My Grueling Search for Asylum From an Undeclared War

A member of the Honduran resistance movement tells his story.

José López

FLORENCE, AZ - Detained immigrants walk back to their housing units following lunch at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility on July 30, 2010 in Florence, Arizona. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

This is an excerpt from Asy­lum for Sale: Prof­it and Protest in the Migra­tion Indus­try, co-edit­ed by Siob­hán McGuirk and Adri­enne Pine and pub­lished by PM Press.

My jour­ney toward becom­ing an asy­lum seek­er began with a series of vio­lent assaults in my home­town of Tegu­ci­gal­pa, Hon­duras, where I was a small busi­ness own­er. One day in 2015, I noticed I was being fol­lowed by a group of men on my way to and from work. This con­tin­ued for a while, until they attacked me twice in one week. Even as part of the anti-gov­ern­ment resis­tance move­ment and a gay man, noth­ing like that had ever hap­pened to me before. I was afraid, so I moved to a new apart­ment. The same men found me soon after and attacked me for a third time.

Even­tu­al­ly, the vio­lence sub­sided. Then, the fol­low­ing sum­mer, I was car­jacked. My boyfriend and I imme­di­ate­ly report­ed it to the police, but car­jack­ings are extreme­ly com­mon in Hon­duras. Insur­ance com­pa­nies find rea­sons not to pay out on the claims, as they did with me once my car was found, aban­doned and wrecked. Then, two weeks lat­er, my boyfriend received a Face­book threat from a fake pro­file say­ing that they were going to kill both of us. The mes­sage said, You’re dat­ing José. Get ready, because we’re going to kill you both.”

This type of vio­lence has always been well-orga­nized in Hon­duras. It most­ly comes from the state and nation­al secu­ri­ty struc­tures. They decide who the vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors are, and where to sow fear. Hon­duras is in a state of unde­clared and unrec­og­nized war.

After the car­jack­ing and Face­book threat, I was afraid and thought about leav­ing Hon­duras for the first time. I had suf­fered five vio­lent inci­dents in one year. The sixth came soon after.

When I first opened my store, Frank, a big guy from my neigh­bor­hood, showed up every day ask­ing for work, so I hired him. He was a hard work­er, but open­ly homo­pho­bic, right-wing and anti-com­mu­nist. While we nev­er spoke about pol­i­tics, but he knew my fam­i­ly was with the resis­tance move­ment. Frank quick­ly became hos­tile. He dropped hints about work­ing as a hit­man. He would sneer at my pol­i­tics, and make com­ments about my store behind my back, like this place is full of faggots.”

Wor­ried about my safe­ty, I fired Frank. He then start­ed com­ing around and threat­en­ing me. It became clear that I hadn’t real­ly employed him to pro­tect my busi­ness from out­side dan­gers but to keep it (and me) safe from him.

I knew my life was in dan­ger. I had to leave Honduras.

The Con­se­quences of Fear

I knew noth­ing about asy­lum back in Tegu­ci­gal­pa. Seek­ing asy­lum is not some­thing any­one wants to do. There is so much stig­ma against immi­grants from Latin Amer­i­ca in the Unit­ed States. I didn’t want to go there. But it was my best option.

I left Hon­duras in fear and shock. When your sit­u­a­tion is that fucked, you can’t pre­pare as if you were calm­ly apply­ing for a visa. After arriv­ing in New York City I was told it was a good place to seek asy­lum, but I couldn’t get sup­port. I went to LGBT orga­ni­za­tions, spoke with pro bono attor­neys, and even vis­it­ed the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty (DHS). No one would help. A woman work­ing at DHS told me: Asy­lum is for Rus­sians and Chi­nese peo­ple, not for Hondurans.”

