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The Neverending Cycles of Central American Refugees
Years of deterrence tactics have not prevented Central American immigrants from coming to the U.S. But they have to deal with the consequences of past deportations.
On the day Carlos’ stepfather died, the television was playing its usual parade of police sirens and dead bodies. It’s part of the daily buzz in Tegucigalpa, the congested capital of Honduras. Carlos was paying little attention, but when he received a panicked call from his mother, he took a closer look at the image on the screen of a man with a prosthetic foot, laying facedown in the grass. It was his stepfather, Santos.
Santos, a 37-year-old bus driver, had lost the front of his left foot the first time he tried to leave Honduras, back in 2012. He went after he’d endured a robbery of the tobacco company where he worked as a security guard. He tried to jump onto the freight train that many undocumented migrants use to reach the United States. In the night, robbers fired at the people riding beside him, and the carriage’s wheel rolled over Santos during the escape. The amputation made the skin of his heel turn raw and left him with a slow, uneven gait. He never made it to the United States.
Santos was undeterred. He tried again in 2016, after he was chased by MS-13 gang members who worked along his transportation route in Honduras. His company failed to pay the gang the money they’d demanded, so its members tracked Santos down outside his house. They shot one of his children in the knee and another at the base of the spine after the family had gone out to eat. Santos somehow escaped unscathed but knew his luck in Honduras was running out, so he left for Mexico.
The refugee office in Mexico, which serves a few thousand applicants each year, denied him asylum, so Santos was deported back to Honduras. “He had evidence of what had happened to my brothers,” Carlos says now. But in the dubious logic of the official who interviewed him, Santos’ very presence in Mexico was used as evidence against him. “They said to him, ‘If you were in so much danger, why did you leave your children there?’”
Twenty-one days after he returned, Santos was finally murdered by the MS-13 gang that had repeatedly targeted him. But in Central America, a homicide is only the beginning of a family’s troubles. The gangs that killed Santos turned their sights on Carlos, assuming he might try to take revenge. In 2017, while Carlos was walking to a local bodega in Tegucigalpa, members pulled their guns on him; he heard eight or 10 shots before he escaped down another street. When they shot at him again in April, Carlos sold his motorbike and used the money to flee Honduras.
This past May, in the sweltering Mexican city of Tapachula, just across the border with Guatemala, Carlos filled out the same paperwork that had failed his stepfather. He’s 21, with a boyish face and only the hint of facial hair on his chin. Carlos sweats in the heat as he waits to find out whether he will stay in Mexico or go to seek safety in the United States, as Santos had once tried to do. “When I left, my mother started to cry,” Carlos says. “She didn’t like to see me leave with a backpack, leaving just like my father did. I don’t think she can take it anymore.” (The last names of the people in this article have been withheld to protect them and their family members in Central America.)
Carlos is now one of thousands of people in Tapachula who are on their way north, in the midst of an uncertain escape.
Since Donald Trump came into office in 2017, he has squarely targeted immigrants. Trump ended temporary protection for thousands who had come to the United States from countries recovering from disaster, meaning they could be deported within a couple years. He dispatched the National Guard to the border with Mexico, treating a group of more than 1,000 asylum seekers, mostly women and children, as if they were an invading army. Attorney General Jeff Sessions — with the full support of Trump — ordered immigrant parents to be separated from their children, claiming that it was a required part of criminal prosecutions for crossing the border.
But it is fear above all that has motivated many immigrants from Central America to escape to the United States, and that fear has not ended. Despite Trump’s anti-immigration policies, the rate at which people are fleeing from the region has not changed. Since October, the Border Patrol’s total apprehensions have reached just north of 317,000, almost the same as the year before. The number of families crossing has remained steady, despite the family separation policy, which White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has admitted was meant to be a “tough deterrent.”
Since Donald Trump came into office in 2017, he has squarely targeted immigrants.
