Asylum Seekers Face Kafkaesque Ordeal at U.S.-Mexico Border

Migrants have to choose between keeping their families together and finding safety.

John Washington

The Bridge of the Americas connects Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

Mario’s old­est daugh­ter is hav­ing thoughts about hurt­ing her­self, and his youngest daugh­ter is suf­fer­ing from anx­i­ety, accord­ing to a Texas psy­chol­o­gist who eval­u­at­ed the chil­dren in July after immi­gra­tion author­i­ties sep­a­rat­ed them from their father. All three of his chil­dren, as well as his wife, show signs of post-trau­mat­ic stress brought on by the vio­lence they wit­nessed in Mex­i­co and the ordeal they expe­ri­enced at the U.S. border.

'The biggest difference in winning and losing asylum claims is whether or not a person has a lawyer. That is not justice.'

Mario (a pseu­do­nym), his wife, 16-year-old son and two daugh­ters, ages 14 and 11, fled their home­town of Aca­pul­co in March amid a surge of gang vio­lence. After cross­ing the bridge that con­nects Ciu­dad Juárez to El Paso, Texas, they pre­sent­ed them­selves to Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion (CBP) to request asy­lum, a right under both U.S. and inter­na­tion­al law. The first step in the asy­lum process is to demon­strate a cred­i­ble fear” that harm would befall them if they returned. The fam­i­ly was pre­pared to relate the death threats Mario received for not pay­ing extor­tion fees to local gangs and the bru­tal assaults and abduc­tions they had all witnessed.

Instead, the fam­i­ly entered a legal labyrinth and end­ed up on oppo­site sides of the bor­der. As soon as they asked CBP agents for asy­lum, the fam­i­ly was tak­en into cus­tody and Mario was sep­a­rat­ed from his wife and chil­dren. Immi­gra­tion offi­cers deter­mined that Mario’s wife had a cred­i­ble fear of return­ing to Mex­i­co, enti­tling her to remain in the Unit­ed States with the chil­dren while she awaits an asy­lum hear­ing. But offi­cers in the same depart­ment decid­ed that Mario did not— even though the facts of his case are exact­ly the same as theirs, accord­ing to Sara (also a pseu­do­nym, as theirs), a researcher and human rights defend­er at the Las Cruces, N.M.-based South­west Asy­lum and Migra­tion Insti­tute (SAMI). (She wished to remain anony­mous because advo­cates’ work is often scru­ti­nized by crim­i­nal groups tied to the Mex­i­can authorities.)

This seem­ing­ly arbi­trary deci­sion is symp­to­matic, Sara says, of the flawed process that unfolds when migrants seek­ing safe har­bor arrive at the U.S. bor­der. Mex­i­can nation­als, a grow­ing num­ber of whom have fled the country’s U.S.-backed drug war in recent years, face par­tic­u­lar­ly tough odds. In the 2014 fis­cal year, near­ly 9,000 Mex­i­cans—more than any oth­er nation­al­i­ty — applied for asy­lum in the Unit­ed States, but only 124 (not nec­es­sar­i­ly from the same appli­cant pool) were grant­ed it. Some say that this marked­ly low accep­tancer­ate reflects the politi­ciza­tion of the asy­lum process, and the U.S. government’s desire to con­ceal the extent of drug war vio­lence. A civ­il rights com­plaint filed in Novem­ber 2014 by immi­grant rights groups charges that CBP offi­cers reg­u­lar­ly obstruct access to the asy­lum process for migrants arriv­ing at the south­ern border.

When Mario was tak­en into cus­tody at the bor­der, he spent the night in hand­cuffs and then lan­guished in a CBP pro­cess­ing cen­ter for a week with no infor­ma­tion of the where­abouts or safe­ty of his fam­i­ly. His wife and chil­dren were briefly detained and then released, but Mario spent more than a month in deten­tion before being trans­ferred to Eagle Pass, Texas, almost 500 miles east of El Paso. From there, he was removed through a lat­er­al depor­ta­tion” — a pro­ce­dure intend­ed to make it less like­ly that a depor­tee will attempt to cross the bor­der again — to the noto­ri­ous­ly dan­ger­ous Mex­i­can bor­der town of Piedras Negras.

