Scott Ball / Rivard Report
La Mesilla, a remote village in the Guatemala highlands near the border with Mexico, was the only home Yanira Lopez Lucas had ever known, but the 42-year-old mother of three was forced to flee that home with her children after she witnessed the murder of extended family members and her teenage son was pressed to join a local gang.
Yanira crossed the border into Mexico with 15-year-old Daniel, 12-year-old David, and 4-year-old Melany and began the long, arduous journey that would bring her to Casa Raices, an immigrant safe house that sits on a quiet street in San Antonio's King William district.
Odalma, a 28-year-old mother who would not share her last name for fear of repercussions to relatives back home, fled her home in El Salvador and embarked on the dangerous journey north through Guatemala, Mexico, and across one more border into Texas, her 2-year-old daughter Yannesa in her arms the whole way. Odalma was targeted by members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang after a family member opposed gang members by campaigning for political office in her hometown.
Gang violence has given El Salvador the fourth highest murder rate in the world, double the rate in Mexico. The maras are notorious for hacking people to death with machetes. Another Salvadoran, Dinora Martinez, was also forced to flee with her family after the maras gave them 24 hours to leave. Why? Her husband saved the life of a woman wounded in a maras gang shooting.
Maria Yanneth Lopez, 37, a social worker from the Colombian seaport city of Buenaventura, and her 14-year-old son Fernando, had the resources to fly from their homeland to Mexico after her husband was kidnapped by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. His corpse was found later, bearing signs of torture before his execution.
The story of immigrants fleeing violence and repression in Latin America and seeking political asylum in the United States is the story of Yanira, Odalma, Dinora, and Maria. It's the story of young, vulnerable children also caught in the crossfire who make the dangerous journey with them.
Not everyone makes it. Those who do make it have a story to share, one that voters (and non-voters) did not hear during the recent presidential campaign where undocumented workers and asylum seekers were described as criminals or illegal immigrants coming here to steal working people's jobs.
There are thousands, even tens of thousands of Marias and Yaniras fleeing for their lives and seeking safe ground, and not even the election of President-elect Donald Trump and his fiery, exclusionary rhetoric, his promises of mass deportation, or his intentions to build a wall the length of the U.S.-Mexico border can keep refugees out. What's to lose when staying home is to court certain death?
The fate of millions of undocumented immigrants and the wave of refugees seeking asylum rest on Trump's post-inaugural agenda and that of his cabinet and inner circle, as well as how the Republican Senate and House leaders choose to influence that agenda. Will Trump try to make good on campaign rally promises, or will his words be tempered by the reality of having to govern?
For now, there can only be speculation, but for asylum-seekers, day-to-day survival is the more pressing concern. Everything else is out of their hands, but extensive interviews with asylum seekers who have been released from detention facilities in South Texas and have taken up residence at Casa Raices, or moved on to join relatives or sponsors, revealed that concern has given way to outright fear.
Anxiety is a constant for the women and children living at Casa Raices, a local shelter founded in 2015 that is operated by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Legal Services (RAICES), a San Antonio nonprofit founded in 1986 that provides free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees.
The Casa, a modest, white and green period home located in King William in San Antonio, is operated and sustained by dedicated volunteers who provide safe release services to immigrants leaving federal detention centers. Immigrants typically stay between 12 and 48 hours, enjoy healthy, home-cooked meals, and gather clothing, toiletries, and other essentials before heading out via bus or plane to reconnect with a waiting family member living in the country legally.
For the fortunate ones, a new life in a new city where people speak a new language awaits them. Everything else, for now, remains a big unknown.
The surge of women and unaccompanied children streaming into the U.S. asking for asylum has kept RAICES staff working around the clock. Many of these individuals are fleeing violence from the "Northern Triangle" of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, three countries with some of the world's highest murder and poverty rates. Since 2011, there has been a 1,789% increase in asylum requests by Central Americans.
After unaccompanied children arriving in the U.S. increased to more than 44,500 in 2014, the U.S. began pressuring Mexico to step up detentions and even provided funding to be used by Mexican federal authorities to secure the country's Southern border. The crackdown has made the journey increasingly more dangerous for migrants seeking alternate routes into Mexico, RAICES Policy Director Amy Fischer said.