The problems start among Central Americans, where competition between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs has led to unprecedented rates of violent death. The gangs — which have been a point of obsession for Trump since the start of his presidential campaign in 2015 — were founded by former immigrants deported from California years ago. Many of their weapons come from the United States, by far the most heavily armed country in the world. The lucrative illegal drug trade controlled by cartels further contributes to the danger, and it is Americans who are the final buyers for most of those drugs. Central Americans like Carlos are trying to run from a fire ignited and tended by the United States, even as American authorities refuse to grant them safety.
The consequences ripple out well below the U.S. southern border. Tapachula, where Carlos has spent the summer, offers immigrants a place to wait out their indecision. It is one of the busiest entries to Mexico from the south. New families sleep along the fountain in the central park every day, and then line up on the curb outside the United Nations office or head to the shelters on the outskirts of the city. Others wait until they can find a coyote who will bring them to the United States. They they decide where to head next.
Trump is hardly the first president to attempt to crack down on migration. His policies have their roots in a series of earlier U.S. administrations, going at least as far back as Ronald Reagan, which have systematically closed the door to undocumented immigrants. Many are following the same routes their parents took in the midst of civil wars in the 1980s and natural disasters in the 1990s, or their brothers and cousins during the early 2000s, but they are now fleeing a distinct sort of terror.
They are trying to escape unimaginable danger, only to end up trapped on America’s doorstep.
Penalties are in place to prevent the thousands of immigrants who have been deported from the United States from ever trying to return, but they are coming back regardless of Donald Trump’s administration. But for 41-year-old Juan, the conditions in El Salvador, where he has lived for more than a decade since his deportation, are so dangerous that he is willing to gamble with his freedom. To stay still would mean gambling with his life.
If Juan stays in El Salvador, the Barrio 18 gang could shoot him for failing to pay extortion money. But if he is caught swimming across the Rio Grande in Texas, he could remain in a U.S. prison until after his 10-year-old daughter graduates from high school. Despite that risk, he still plans for his wife, daughter, and four-year-old son to seek asylum in the United States, praying a judge might grant him a pardon. “Those who have been deported don’t have a right to anything,” Juan says. “But what happens when they threaten to murder you?”
Juan was just nine years old when his father brought him to the United States. The Salvadoran civil war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992 as one of the last battlefields of the Cold War, led to his uncle’s sudden disappearance. The U.S.-backed government tortured those who were in resistance, yet despite Washington’s involvement, the asylum approval rate for Salvadorans at the time was less than 3 percent.
Over the years, Juan eventually became a permanent U.S. resident but never a citizen — a fact that always left him liable for deportation back to El Salvador.
The Reagan administration passed its major migration law– the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 — the same year Juan made it to the United States. The law, unimaginable in today’s political climate, granted a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who had arrived a handful of years earlier. That didn’t include most Salvadoran refugees, but families like Juan’s kept coming anyway.
Juan remembers crossing into the desert of Arizona and stepping into a car on the other side. Over the years, he eventually became a permanent U.S. resident but never a citizen — a fact that always left him liable for deportation back to El Salvador. “Lawful permanent residency used to be a secure legal status,” says Cecilia Menjivar, a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas. “But the law signed by President Clinton in 1996, that’s the exact point at which everything changed.”
In 1996, amid concerns about the rising undocumented population, Congress passed back-to-back legislation that made it much easier to deport anyone who was not a citizen. The crimes for which even legal permanent residents who had lived in the United States for years were deported were supposed to be aggravated felonies, but they could be as minor as stealing some Tylenol and cigarettes. The laws — the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act — would set in motion an era of mass deportation.
In 2002, Juan was set to testify as a defendant in the case of the Cisneros brothers, members of the Mexican mafia. He said he did not show up in court, despite being innocent of the racketeering charges against him, because the family had murdered at least eight witnesses in the case. Juan feared that he would be the next one shot. The court dismissed all the original charges, but he was later charged with failing to appear, which was enough to get him deported.
In 2007, Juan was told he was banned for life from entering the United States, with the promise of prison time if he risked return. He would become one of the 2 million people George W. Bush deported, paving the way for another 2.5 million under Barack Obama. Donald Trump is actually on track to deport fewer people than Obama, in part because advocates have fought him tooth and nail. But he has stepped up arrests in comparison to the end of the Obama years and, reversing Obama’s priorities, has targeted even immigrants who have no criminal record.