Though Mario left Aca­pul­co out of fear of vio­lent abduc­tions, he has come to see his expe­ri­ence in U.S. deten­tion and his depor­ta­tion to an unfa­mil­iar town as anoth­er form of kid­nap­ping. What’s the dif­fer­ence between some­one who kid­naps you with a gun and some­one who kid­naps you with­out a gun?” he asks.

In May, Mario made his way back to Juárez and is still search­ing, with the help of SAMI, for a way to reunite with his fam­i­ly. Advo­cates note that with­out legal assis­tance, cas­es like Mario’s are near­ly impos­si­ble to win. Found­ed in 2013, SAMI seeks to fill a gap in access to jus­tice by offer­ing free and low-cost legal aid to asy­lum seek­ers on both sides of the bor­der. The group has phys­i­cal­ly accom­pa­nied dozens of asy­lum-seek­ers across the bridge to El Paso and assist­ed them in the legal maze that follows.

There are no pub­lic defend­ers in the immi­gra­tion sys­tem. Even chil­dren have to rep­re­sent them­selves,” explains Sara. The biggest dif­fer­ence in win­ning and los­ing asy­lum claims is whether or not a per­son has a lawyer. That is not justice.” 

Asy­lum law, more­over, is root­ed in what some advo­cates say is a glar­ing con­tra­dic­tion: Those seek­ing it can apply affir­ma­tive­ly” only if they are already in the coun­try. Migrants who are able to obtain U.S. visas can request asy­lum once they’ve entered the U.S. and have their claims deter­mined out of court. But those who ask for asy­lum at a bor­der cross­ing — often because they can­not obtain or pay for visas, or lack infor­ma­tion about their options — face a much more adver­sar­i­al process. They are typ­i­cal­ly detained, and must apply for asy­lum defen­sive­ly” and face an immi­gra­tion judge in order to avoid deportation.

This is the sit­u­a­tion in which Mario’s wife now finds her­self. Fear­ful of return­ing to Mex­i­co, she has opt­ed to remain in El Paso while she awaits the out­come of her asy­lum case. Mean­while, she faces the stress of liv­ing in a for­eign city with three young chil­dren. With thou­sands of oth­er asy­lum-seek­ers stuck in the same lim­bo, a sup­port net­work has sprung up along the bor­der to assist them with lodg­ing, food and oth­er ser­vices. As thou­sands more arrived at the bor­der amidst the wave of vio­lence last sum­mer, vol­un­teers came out of the wood­work,” says Ruben Gar­cia, who runs the El Paso-based Annun­ci­a­tion House, the migrant hos­pi­tal­i­ty cen­ter where Mario’s wife and chil­dren are staying.

If Mario cross­es the bor­der into the Unit­ed States again, Sara believes that, giv­en his record of depor­ta­tion, he would have to re-enter fed­er­al cus­tody for sev­er­al months and pos­si­bly serve jail time. Con­sid­er­ing the acute dis­tress the sep­a­ra­tion has caused his fam­i­ly already, he’s not sure they can make it through more uncer­tain­ty. If the fam­i­ly decides they can no longer take the stress of sep­a­ra­tion, Mario’s wife may aban­don her asy­lum claim and return with the chil­dren to the coun­try they fled.

Sara says theirs isn’t the only fam­i­ly that’s been forced to choose between fam­i­ly uni­ty and indi­vid­ual safe­ty.” She hopes to see broad­er changes to the asy­lum process, but in the mean­time calls for greater aid and com­pas­sion for sep­a­rat­ed fam­i­lies. I have a child,” she says. If every­thing went to hell in the place I live and he had to flee, I would want there to be peo­ple who would look him in the eye and try to under­stand where he was com­ing from,” she says. I would want there to be peo­ple who would help him start over again.”

John Wash­ing­ton is a writer based in Ari­zona. He is the co-trans­la­tor of A His­to­ry of Vio­lence (Ver­so, 2016), by Sal­vado­ran author Óscar Mar­tinez. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @EndDeportations.
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