Laura Carlsen spoke to asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, who were turned back at the US-Mexico border. They tell about harrowing experiences with US border patrol and the dangers they face in Mexico
LAURA CARLSEN: Tijuana is one of the deadliest cities in Mexico. Here, cartels battle each other for routes to the multimillion-dollar US drug market. Murder, assault, sex trafficking and extortion are daily occurrences.
Yet this is where the Trump administration is sending people who seek asylum in the US, mostly families facing danger and persecution in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
For many, it’s out of the pot and into the fire.
Oscar Ruiz left Honduras when he could no longer pay the five different gangs that demanded a cut of earnings as a taxi driver in Tegucigalpa. He has a brother in Miami who could take him in as he awaits his asylum hearing, set for November 18. But after waiting months for his preliminary hearing, he’s been sent back to wait in Tijuana.
OSCAR: “…Supposedly people who are waiting for asylum should be sent there. I have family there and here I don’t have anyone. I’m sleeping badly, sleeping with bedbugs in the shelters, I even got sick. I don’t have any support here. I have support there with my brother who’s there. No, no, it’s abusive. They said: ‘If you don’t sign, we´ll sign for you! We’re going to deport you, you have to go to Mexico, you have to wait for your hearing there.’
LAURA CARLSEN: Lawyers claim the Remain in Mexico program violates the law, due process and the human rights of asylum seekers.
Nicole Ramos directs the border Rights Project of Al Otro lado. Her legal services organization sees scores of returned asylum seekers a day here in its office in downtown Tijuana.
NICOLE: “We call it the ‘Migrant Persecution Protocols’… extortion police”
LAURA CARLSEN: The remain in Mexico program is one of a series of Trump measures to chisel away at access to seeking asylum in the United States—a right enshrined in national and international law. Trump expanded it. The labor union for federal asylum officers filed an amicus brief against the policy, calling it “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation.” and stating that it endangers the lives of asylum seekers. House democrats have sponsored a bill to prevent federal funds from being used for the program.
Here at the “El Chaparral” pedestrian crossing, authorities send groups of between 25-50 asylum seekers back every day. Experts and migrants interviewed agreed that Tijuana is not a safe place for them.
Miguel Angel was in the Salvadoran army until he received death threats from the gangs. He’s afraid to leave his room because the same gangs operate in Tijuana.
MIGUEL ANGEL: I understood that people who request asylum are held there as they plead their case. And they’re expelling me again back to Mexico, and in practical terms, Mexico isn’t safe for me. If you go out, it’s because you have to find something to eat, because you have to, to survive, and if you walk around—for example I live here in the downtown area, and there’s always gangs around there. You can’t leave your room, because it’s not safe.
DOLORES: You have to take into account that many of the youth and adolescents that come here—the men– come fleeing forced recruitment by gangs in their home countries. We can see this problem in Tijuana in all the neighborhoods they live in, and they‘re very visible, because they’re from abroad and they don’t have resources, they don’t have anywhere to stay. So obviously these are people who are in very vulnerable conditions.
LAURA CARLSEN: Returned migrants we talked also described suffering physical and psychological torture at the hands of immigration officials in the U.S. We heard dozens of stories of days in the freezing holding cell known as the icebox, lack of medical attention, no natural light or constant light, bad food, abuse and mockery.
Gail was given 24 hours to leave Honduras after she rescued her brother from a gang house. She talked back to an agent at the detention center in Calexico–and was abruptly sent back across the border with her 9 year-old son that night.
GAIL: You know, it’s just chaos, because the treatment is terrible. I told her: you know what? You’re fine, you get to breathe fresh air and see sunlight—because here where you’ve got us, it’s seven days of night. And she tells me ‘I dont know why you’re seeking asylum, if you can’t handle it.”
LAURA CARLSEN: The psychological torture can be worse than the physical. José, who asked not to show his face for fear of the gangs that threatened him in Honduras, had to leave behind his wife and baby in Siguatepeque. He tells us that migration officials taunted him during his interview, with his 6 year-old daughter at this side:
JOSÉ: The other person there who interviewed me, I told you, asked me why I went north and why I left my wife, and said did I know that at this moment—and this is how he said it, just how I’m telling you—that at this moment someone could be screwing my wife, someone could be raping my wife and me here, without being able to protect her and things like that…. I didn’t say anything, just answered their questions, but when they make fun of you in English, they just laugh.
LAURA CARLSEN: With few options for housing or employment, and easy prey for organized crime, asylum seekers confirm to us the danger and hardships for families fleeing persecution and sent back to Mexico. The experts call it “revictimization”. Asylum seekers call it cruel and unfair. They’re asking for help in what they say is an increasingly intolerable situation, here in Tijuana and in other border cities.
OSCAR: I fled my country because I had problems with the gangs, I was working and I had my business and they were extorting me—I had to pay a monthly quota.
They’ll kill me. Stuff me in a sack and throw me out like a dog in a crematorium, maybe.
We left our country because we have real problems, not to come up and find more suffering here.