Back in El Salvador after his deportations, Juan was told that he talked like a pocho, a pejorative term used to describe Mexican-Americans who stumble over Spanish. Juan is a short man with slicked-back hair and a gentle voice, and he tried to remain inconspicuous. As he adjusted to life in a country he hadn’t seen for decades, he started doing welding projects on the side, aiming to stay out of trouble in a place with a homicide rate nearly triple that of nearby Mexico.
“My parents sent me money at the beginning, but I had to adapt,” Juan says. “For those 10 years in El Salvador, I felt that I was alone.”
He met his future wife, Marta, who came from a ranching family of eight siblings. She liked how gentle Juan seemed, how the way he spoke made him seem less machista than other men. Yet just as they started to find their footing in El Salvador — saving money for a truck, putting down payments on a mortgage, building a base of customers who contracted them to design roofs and gates — their very financial success started to make them a target.
In 2017, Barrio 18 gang members came to the workshop and asked Juan for $30 a month as part of an informal business tax. Then they asked for a bonus: $1,000, paid in cash. When Juan paid, they asked for another $1,000. When he said he couldn’t pay that, they gave him an ultimatum: “We know where you work, and if you don’t give us the money, your daughter is going to pay,’” Juan recalls.
With his own noose tightening, Juan felt he had no choice but to risk an escape to the United States.
The family fled first to another residence in the rural area where Marta had been raised, but when they spotted gang members in the street, they headed to Guatemala. The best man from their wedding had already been killed, then the daughter of the man who owned the local internet shop, then the daughter of a taxi driver who frequented their neighborhood. With his own noose tightening, Juan felt he had no choice but to risk an escape to the United States.
“I’m going to bring them [to the United States] so that they can grow up with their grandparents, their aunts. My family said, ‘If they’ve threatened you, we’ll have your back — or not yours, but those of your kids, because we know you can’t enter,’” Juan says. “So I’m going to bring them to the bridge, where they can ask for political asylum.”
His children watch cartoons in Tapachula while Juan considers the consequences of returning to the United States. Back in America, he washed cars with his dad, finished drywall with his uncle, and became a specialist in the details at a Courtesy Chevrolet dealer. It all seemed like a long time ago, and in the midst of an unforgiving administration, Juan knows he’d be unable to help them if he’s behind bars.
For now, Juan buys his kids small gifts to pass the time — a mini-sized Barbie in a pink box, a red slushie that dribbles down their chins. Mexico doesn’t seem much safer than El Salvador. Their landlady had been threatened by a stranger who said that another rentee had stolen a backpack with cocaine, and Juan is anxious to get out of the city as fast as possible.
But on the U.S. border, he’ll make a final call. With the felony on his record, Juan could technically face up to 20 years for “throwing himself under the bridge,” as he calls it, though the average deportee who crosses the border serves far less time. His other option is to raise his children in America from afar, at a distance of four hours by car. What he can’t do is turn around.
In 2016, one evening just before dark, MS-13 members showed up at the wooden house in El Salvador where Emmanuel lived with eight other members of his family. His sister Damaris was watching television inside when they called him out, and she remembers how his face had gone pale when he returned.
“They said that I had to become one of them,” Emmanuel says. “They told me that they would give me a week to think about it.” Emmanuel wanted no part of the gang life, but later, someone would slip a note under his door, threatening to kill him. His only option was to hit the road. Emmanuel had no savings of his own, so he asked his girlfriend’s father for a loan of $500, enough to pay his way out of the country. His girlfriend was pregnant with their first child at the time, but Emmanuel imagined that she could follow him later.
Emmanuel, now a sullen 23-year-old, belongs to a younger generation than Juan. He grew up recognizing the dress codes — the Nike sneakers, the half-shaved hair, the colored caps — that distinguish one gang in El Salvador from another. And he knew that boys who have a certain build, or who just look like they might get a thrill out of the gang lifestyle, will be recruited, whether they want to join or not.