In 2013, Mexico detained 9,600 children, a number that climbed to 23,000 in 2014, the year U.S. aid was increased. In 2015, 36,000 children were detained, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
And more are coming. Data recently released by the Obama administration reveals that in fiscal year 2016, which ended in September, almost 409,000 migrants were caught attempting to cross the Southwestern U.S. border. Most were from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. That's a 23% increase over 2015.
All along the way, those fleeing violence at home find it again on the path north in the form of rape, assault, and theft. Dignity is often the first thing lost along the trail.
"Around 80% of women and girls are raped on their journey through Mexico," Fischer told the Rivard Report. In addition, migrants have suffered theft, forced labor, kidnappings, and death. Oftentimes, corrupt and sadistic Mexican authorities are complicit.
At The Border
For those who make it as far as the U.S.-Mexico border, there is still the fear of la migra, an all-encompassing word that covers the U.S. security forces arrayed along the border: Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the U.S. Border Patrol.
"Me sentí peor que delincuente," said Maria Yanneth, as she explained how she felt after her apprehension by Border Patrol agents in South Texas.
"They said vulgar phrases to us and treated me horribly," she added angrily. "I don't understand English, but vulgarity in any language is understood.
"They are very disrespectful. Truthfully, I regret having come here, because of what I've had to live through ... I thought I would come here to this country and feel supported. I should have gone to Italy or Spain instead."
Not everyone reaches the U.S. border. Some experience violence before they can flee.
"I was kidnapped with my husband and they released me, but my husband turned up dead ... his body tortured, without an arm and a leg," Maria Yanneth said, with watery eyes and a faraway look. "They were asking for money that we did not have. In Colombia, there are gangs that make you pay them to run your commercial business. They call it vacuna. They asked us for more money, and my husband said we would not pay. Se confío."
Her husband's defiance cost him his life and sent surviving family members running.
When Maria Yanneth reported her husband's murder to local authorities, FARC members found out and threatened to kidnap her again. She and her son Fernando escaped on the first available flight before local FARC guerillas could locate her.
"In my country I was a social worker, I'm an educated woman, I'm not an ignorant person. I told them (Border Patrol) that this makes me feel like a criminal, when I'm not one," she said, pointing to her ankle-monitor, which all women are required to wear after leaving detention. "These are inhumane things. If we take it off, they'll deport us."
Asylum seekers who turned themselves in or were arrested on the U.S. side of the border and later interviewed by the Rivard Report described a harrowing experience that then ensued. Border Patrol agents, without any explanation beforehand, transported them to a place migrants call la hielera, or ice house, a small, unheated room where they were kept for 24 hours or more. They were then transferred to what they nicknamed la perrera, the dog house, where they spent another two days before finally being transported to one of the family detention centers.
"The perrera is a cage. It's like putting a dog in there," Odalma said. "It's very inhumane – just for crossing the border, someone who has never hurt anyone is treated like a criminal. When I asked for some water for my daughter they told me to go to the bathroom and drink from the sink."
In fact, federal authorities had no provisions or policies for differentiating between criminals, undocumented immigrants, and women and children seeking asylum.
RAICES Managing Attorney Manoj Govindaiah, who is in charge of the organization's family detention project, coordinates with attorneys on the ground at the Dilley and Karnes detention centers in South Texas, where detained families are held. Their attorneys represent individuals at asylum hearings before federal judges.
Govindaiah told the Rivard Report that it's not illegal to seek asylum, and that technically, when asylum seekers step on U.S. soil and ask for help, they are complying with the law.
"Under our laws, you cannot apply for asylum outside the United States," Govindaiah explained. "If you live in Honduras, and you're afraid, you can't go to the embassy and say 'I want to apply for asylum.' You have to physically be here (in the U.S.)."
Govindaiah called Trump's campaign promises to order mass deportations and construction of a border security wall "horrifying."
Trump's immigration plan aims to "increase standards for the admission of refugees and asylum seekers to crack down on abuses," a reference to the belief that many immigrants claim asylum as a way to sneak into the U.S. solely for economic or personal reasons. The plan would deny benefits to refugees and asylum seekers and calls for detaining any unauthorized immigrants from the moment they are apprehended all the way through deportation.
