TIJUANA, MEXICO — Ashley, a beautiful baby girl, had no cake or party for her first birthday a few weeks ago, but for her mother, Katherine, having her safely in her arms is enough to celebrate.
Katherine, a 23-year-old from Honduras with big sad eyes and an easy laugh, declined to give her last name. In 2017, “mareros” (Mara Salvatrucha gang members) hit her in the head with the butt of a gun, cracking her scalp open. They told her they planned to return to rape her and the baby. She believes the attack was meant to pressure Ashley’s father, a drug addict who owed the gang members money.
She left her two sons under their grandmother’s care and fled to Mexico with Ashley, where they joined a caravan of more than 200 people fleeing from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, hoping to get asylum in the United States. As gang violence has spiked, those three countries now have among the highest murder rates in the world. From 2013 to 2015, the number of people applying for U.S. asylum from them exceeded the total for the previous 15 years.
The caravan, organized with the help of the international volunteer organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, was dubbed the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) to link it with Christian values. It started March 25 in Tapachula, near the Guatemalan border, and quickly became an obsession of President Donald Trump and far-right media outlets, who depicted the immigrants as a mob threatening to invade the “homeland.”
Katherine and Ashley spent more than a month sleeping on the ground and on top of freight trains, being fed by generous people along the way. By the time they arrived in Tijuana, Ashley was badly malnourished, with a fever and a severe cough.
They were among the 228 caravan members who camped out in the plaza in front of the Pedwest pedestrian border crossing, which leads into San Diego, for a week. Among the group were at least 15 transgender women, who regularly face assault in their home countries.
When they were finally allowed to turn themselves in at the port of entry, they hugged each other, many in tears. They understood they would be detained and not allowed to have a pens or paper, and passed a black marker to write phone numbers on their clothes, arms, legs or stomachs.
Unlike other asylum-seekers, however, the caravan’s participants had the support of American activists, which enabled them to have media visibility and a group cohesion that would have been nearly impossible on their own.
They also had access to pro bono legal counsel. Dozens of lawyers, including a trio of women from the nonprofit Al Otro Lado (On the Other Side), spent days and nights in consultations and legal clinics. They provided not just legal advice, but oversight of the immigration process, documenting and challenging neglect and abuses of power by U.S. authorities.
Their support network also comes into play once they have surrendered at the border, into custody of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It comes in the form of sponsors, who can be key for their cases to move forward in the system.
Asylum-seekers have grim odds of approval: Only four of 78 from a similar caravan last year were allowed to stay in the United States. A recent Reuters investigation found that only about 16 percent of Hondurans’ asylum requests are granted. That number could decrease now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has appointed 28 new immigration judges, 16 of them former ICE prosecutors.
According to TRAC, a nonprofit that monitors and analyzes data related to court processes, immigration judges have wildly different rates of approving asylum petitions. In the Mojave Desert city of Adelanto, California, Judge Timothy Everett orders deportation in 90 percent of the asylum cases he oversees, while Judge Denise Slavin in Baltimore orders it in just 6.5 percent.
Of the 1,700 people who started the caravan’s journey in March, only about 700 made it as far as the northwestern city of Hermosillo, about 200 miles south of the Arizona border. About half of them decided to stay there and accept the Mexican government’s offer to let them stay legally, either with temporary work permits or under asylum. On May 7, 15 Central American immigrants in Hermosillo went on a hunger strike, camping out outside the immigration offices to pressure authorities to keep that promise.
The 350 who made it to Tijuana attended legal clinics hosted by volunteer American lawyers, who explained the process of entering detention, that parents and children would likely be separated, and that they would be kept in holding cells dubbed “the freezers.” Those cells, according to a Human Rights Watch report released in February, have uncomfortably low temperatures, and detainees sleep on the floor or concrete benches with only a foil blanket to protect them. They are sometimes forced to remove sweaters and outer layers of clothing.
Sandra Elizabeth Pérez, 43, from El Progreso, Honduras, opted to stay in Mexico after speaking with a lawyer and hearing about “the freezers.” “I don’t have a job and lived in a violent city, but I have not been targeted specifically, so I most likely would be deported,” she explained. “When the caravan stopped over in Mexico City, I worked cleaning houses, so now my plan is to get my work permit and start looking for work in Tijuana. All I know is I can’t go back to my country, and I don’t want to be in jail.”
The arrival of Central Americans marks a drastic change from traditional patterns of migration. In the 1980s, the border saw “circular” migration, mostly Mexican men who would work for a while and then go back home. In the 1990s, family members followed to join them in the United States. In the early 2010s, a surge of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence came. Now, full extended families, both Mexican and Central American, are coming north.
By mid-May, only about three dozen people from the caravan were still in Tijuana shelters, uncertain of what to do next.
“I decided to wait until I found a sponsor to make our case stronger,” said Carlos Antonio Aguilera Cerna, a 37-year-old Honduran who traveled with the caravan with his 32-year-old wife, Evangelista Aguirre, and their four children, aged 9 to 15. He said Pueblos Sin Fronteras had matched them with a San Francisco woman who had agreed to be their sponsor.
On May 7, Attorney General Sessions said he had established a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings, including prosecuting parents who bring their children, for smuggling “illegal aliens.”
“If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” he stated. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
When Aguilera heard this, he shivered.
“Neither my kids or I have committed any crime. We don’t deserve to be in jail,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking that after so many years of working hard to support my kids, they can be taken away from me. That is the worst possible threat one could make to a parent.”
Photo credit: Jonathan McIntosh.