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Photo: Illustration by Hernan Valencia

The journey of one U.S. asylum seeker fleeing a Honduran death squad illuminates the perils and pitfalls of a fickle and complex system

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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David had barely eaten in days. Narrowly escaping the Mexican authorities, he had traveled by bus and foot and luck—finding help from kind strangers just when he needed it—and after three months, he had finally arrived at the Rio Grande.  

He wasn’t supposed to be there alone. Somewhere around Puebla, more than halfway through their 1,500-mile odyssey from Honduras to the U.S./Mexico border, David had been separated from his wife and son. He didn’t know whether they were ahead of him or behind, but he had to keep going. He wasn’t sure where he was headed, but there was no turning back.

He checked his pockets and saw he had almost run through all of the cash his family wired him in the middle of his journey—proceeds from selling his old car, the one he raced through the streets of San Pedro Sula fleeing his would-be hitmen. He left so quickly there was no time to hawk it.

He called his mother, who he had not seen since she fled Honduras several years prior, and gave her the news. He too had run. His life, and that of his family, was in constant peril—the targets of a death squad tied to local police.

“It was very difficult to leave at that time, my son was only three,” David said in Spanish. “We took very little with us, and had to leave everything—quit our jobs with no notice. But if we stayed they would’ve continued persecuting us … we would’ve been kidnapped, or killed.”

At the border, he scraped together the last of his cash for a bite to eat, then crossed along the southeast section, not far from the Gulf of Mexico. Almost immediately U.S. Customs and Border Patrol grabbed him and he was sent to a detention facility near Hidalgo, Texas.

David was placed in the “hielera” or icebox, he said, using the nickname immigrants give to CBP holding cells that are kept viciously cold.

“There were so many of us in a single large cell that you couldn’t lie down all the way, and it was still so cold in there. We barely had anything to eat.”

After five days they called his name, loaded him onto a bus with his hands and feet shackled, and sent him off to the unknown. It was the summer of 2016, and after months of travel to reach the United States, his journey through a complex and fickle immigration system was just beginning.

For decades, the United States has been one of the world’s most welcoming countries, taking in more resettled refugees than any other nation since 1980. But just as David arrived, a shift in attitude was afoot. Some of the first moves of President Donald Trump’s administration restricted immigration, placing higher scrutiny on asylum seekers. Central Americans, like David, have some of the lowest rates of asylum approvals, and as his case wound its way through the courts, the national discourse around immigration and asylees grew more contentious.

The outcomes for U.S. asylum cases vary extremely depending on several key factors. Where the case is heard, the particular judge presiding, whether the petitioner is released on bond or held in detention, and if they have a lawyer or not all contribute to the calculus of who stays and who doesn’t. For David, the odds were starting to stack up against him.

“I told them, send me anywhere, anywhere in the entire world, just don’t send me back to Honduras. I can’t go back.”  

A Beautiful Perspective met with David in person at his home in the United States and reviewed his case with his attorney. Given the nature of his situation, including ongoing violence and threats against his family in Honduras and abroad, ABP is not revealing David’s real name and other identifying details. ABP is also withholding the name of his attorney, which could be used to locate case records leading to David. Just this year a relative was approached in the streets of Honduras and attacked with a knife, and more than a dozen family members have been the targets of either harassment or violence, according to his attorney.

Back in the U.S., David spent three days shackled on the bus fearing the worst, with no idea if he was headed to a detention facility, court, release or deportation back to Honduras and the people out to kill him. When the bus finally stopped he was offloaded at a Pompano Beach, Florida, detention center, his case slated for Miami’s immigration court, one of the toughest in the country for asylum seekers.

“From there, things just looked worse,” David said. “I thought I’d be deported for sure.”

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A military police officer frisks men for weapons and drugs inside a bar located at the market in a high-crime area of Comayaguela, Honduras. Honduras had the second highest murder rate in the world as of 2016. Esteban Felix/AP Photo

A few years earlier, David had no intention of leaving Honduras. He was studying to be a mechanical engineer at night while working at a factory during the day. He was on track to graduate and get a good technical job, or, if he really followed his dreams, join the military. He hadn’t considered leaving, even after his mother disappeared.