So I went online, print­ed and filled out the forms, and stuck every­thing in the mail. Then I trav­eled back to Hon­duras to clear out my apart­ment, take care of my busi­ness and employ­ees, and pick up my per­son­al doc­u­ments. In my rush to leave I had left behind a mess that was affect­ing my fam­i­ly. Between the mug­gings, the car­jack­ing, mov­ing to new apart­ments to escape my attack­ers, and flee­ing, I had racked up a debt of over $12,000. I was afraid to go home but thought I could avoid dan­ger by stay­ing just a few days. I had no idea I wasn’t allowed to go back home after sub­mit­ting my asy­lum application.

When I arrived at the Atlanta air­port for my flight con­nec­tion back to New York, air­port secu­ri­ty searched and inter­ro­gat­ed me. I was held for twelve hours and made to do a cred­i­ble fear inter­view on the spot. After­ward, I was giv­en a choice: vol­un­tary depor­ta­tion to Hon­duras or speak with a judge in two weeks. I chose the lat­ter. They put me on a bus. I had no idea I was being trans­ferred to one of the worst immi­gra­tion pris­ons in the country.

Deten­tion

On Sep­tem­ber 9, 2016, I arrived at Atlanta City Deten­tion Cen­ter. It was awful. One Guatemalan man went to the emer­gency room, and we nev­er saw him again. His par­ents didn’t hear any­thing either. I lat­er found out that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in Atlanta paid $78/​day for each ICE detainee. Atlanta made $7,020 off my suf­fer­ing, and mil­lions of dol­lars per year from the jail. I am glad that May­or Keisha Lance Bot­toms decid­ed to shut it down in 2019.

I was put in a cell with two small bunk beds and a tiny win­dow. It was awful. The entire prison was about 6,500 square feet, with no out­door recre­ation­al area. Most of the time we were locked in our cells. The food was ter­ri­ble, and it was nev­er enough. 

Dai­ly life was rough. When I arrived, a Venezue­lan inmate told me, It’s not going to work out for you. Give up and go back to Hon­duras.” Oth­er inmates were placed in soli­tary con­fine­ment for up to twelve days.

The view from my cell window

In immi­gra­tion prison, every­thing is expen­sive, from attor­neys to phone calls to extra food. I spent over $500 in three months there — mon­ey I had to bor­row. There is mas­sive mon­ey in asy­lum. The state pays cor­po­ra­tions to pro­vide food and ser­vices. Cen­tral Amer­i­cans and Mex­i­cans make up the major­i­ty of peo­ple in immi­gra­tion deten­tion. Some peo­ple end up in prison for minor traf­fic infrac­tions, like dri­ving with­out a license. In Geor­gia, if you don’t have papers, things like that can put you in prison for years.

In deten­tion, vio­lence was an every­day real­i­ty. It was over­crowd­ed. Peo­ple were trans­port­ed there from all over the coun­try. You saw the guards’ hatred in their eyes. Some pris­on­ers were allowed to bring in razor blades and knives. They con­spired with the guards to get pris­on­ers they didn’t like sent to soli­tary confinement.

My cell, unlike the oth­er ones in the prison, had a mix of asy­lum seek­ers com­ing from abroad, and out­bound depor­tees detained on crim­i­nal charges, some of whom were dan­ger­ous. One of these, a pris­on­er who was in league with the guards, had already harmed anoth­er inmate. Short­ly after­ward, as I was lin­ing up for my din­ner, he loud­ly said to me: Let’s see who’s next.” He’d been caught before, dur­ing one of the mid­night inter­nal raids, with a knife made from razor blades.

With­out access to lawyers and being pro­fi­cient in Eng­lish, I decid­ed to pre­pare my case myself. I spent a lot of time in front of the jail com­put­er, research­ing immi­gra­tion law. I helped oth­er pris­on­ers write let­ters in Span­ish and Eng­lish, and explained aspects of their cas­es to them. It became my cur­ren­cy. One guy who had bul­lied me stopped when he real­ized I could help him, but I still feared for my life.

I also read books and wrote about my expe­ri­ences to pass the time. Oth­er­wise, I would have died of depres­sion. It was 45 days before I final­ly saw an immi­gra­tion judge.

