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Border Report: After a Perilous Journey, the Migrant Caravan Arrives

Now begins a long, drawn-out for asylum-seekers that is often stacked against immigrants from Central America fleeing domestic and gang violence.

A young migrant boy waves the Honduran flag while sitting on top of the fence dividing the United States and Mexico. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Remnants of a migrant caravan that has been making its way from Tapachula, near the Mexican border with Guatemala, reached California’s border last week.

The group of Central American migrants started with more than 1,000 people when it began last month and culminated in an estimated 200 to 300 arriving in Tijuana.

The caravan caught the attention of President Donald Trump, thus bringing media from all over the U.S. to the border. Many Central Americans have made the journey before to try to seek asylum, though with much less fanfare. (Here’s a story from May 2017 about the migrants who arrived with a caravan by Tijuana-based journalist Erin Siegal McIntyre.)

For years, Central Americans — particularly those from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — have been fleeing violence in their countries, heading north to seek better opportunities.

The journey is dangerous. Many migrants risk rape, theft, assault or forced labor with little hope that any crimes committed against them will be investigated or result in convictions. They log many days with little food, endless walking or rides on “La Bestia,” a perilous network of freight trains. Migrants ride on top of the train, risking amputation or death if they fall.

All this to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, where many turn themselves in to U.S. border officials, saying they fear returning to their country, and then begin a long, drawn-out process to receive asylum.

The immigrants rights group that organized the caravan, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, has tried to band migrants to travel together in larger groups for years.

Alex Mensing, one of the organizers, said the caravans serve a dual purpose.

“One is for safety of the migrants so they can organize themselves, help each other, protect each other, for food, safety — so they aren’t vulnerable to all those assaults that happen in Mexico,” Mensing said. “Then, because they are safer, that collective power gives them an opportunity to come out of the shadows and talk about their experiences.”

Many Central Americans cross at the Texas border, which is the most direct route for them. But increasingly, asylum-seekers are coming through Tijuana, where there is better access to lawyers and nonprofits that serve migrants and other resources, said Mensing. More importantly, the route to and through Tijuana — though the city’s homicide rate has surged — is still safer for migrants, who have become targets of organized crime in parts of northern Mexico along the Texas border, he said.

The United States’ current policy of taking in people fleeing persecution was sparked after the country turned away a boat of nearly 1,000 Jews escaping Nazi Germany in 1939, many of whom were later killed. The United States and several other nations signed on to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which vowed not to deport those fleeing persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 Refugee Act expanded the practice, providing a permanent system for admitting those from other countries who feared for their lives. The law had two components: one that resettles refugees who are vetted abroad by the United Nations prior to coming to other countries, and another to process asylum-seekers fleeing immediate danger who arrive in the United States before applying for protection. This is the difference between a refugee and an asylum-seeker, legally.

If a person seeking protection makes it into the interior of the United States — often after first entering on a legal visa — he or she can file what is called an “affirmative” asylum application within one year.

If an asylum-seeker presents a claim at the border or is caught and ordered deported but expresses a “credible fear” of persecution in their home country, they can file a “defensive” application. That’s what many who arrived in the caravan will try to do. These individuals often wait in detention for their cases to be resolved. Sometimes they can be paroled out if they have family or an organization willing to take responsibility for them, but it’s not the norm.

In 2014, the number of asylum applications began to rise sharply, mostly from Central Americans trying to escape rampant gang violence. The caravan that arrived last week in Tijuana included many migrants from Honduras, where more than 30 people have been killed during uprisings after a potentially fraudulent presidential election late last year. The United States supports the disputed winner.

On average, applicants have about a 50 percent chance of being granted asylum. But the number is far lower for Central Americans. Around 80 percent of asylum claims from Central Americans were denied in immigration court in 2016 — the most recent year for which complete data is available.

That is in part because those fleeing domestic and gang violence, which many Central American migrants are, often have to make complicated legal cases to argue they’re being persecuted for being part of a “particular social group.” In immigration courts, immigrants aren’t guaranteed legal representation unless they suffer from mental illness, meaning that many of must navigate the system on their own.

In 2016, unrepresented asylum-seekers lost their claims 90 percent of the time, while those with lawyers were denied 48 percent of the time.

Those who turn themselves in at the border have due process rights; whether those rights have been honored at the Port of Entry is an open question.

In July, a lawsuit brought by several immigrant rights groups alleges that officials lied to asylum-seekers, and in some cases coerced them, to prevent them from formally applying for asylum. Last month, Human Rights Watch obtained records documenting instances in which officials didn’t follow the process, including some in San Diego, and the organization is suing to obtain more complete records. Last year, a report from Human Rights First also found that border officials were unlawfully turning away asylum applicants.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said last week that those seeking asylum should do so in Mexico, as it’s the first safe country they entered. Many in the caravan have stayed in Mexico — and in general, asylum applications there have been on the rise. But Mexico’s asylum system is flawed and inconsistent.