No one who interviews survivors about their long trek north would doubt their honesty.
Although Trump has claimed President Barack Obama's stance on immigration is soft, numbers from the Department of Homeland Security show that the Obama administration has deported more people than any other administration in history, and more than the total deportations carried out by all presidents in the 20th century. Between 2009 and 2014, 2.4 million people were deported, according to the Pew Research Center.
"Asylum seekers are people that are fleeing horrific violence that have nowhere else to go," Govindaiah said. "Who makes the decision to pick up and leave everything behind and just run for your life? No one makes that decision willy-nilly. And if they can't find refuge in a country that has the resources to actually support them, then where are they gonna go?"
U.S. History of International Intervention
The United States, a country founded and built by immigrants, never really needed to build walls. That perception has changed.
"If you think about it, the first colonists from Europe were fleeing religious persecution, so they came here," Govindaiah said. "If you put aside the way we decimated the Native Americans, we were founded by refugees."
The U.S. has international obligations and treaties that it must adhere to, Govindaiah added, and failing to provide refuge to those in need would be "a complete betrayal of our history."
Fischer agrees that moving away from that tradition would be "shameful."
"We have to understand that we, as a nation, have a hand in a lot of the instability in Central America and we are not innocent in this whole situation," she said. "For us to be complicit in the instability that's happening in those countries, but at the same time turn our backs to those that our fleeing seeking safety, is unfathomable and un-American."
Fischer noted U.S. involvement in the 2009 coup in Honduras, which dethroned the country's democratically elected president, José Manuel Zelaya, and caused a slew of state-sponsored repression and escalating violence.
"What's happening over there is not in a vacuum," she added. "It's also our responsibility."
In addition, the thriving multi-billion dollar illicit drug trade, which fuels much of the gang activity and violence people in Latin America are fleeing, is directly tied to consumption of drugs north of the border in the U.S.
"When we look at the gangs that have so much control (in a country like Honduras), the roots of that are in the United States," Fischer said. "Folks smoking marijuana or taking cocaine ... we are being complicit in the very violence that results in a woman leaving her country and fleeing for her life because gangs have beaten her or threatened her children."
Many women have no choice but to embark on a treacherous journey, Fischer said.
It's their last chance.
Once migrants are apprehended at the border, the only factor deciding whether they are released or taken to detention centers depends on the bed space currently available at the centers, Govindaiah said: "It's completely random."
In order to not keep individuals in the dark about the asylum process, he added, volunteers and lawyers visit the detention centers and provide the families with legal counsel.
"We are there four to five days a week, and each day we probably meet with 60 or 70 clients, so (these are) really big numbers we're dealing with," Govindaiah said. "I want to say maybe in 2015 we had over 400 volunteers – so lawyers, interpreters, researchers, and mental health professionals."
Before a U.S. district judge ruled that women and children could not be kept in detention facilities for more than 20 days, "families were held (for several) months, for even up to a year," Fischer said. "The issue here is that the conditions have not improved and the system is built up against them. They are the most at-risk of being deported back to the violence they were fleeing."
'Credible Fear' Interview
"After having had this terrible experience with Border Patrol, where officers are incredibly rude, they get taken to Karnes or Dilley and have to go through this 'credible fear' interview process," Govindaiah said. "They have to explain why they fled their country and have to show they meet the basic requirements of asylum. You have to show you've suffered past persecution, or you have a well-founded fear of future persecution. And then you have to show that your government is unwilling or unable to protect you."
Govindaiah said many people struggle emotionally to open up to law enforcement officials because they come from countries where people fear anyone in a uniform. It's hard for them to know who to trust on this side of the border.
"All of a sudden you're put into this credible fear interview with this stranger who doesn't speak Spanish," he added. "And there's an interpreter on the phone, but you have to disclose your deepest darkest secrets, like 'I was raped' or 'So-and-so killed my brother' ... all these horrible things which people are reluctant to do ... or they've been treated like shit since they've been in this country, so why would they open up to this person?”
This, Govindaiah says, is the biggest challenge he faces. Many asylum seekers are so resigned to daily abuse in their lives, they have come to experience trauma and violence as the norm.