Unfortunately, Emmanuel also belongs to a different set of U.S. rejects—the thousands who are caught on the border each year. He has close-cropped dark hair and wears a simple chain with a heart around his neck. He walks around cradling his two-year-old daughter in his aunt’s backyard in Tapachula, where his large family is plotting their next steps.
The same year he was threatened, Emmanuel applied for refugee papers in Mexico. He came back to the Mexican office for three months to check on the status of his case, which hinged in part on a photo of the threatening note. He was denied, along with 38 percent of the people who applied that year. Since Emmanuel was at the end of the line, he used a one-year humanitarian visa that is sometimes granted to people in refugee proceedings to bus-hop his way to the U.S. border.
But when Emmanuel tried to jump the fence in Tijuana, he was caught within 48 hours. His captors — under President Obama — told him that the U.S. wasn’t granting asylum. The claim was patently false: Border Patrol officials who apprehend anyone within 100 miles of the border are required to refer people who express fear of persecution for an asylum interview.
But Emmanuel almost became one of the many people who go through “expedited removal,” a practice that became especially common under Obama. It means that a detainee never gets a chance to see a judge before they’re removed, since low-level immigration officers can decide to deport them without sending them for their first asylum interview.
The vast majority of those who are fleeing due to domestic or gang violence are, according to Sessions’ ruling, ineligible for asylum, which rules out many if not most of those coming from Central America.
In the end, the Border Patrol did their due diligence, and Emmanuel was sent to a privately operated detention center in San Bernardino County in California. After an asylum interview, though, Emmanuel was told his fear was not credible, and he was deported to El Salvador, where he went into hiding for a year. That year, nearly a quarter of immigrants scheduled for that first interview would not make it through to further litigation; more than 80 percent of Salvadorans would eventually lose their cases.
In the current climate, the chances for Emmanuel’s family are no better now than they were before. In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote that “the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.” Asylum seekers must show that their own authorities failed to protect them, which is hard to do for families like Emmanuel’s, who have heard rumors of police collusion with the gangs. The vast majority of those who are fleeing due to domestic or gang violence are, according to Sessions’ ruling, ineligible for asylum, which automatically strikes out many if not most of those coming from Central America.
That does not change the fact that their lives back home are unbearable. “You live in fear all the time. After everything that’s happened, you cannot stay calm,” says Iris, Emmanuel’s wife. Their baby, Alison, cried during Emmanuel’s entire first day home because she did not recognize him after months apart.
According to his 17-year-old sister, Damaris, Emmanuel never left the house, not even to go to the grocery store. He learned to make keychains out of silver foil and spent the remaining time in front of the television, afraid that if he stepped outside, he would end up like two of his cousins: forcibly recruited at 14 and 16, both dead within two years.
When he eventually went to work, remodeling a church with his uncle, a gang member said he knew why Emmanuel was there. Three others stopped him in the street. He tried to assure them that they were mistaken and that they had confused him with someone else, but eventually the pressures on the family became too much.
The gang members who stood on the street of his sister’s high school started asking her to sell marijuana inside the school. For months, Damaris told only her brothers about this, including Emmanuel, for fear that the stress would ruin her mother’s already borderline health. She eventually dropped out of school rather than give in to the gang’s demands.
In June 2018, the family fled to Mexico: Emmanuel, his mother, his wife, three siblings, his daughter, and his wife’s son. In Tapachula, Damaris plays with the necklaces one of the boys from her school gave her when she left: two metal crosses with a prayer imprinted on each in letters so small that she can barely read them. A deportee from the United States pulls out an electric razor to cut the youngest boy’s hair, but he does it by hand because the gadget does not work.
As a second-time entrant, Emmanuel likely will not be eligible for asylum, but only for a temporary stay on his removal or protection under the Convention Against Torture. The bar he would have to clear in his first interview, however, is far higher than the one he failed to meet in his first attempt. According to Dave Wilkins, an attorney at Central American Legal Assistance in New York, Emmanuel would likely have to try to meet this standard while being held in detention, since he could be considered a “flight risk.”
