico, because throughout the country, we as migrants are like merchandise,” she said. “We cannot go out, not even out of this compound because we are afraid.”
But, even if Yulisa had stayed, “I wouldn’t be alive anymore and neither would my kids. Thank God whatever we had to go through, we are alive,” she said.
Her sister Marcela, 21, followed with Kevin, two children, aunt Olga and her 10-year old daughter, citing the death threats. Marcela and Yulisa left behind their mother, who has a leg condition and would not be able to survive the trip.
“If you try to move they already have your information and everything. If possible, they chase you down,” she said. “They’ll kill you if you don’t flee. There, you pay or you pay (with your life).”
Kevin, 22, described the little clothes stand that they used to support the family, but tears slipped down his cheeks and he began to cry as he said: “We survived, but the gang came and extorted us.”
In Hidalgo, Mexico, the state to the north of Mexico City, immigration officials caught them, riding on a bus. Olga said they were held in detention without water for hours. Police extorted them for 1,200 pesos to release the family.
“We paid them and they left us in the middle of the forest, so we wouldn’t know where we were,” she said. “They made us walk, and sometimes they would terrorize us by shouting, ‘Here comes immigration!’ and we would hide.”
Marcela and Olga described finding some peace at the shelter. Pastor Ismael Martínez gets cake for the children’s birthdays, or puts on Easter celebrations. Marcela said it was good to see her kids smile again, to play, since the journey has been so hard on them.
“It is hard to watch your children suffer. They have to bear hunger, the sun, fear more than anything,” she said. “But you have that hope that you are going to take this risk in order to gain something, rather than staying behind where they can take them from you or take their lives.”
In 2019, Kimberlee and her young daughter entered the U.S., but were deported. After immigration officials returned her to Honduras, her 14-year old cousin was murdered in October 2022, followed by her aunt in January.
“I saw them kill (my cousin) so I reported them, and they found out and threatened me. I had to leave my country,” she said, adding her mother and siblings also received death threats.
Her cousin and aunt’s murders were a part of a pervasive pattern of violence against women and girls. Honduras has one of the highest rates of femicide in Latin America, even as the government has taken recent strides to raise awareness.
“I know that they wanted my cousin to be the ‘wife’ of one of them, and she didn’t want to,” Kimberlee said. “They killed her mother the same way.”
With her deportation, Kimberlee will not be able to seek asylum for 10 years from the date of the order. There are a few other avenues to stay removal orders, but they require much higher burdens of proof from the people seeking them, and can mean sending people outside of the U.S. Another, often more expensive option, is to retain an immigration lawyer to reopen the deportation case.
When asked why she will try to go to the U.S., even with the high stakes around her deportation, Kimberlee responded: “Because I have faith, that for God, nothing is impossible.”
Corrie Boudreaux contributed to the reporting of this article.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.