The Asylum Trap: 'They Returned Us To A Country We Don't Know'

Oct 20, 2020

This is the first of a five-part series about people seeking asylum in the United States, reported by Mallory Falk with KERA News in Dallas.

A Nicaraguan family tried to seek asylum in the United States. When they arrived at the border, they were instead sent to Mexico to wait out their case and are facing challenges they didn't expect. The Pan de Vida migrant shelter is made up of several small, yellow houses, arranged in a circle around a dusty courtyard.

On a sweltering, late summer afternoon, a Nicaraguan couple, Cesar and Carolina, prepared lunch in the kitchen they share with several other families.

They chopped onions and potatoes amid a flurry of activity. Children raced in and out, and one of their housemates — the shelter’s unofficial beautician — sat nearby, painting another resident’s nails.

Cesar and Carolina explained they were making carne enchorizada, a traditional Nicaraguan dish and welcome taste of home for their 9-year-old son, Donovan. He hasn’t quite acclimated to the level of spice in Mexican food.

“I feel like I can’t take the chile that’s in my mouth,” he said, fanning his tongue like it was on fire.

The family has been living in Ciudad Juárez for more than a year, under a Trump administration policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.

Under the policy, which launched in January 2019, asylum seekers are required to wait in Mexico as their cases play out in U.S. immigration court.

“I don’t understand this ‘migrant protection,’” Cesar said. “What is the protection we have? They send you back onto the street, as if you were trash, an empty milk carton. Even children, they even throw out children with their mothers.”

The family left their home in Jalapa, near the border with Honduras, in June 2019. Cesar worked as a taxi driver, a job that eventually put him at risk. When President Daniel Ortega proposed cutting social security, taxi drivers helped lead popular protests against the government. Security forces responded with a violent crackdown, killing more than 300 people.

Cesar said he was physically attacked by paramilitaries twice while driving his taxi, once with his wife and son in the car. When they started circling his house, attempting to break in, he decided it was time to leave.

Many Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica, but Cesar and Carolina believed the U.S. could offer political asylum. The Trump administration has condemned Ortega’s regime for its violent repression of political opposition.

Cesar said he and his wife felt immediate relief when they reached the U.S.-Mexico border, after weeks of travel.

“We saw the officers in green and we felt protected,” Cesar recalled, referring to border patrol agents. “For the first time since these problems started, we felt protected.”

But the relief was short-lived. The family passed an initial screening, to determine whether they had a credible fear of being harmed in Nicaragua. They received paperwork with their first hearing date. But then, they were sent back across the border to Juárez.

“They returned us to a country we don’t know,” Cesar said.

A place where they didn’t have any family — unlike in the U.S., where a cousin had offered to help them get settled while they went through their asylum proceedings — and where legal help was hard to come by. A place where they felt like targets.

“For people like us, migrants, it’s a risk because people from here immediately identify the people who aren’t from here,” Carolina said. “Because of our accent. Because of the way we walk.”

A report from Human Rights First found more than 1,000 publicly reported cases of violence against migrants in MPP as of May, including kidnapping, torture, rape and murder.

Cesar leaves the shelter for work, but Carolina and Donovan mostly stay inside.

Donovan is a cheerful kid with dimpled cheeks. When visitors stop by, he’s quick to offer strawberry milk and share his favorite toy — a trompo, or top — teaching them how to make it spin and scoop it up in their hands.

His parents try to shield him from the full reality of their situation.

“We never instill anything negative in him,” Cesar said. “We tell him that we’re traveling around like tourists, getting to know new people and places."

But then Donovan asks why they’re spending so long in Juárez, instead of leaving to see other sights. Cesar simply tells him it takes time.

Cesar tries not to show his son how terrified he is, and how trapped he feels.

“If I go back to my country, they will kill me,” Cesar said. “If I’m in Mexico, I run the risk that they kidnap my child. I run the risk that they kidnap my wife.”

Many at this shelter are still waiting for asylum hearings, but Cesar and Carolina already received a decision; they were not granted asylum. In fact, less than 5% of migrants who attended all their MPP hearings and completed the process received asylum or another form of protection in the U.S.

They are currently appealing that decision and looking to the presidential election.

“Our hope is that there will be some change that benefits all of us here,” Carolina said.

She believes that if President Trump is re-elected, there is almost no chance her family will be allowed to enter the country or gain asylum.

But she and Cesar haven’t even let themselves think about what they’ll do then. They say they have to hold on to one last shred of hope.

“There are people who come to the U.S. seeking the American dream,” Cesar said. “We didn’t flee because we wanted to. We didn’t leave behind our life in Nicaragua — leave our parents, our nieces and nephews, our friends — because we wanted to. We were forced to leave our country.”

All they’re asking, he said, is for safety. Something that feels even more critical now; a few months ago, Cesar and Carolina learned she is pregnant with their second child.

They don’t want their baby growing up in a dismal, gray atmosphere, they said. They want a bright environment for their children.

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