“I’d never really thought of going to the United States,” he said. “The style of life is so different in Honduras, not as accelerated. In my neighborhood all the people would be in front of their home in the evenings chatting, with the kids playing in the streets. You know the people and it’s a vibrant environment.”

In 2009 democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya was spirited out of the country wearing his pajamas in the middle of the night to Costa Rica, in what the majority of the international community recognized as a military coup supported by the country’s elites. The United States at first condemned Zelaya’s ouster as illegal, but instead of throwing its considerable weight in the hemisphere behind the president’s return, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for new elections. Honduras’ institutions, like the supreme court that declared the coup legitimate, lost the veneer of independence, and violence in the country, already relatively high, escalated from there, including attacks on activists, journalists and human rights observers. After the coup, the murder rate in Honduras increased from 61 per 100,000 in 2008 to peak at 93 per 100,000 in 2012, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). As of 2015, the rate was 64 homicides per 100,000 residents, the second highest in the world.

“Honduras, yes, has its problems, everyone knows, but I truly had a tranquil, nice life,” David said. “I worked, I went to school, I never touched drugs or alcohol and stayed out of trouble. My life was normal.”

A few years into the new government led by Porfirio Lobo Sosa, David, 18 at the time, was living with his mother, stepfather and sister in a tough area of San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second biggest city.

One day while he was out, their home was raided. His stepfather murdered; his mom and sister gone without a trace. He knew they’d been targeted for something and his mom was on the run, but he didn’t know why or where. David went to live nearby with a family member. He married, had a son and moved out on his own, but a menace lingered.

It started with phone calls, strangers asking about his mother. Eventually they grew more threatening and violent in nature. He changed his number, but the calls kept coming. David, who was occasionally communicating with his mother, had no idea where she was living—for his safety and for hers. Over time the threats became more jarring, and one morning on the way to work he was confronted in person.

“I thought they wanted to mug me at first, take my computer or phone. But really they wanted to scare me, to get information on my mom,” David said.

The interrogations were always about his mother and her whereabouts. Finally, David decided to report what was happening to the police, putting his name on a statement detailing the threats and harassment.

“That night they called and said: ‘We know where you live, and we’re coming to kill you.’”

“It’s supposed to be in private, but they had a big line of people waiting to put their report in at the station and they just have you do it out there in a room where everyone else can hear you,” David said. “They didn’t take me seriously, but they said they’d investigate and get back to me.”

Instead the calls escalated, always the same voice but calling from a different number each time.

“They said, ‘We’re not coming for your mom anymore, we’re coming for you,’” David said. “They knew I had filed a report and they knew everything I said in it.”

He tried to take more precautions, never allowing his wife to go out alone, but the threats grew closer and more aggressive. One day while David was out running errands, some men tried to grab him in public. He wrestled free and jumped in his car, racing through the streets toward home. As they closed in, smashing into his car, he neared his neighborhood, one controlled by rival gangs where you need to “know the code, the signal” in order to pass, David said. The men in pursuit screeched to a halt.

“They knew that if they entered that neighborhood without being from there, without being known, they would be shot at from all directions,” David said. “That night they called and said: ‘We know where you live, and we’re coming to kill you.’”

David sold everything in his apartment as fast as he could. He left with his wife, son and roughly $4,000. No time for it to sink in that he might be leaving his hometown, and Honduras, for good.

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Central American migrants emerge travel at night not their way to a train in Chiapas state, Mexico. Thousands of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador make the perilous journey north each year. Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo

From San Pedro Sula it is roughly 70 miles to the Guatemala border, then about another 250 on to Mexico. His son was a toddler at the time, and David and his wife spent much of the journey carrying him, while they traveled by bus and on foot.

The Trump administration has taken several steps to restrict and discourage asylum grants. A recent set of draft regulations includes provisions that would make it difficult for victims of domestic violence or gangs to qualify for asylum and would ban asylum for any person who enters the country illegally, as well as those with multiple misdemeanors. The administration’s stated goal is to discourage Central American migrants, who it says are taking advantage of U.S. generosity and looking for jobs rather than fleeing persecution.