"For example, someone who has been through decades of domestic violence may not even realize that domestic violence should not be happening – that as a human being they have a right to exist in the world in a way that does not involve regular abuse," he said. "That concept might not even exist in their minds."
A Broken System
Many of the women do not realize it is a judge, not law enforcement officers, who decides who wins asylum. Asylum seekers must fill out an application in English, submit to fingerprinting, undergo cross-examination, and they are required to submit evidence supporting their claims.
Deadlines make it an even bigger challenge.
"You have to apply for asylum within one year of entering. If not, they get deported in their absence, so they have warrants for their arrest."
The process for asylum is lengthy. Hearing and trial dates in U.S. immigration courts where attendance is mandatory are spaced out over several years.
"There's too many cases and not enough courts," Govindaiah said. "Someone can be here for five to six years and they still don't even know if they can stay. So you go back to your country after being here for five to six years and then what? The system doesn't make any sense at all. It's too long, so it's impossible to follow the law to a 'T' and do everything the way it's supposed to be done.”
Without the help of Govindaiah and other lawyers, many asylum seekers would be lost and subject to arrest and deportation.
"I sort of feel like they're being set up to fail," Govindaiah said. "People are entering, they're being released into the world, told they're gonna have a court date and then (are) not given any help, resources, or information about what to do about that court date.
"I think we need a better system to process their cases more efficiently and more effectively. I think the system is broken now.”
After detained families are released from Karnes or Dilley and pass their credible fear interviews, they are taken via bus to downtown San Antonio. If it wasn't for an army of dedicated volunteers who come to the downtown Greyhound station to offer the families refuge, they might spend that first night on the streets. Volunteers take them to Casa Raices, which many simply call "casa" – home.
The house serves as a transition point as they make their way to their next destination in this new country. Many have a family member or a point of contact somewhere in the U.S., someone who can serve as a "sponsor" as they pursue legal asylum.
The women and children are assigned their own rooms and commonly gather in the kitchen to share stories. Some speak the same language, others do not. Most finally find a sense of tranquility and a helping hand here. The women help with the upkeep of the house, and when it's time to cook, they collaborate with the Casa Raices staff member on duty. Many times that's 42-year-old Yanira Lopez Lucas, a woman from Guatemala who once passed through this home herself when she was released from detention.
Yanira has been living in the U.S. for more than one year and now possesses a state of Texas-issued photo ID and work permit. Her three children, Daniel, David, and Melany, attend classes at a nearby school while she works at Casa Raices to help other women who are living what she once lived.
It's a long ways from the Guatemala highlands. While they were forced to flee for their lives, that doesn't mean they don't long for home and everything they lost there.
Each day, Yanira thinks of ways to prepare different dishes to feed and nourish the women. She shows newcomers how to use the house landline telephone to call family members back home. Her "heart is touched," she said, when newly arrived residents recount their own harrowing stories.
"Some of them crossed the bridge, others crossed the river (to the U.S.), but most of them have passed through deserts or used a train through Mexico," Yanira said. "Pero son experiencias muy difíciles and that makes one relate to the new mothers who come and tell their stories. I tell them, 'Yes it's true, because I lived it,' and I was alone when I passed through the worst nightmare of my life. In this house we make sure they feel at home, like a family."
Yanira has heard it all: women who say they latched on to the sides of trains – which migrants call "the beast" – in order to traverse through Mexico, others who were kidnapped by drug cartels, and women who have gone crazy inside the perrera because they were separated from their children.
"I get goosebumps just thinking about it," she said. "I understand the trauma that someone suffers in their home country, and when you arrive here it only gets worse. You come with the mentality that this country will help you, but you only receive insults."
Yanira thinks Trump is loquísimo (crazy). She doesn't understand why people support him or his proposed policies.
"Just like I told the guy from immigration: I'm not here because I want to come on vacation. In my country I was with my kids, working, food was not lacking, I had a happy life and would go play soccer with my girlfriends ... from the night to the morning we had to escape quickly due to the situation we lived.
"Lo único que uno viene a pedir aquí es ayuda (the only thing that someone who comes is going to ask for is help)," she added. "No one comes to take anything away from anyone, no one is taking anyone's job, and no one comes thinking the government is going to take care of them."