Additionally, said Mensing, many migrants feel that the people they are fleeing can find them in Mexico.

On Sunday, those who ended up in Tijuana went to El Chaparral, the Mexican side of the San Ysidro Ped West Port of Entry, to seek asylum after a morning rally at the border wall.

Customs and Border Protection said it was already at capacity when they arrived, unable to process any individuals from the caravan. That meant that many from the caravan slept on the sidewalk  Sunday night, hoping for better luck Monday.

This isn’t the first backlog. The Union-Tribune’s Kate Morrissey wrote about a backlog in December — and reported days before the caravan’s arrival in Tijuana that other migrants, not affiliated with the caravan, had been waiting in line for days to request asylum.

Morrissey also has a step-by-step explainer of what happens when someone requests asylum at the border, with a flow chart and all.

If you only started paying attention to the caravan last week, check out this reporting from Buzzfeed, who had a reporter embedded with the caravan for weeks.

ProPublica designed “The Waiting Game” which allows you to actually experience, step-by-step, what it’s like to go through the asylum process.

Voices of Migrants

VOSD’s Adriana Heldiz and I spoke with some of the members of the caravan Sunday during the rally. Here’s what they had to say about why they left their country, what the journey was like and the future they’re hoping for.

Ronald Alexander Ayala Santos came from El Salvador with his 2-year-old daughter. Ayala Santos said he may stay in Tijuana rather than try to seek asylum in the United States.

Ronald Alexander Ayala Santos, who made the journey from El Salvador to Tijuana, waits in a line for food with his 2-year-old daughter. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“There isn’t work,” he said, in Spanish, when asked why he left El Salvador. “There isn’t security. The police themselves will try to frame you and get money out of you.”

Of the journey, Ayala Santos said there were many nights where the migrants had to sleep outside, and young children, like his daughter, fell ill. But he’s grateful that Mexican migrant organizations helped caravan members on many nights, providing places indoors to sleep.

Maritza Lopez said she fled domestic violence in Honduras with her three children. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Maritza Lopez fled Honduras with her three children – ages 2, 9 and 11 – for fear, she said, of their abusive father.

The most difficult part of the journey was on the freight train, where she feared she and her children could fall.

“But when you’re running from something, you don’t think about the problems you’ll encounter on the path out,” she said. “It’s in the hands of God.”

Lopez is going to try to seek asylum in the United States.

“I just want my children to have an opportunity to study,” she said.

Kevin Yair, 14, said he left San Pedro, Honduras, because of the growing violence. He hopes to one day reconnect with his father in Los Angeles. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Kevin Yair, 14, said he fled Honduras because of violence.

“The truth is our country is in war,” Yair said. “They kill people there. They rape them.”

Yair will seek asylum in the United States. His father is in Los Angeles, and he hopes to join him.

Isabel Rodriguez, traveled with her 7- and 11-year-old grandsons from El Salvador, to seek asylum in the United States. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Isabel Rodriguez, traveled with her 7- and 11-year-old grandsons from El Salvador. Rodriguez said she didn’t feel comfortable telling us what made her flee the country. She had already been in Tapachula, Mexico, when she heard of the caravan. They were having trouble making ends meet there, so they decided to join the group northbound.

“The journey was difficult,” Rodriguez said. “We’re exhausted, sick.”

Thanks to the caravan, though, the migrants had more help. They were safer, united, Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez doesn’t know anyone in the United States, but is going to seek asylum. She fears that officials will separate her from her grandchildren. (This isn’t an unreasonable fear. The New York Times recently found that more than 700 children had been taken from their guardians at the southwest border.)

“I don’t have anyone there to receive me, but I trust in God … with the hope that my children can have a better future,” she said.

• You can also check out more photos from the caravan’s time in Tijuana from VOSD contributor David Maung and a video from Sunday’s rally here.

More Border News

The California National Guard will be reporting for border duty this week. (The Desert Sun)

• Immigration enforcement is increasingly utilizing the limited resources and time of federal prosecutors. That means that while prosecutions for immigration crimes are 11 times higher than 20 years ago – illegal re-entry cases now make up about half of federal criminal courts’ workload – federal prosecutions for other crimes, like white-collar crimes, have plummeted by more than 40 percent. (Huffington Post)

The Otay Mesa Port of Entry is slated for a $122 million upgrade, according to the Union-Tribune. I also looked at how an ongoing expansion of the San Ysidro Port of Entry has sparked an initiative to learn more about how ports of entry impact air quality in surrounding communities.

Latinos are answering Border Patrol’s call for more agents. In other Border Patrol news, the agency may have exaggerated its reports of assaults against its agents. (Los Angeles Times, The Intercept)

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