Court­ing Deportation

On Novem­ber 6, 2016, I arrived at immi­gra­tion court, just 15 min­utes from my prison. I knew my case was com­pli­cat­ed — a mix of polit­i­cal oppres­sion, extor­tion, and homo­pho­bia. Plus, I was rep­re­sent­ing myself.

Every­one was sur­prised that I had come to court alone and even more sur­prised that I spoke Eng­lish. I stood in front of the judge in hand­cuffs. Always hand­cuffs. He was vis­i­bly impressed at my appli­ca­tion. I had expect­ed him to set my asy­lum hear­ing date a month lat­er at the begin­ning of Decem­ber. Instead, he con­grat­u­lat­ed me on my papers and set my hear­ing date for Jan­u­ary 25. An addi­tion­al two months in jail, even with every­thing in per­fect order.” I couldn’t believe it.

Shocked and upset, I told the judge I couldn’t wait any longer, and that I want­ed to with­draw my appli­ca­tion. He tried to calm me down, say­ing it was the best pro se appli­ca­tion he had seen in 17 years work­ing on immi­gra­tion cas­es. It felt like he was say­ing I could win. But I knew just 2% of appli­cants are grant­ed asy­lum in Atlanta.

Know­ing the odds were stacked against me and feel­ing that my life was at risk, I made my deci­sion. I sat in the court­room in hand­cuffs cry­ing, and wait­ed for the guard to take me and the oth­er detainees back to jail.

Over the next few days, I was freak­ing out. I didn’t want to go back to Hon­duras. Although I had request­ed vol­un­tary depor­ta­tion, it didn’t feel vol­un­tary. It took me a cou­ple weeks to sub­mit the paper­work. It was anoth­er month before I was deport­ed. You nev­er know when you are actu­al­ly going to leave. You find out on the morn­ing of the flight, at 5:00 a.m., when the guards make the announcement.

The morn­ing my name was called, I rode in the back of a car to the air­port, along with anoth­er Hon­duran, a Colom­bian, and a Guatemalan. I climbed the stairs to my air­craft from the run­way. It was a humil­i­at­ing, awful expe­ri­ence. From the air­plane gates, every­one saw me get­ting on in hand­cuffs. Two ICE offi­cers stood by the gate door until the plane start­ed to move.

I was deport­ed on Decem­ber 7, the day before my birthday.

The Mark of Asylum

As soon as I returned to Hon­duras, Frank showed up. I was in hid­ing and only went to my store once or twice, but he was always there wait­ing with a friend of his. I knew I had to leave again for my safety.

Today, I live in Barcelona, Spain. After wait­ing two and a half years for a deci­sion on the claim I filed here, I was final­ly grant­ed asy­lum in Decem­ber 2019. I have been depressed. The eco­nom­ic con­di­tions in Spain are hor­ri­ble, and there is dis­crim­i­na­tion against Latin Amer­i­cans. I work at a call cen­ter and half my earn­ings go toward rent.

Every day, I car­ry the mark of asy­lum, an emo­tion­al and finan­cial bur­den. I now am around US$24,000 in debt from my expe­ri­ences. My fam­i­ly back home is suffering. 

Mean­while, the immi­gra­tion prof­it-mak­ing machine keeps turn­ing. As the US gov­ern­ment funds mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions in Hon­duras, my peo­ple are extort­ed and harassed by their own gov­ern­ment and forced to flee their homes. The same vio­lence that forces peo­ple in one coun­try to seek asy­lum enables anoth­er coun­try to fill its deten­tion cells and fill prison con­trac­tors’ pock­ets. It’s a vicious cycle with prof­it at every stage, from deten­tion and depor­ta­tion to rely­ing on immi­grants to accept poor­ly paid jobs that make their boss­es rich.

José López (pseu­do­nym) is an agron­o­mist, small busi­ness own­er, and mem­ber of the Hon­duran resis­tance move­ment. He was grant­ed asy­lum in Spain, where he now lives.

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