Emmanuel fries plantains on an electric griddle before preparing to sleep in the hammocks they’ve strung around his relative’s apartment. He’s thinking of what Iris should do to give their family the best chance possible.
“They told me if they grab me again, they’re going to send me to prison,” Emmanuel says. “She’s thinking of handing herself in with the two kids. I’m going to stay there until she finds enough money to find a coyote.”
In 2005, George W. Bush ramped up criminal prosecutions for undocumented people who crossed the Sonoran Desert, the Rio Grande Valley, and other parts of the southern border. He called his policy “enforcement with consequences.” That leaves Emmanuel, a young man with no criminal history and whose only fault was attempting to seek safety in the United States, under the same threat of prison as Juan, a middle-aged man raised in the United States who was deported for breaking the law 12 years ago.
For every individual who is sent back, a new crop aims to return.
Asylum seekers with criminal records and prior entries are not looked upon particularly favorably at a time when President Trump promises to prevent the country from being “overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don’t stand for.” But for every individual who is sent back, a new crop aims to return.
“Under the present administration, it becomes the rule that almost everyone who’s caught is going to face some charge. It’s overwhelming the judicial system,” said Nestor Rodriguez, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Last year, more than 10,000 deportees went for an asylum interview in the United States, part of a growing number of people who are seeking protections despite what they’ve gone through before. Some of them likely came with families because they had found themselves in an impossible situation — fearing death at home, knowing their chances of making it to the United States were slim. But many others never even made it as far as the border.
If his stepfather, Santos, had made it to the United States, or even to northern Mexico, Carlos imagines he might have been able to pay for his family to relocate to a neighborhood in Honduras where they would no longer be at risk. He might have saved up enough to take them with him to the United States. But instead, Santos became one of the hundreds of deportees known to have been assaulted, kidnapped, or even murdered when forced to return to their home countries.
This is a consequence of a system that has utterly failed to deter migration from Central America, only to prevent a portion of people from making it to the United States in the first place, many of whom could face death or worse at home. In 2015, the year after the United States increased its assistance to the Mexican government to help militarize the border with Guatemala and restrict immigration north, Mexico’s National Migration Institute deported 180,000 people, primarily to the northern part of Central America.
The U.S. government has previously aided Mexico with technology for fingerprinting, training for border officials, and even payment for the buses that haul immigrants back to their countries of origin. Mexico’s president-elect, Andres Manuel López Obrador, suggested last month that the two countries pool their resources to invest in employment to reduce migration from its origin.
But these families merely want to get out of their homes unscathed, regardless of Trump’s deportation policy. Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, a professor at Penn State Law School, said immigrants from Central America are not making their decisions based on 8 USC 1326, the legal code of reentry. “That is not what is running through the minds of people who are fleeing,” she said. They’re running for their lives.
In Tapachula, Carlos and his friend Eduardo, 18, cook their food on a small electric stove, hang Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers ball caps on the wall, and borrow a small speaker to play music in their room. They go to a local park to kick around a soccer ball — Carlos is a decent striker who used to play semiprofessionally before he ran out of money to compete.
Carlos carries a recording of the television report of his stepfather’s murder on his cellphone. Unless he can cross the U.S. border legally, he knows gangs could murder him or Mexican cartels could hold him for ransom. Even if Carlos makes it, the U.S. authorities could deport him back to the hell he’s trying to escape.
Carlos is unlikely to apply for asylum in the United States, at least for now, because of the risk that his claim could be denied. But what decades of U.S. deterrence has done is take a young man who is afraid and make him wait in a country that already failed his family, instead of being able to ask for help in the United States. He fears that the same danger that has dogged him since he was a teenager will eventually catch him by the throat.
“Sometimes I think of applying for asylum, because they killed my father, they shot my brothers. Perhaps they could help me,” Carlos says. “But I can’t take too many risks.” As he walked past one of the shelters in Tapachula, he caught sight of two of the gangs members from his neighborhood back in Honduras. His time to escape may be running out.