While immigrants who make it onto U.S. soil have a legal right to apply for asylum, countries have far more control over the number of refugees who are granted approval to relocate from a third nation for resettlement. In 2016, nearly 85,000 refugees were resettled in the United States, but at the current pace, the country will admit just 20,000 refugees in 2018, the fewest in any year since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980.

“There has been a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment,” said Kate Lincoln-GoldFinch, an Austin-based immigration attorney who handles asylum cases. “There’s been an effort to dehumanize asylum seekers, and this administration appears to be making every attempt it can envision to discourage asylum applicants and refugees—the family separations, the long lines for people turning themselves in at the border. We entered international conventions recognizing the rights of those fleeing persecution after World War II for obvious reasons, and we have an obligation, a moral obligation, to honor that … When you think of our history as a nation of immigrants, this is an attempt to shift the identity of our country.”

The White House has suggested entering a safe third country agreement with Mexico in response to Central Americans, mainly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, coming to the United States. The accord would force asylum seekers who transit through Mexico to apply for protection there, and would authorize U.S. immigration officials to turn back people who have entered the country seeking refuge.

In Mexico, a person has 30 days upon entering the country to apply for asylum, and processing delays can last years. In 2017, 14,596 people asked for asylum in Mexico—a 66 percent increase over 2016—and 1,907 requests were approved. The United States, by contrast, allows immigrants a year to apply for asylum, and has averaged 23,669 asylum approvals per year from 2007 to 2016.

“There are many barriers to accessing asylum in Mexico,” David’s immigration attorney said. “Mexico would not have been safe for his family. The country is infiltrated with dangerous groups. There is no rule of law for women or vulnerable people. If someone wanted to target them in Mexico, they could do so with impunity. The same with Guatemala.”

Near the central Mexican city of Puebla, immigration officials stopped David and his family. Rounding up a large group of traveling migrants, the officials chose to hold David and let his wife and son go. Loaded into a truck overflowing with people, David and a few others jumped out along the way to the detention center and made a run for it. He continued his journey, but he’d lost his phone and money and had no way of reaching his family.  

“At that moment some others traveling to the border helped me. They invited me to go with them and helped me out with a little money. You don’t always have to go with a coyote,” David said, referring to the common term for a human smuggler on the U.S./Mexico border. “A lot of people go alone and will find someone who has been before and knows the way.”

When he reached the Rio Grande, he called his mother for the first time since he’d left Honduras. David had been kept in the dark about her whereabouts before he left, but now they had been pushed back together by the same threat. His mother had been in the United States all along and had an active asylum case, one that had started before David got married.

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Central American migrants ride a northern-bound train known as "La Bestia," or The Beast through Sonora state, Mexico. These migrants were part of the immigrant caravan that drew national attention in spring 2-18. Luis Gutierrez/AP Photo

When David made it to the U.S. he finally learned about the events that had set his harrowing journey into motion. His stepfather had witnessed a murder and had gone to the police to file a report. But the killers were somehow tied to the cops, and, just like David, filing the report had made his stepfather a target.

“It was the police who came to our house and killed my stepfather,” David said. “They came in their police uniforms.”

His mom fled Honduras soon after her husband was killed, yet the people responsible lurked over the family with impunity. When one family member escaped, another person close to them would become the target. It’s a pattern that continues to this day.

“What touched me particularly about this case was that the family members kept getting threatened and harmed as we worked on the case … all these horrible things kept happening as we went. Things keep happening even now. They still aren’t safe.”

After he was picked up by border patrol near Hidalgo, Texas, David, who does not speak English, said he told the immigration officials about his fears of returning to Honduras and refused to sign untranslated documents.

“They didn’t believe me,” he said. “… It wasn’t just me, they would yell and scream at the people in detention, make them cry.”

In January 2017 one of the Trump Administration’s first moves in office was to increase scrutiny on asylum seekers during the credible fear review, a meeting with U.S. citizenship and immigration officials who determine if the person’s case can continue in the courts. The new guidance removes a passage that said if an asylum officer has reasonable doubt about a person’s credibility, they should allow the case to move forward to an immigration judge for a full hearing. The new version also loosens the stipulations about using the applicant’s “demeanor, candor and responsiveness” as reasons to doubt the veracity of their claims. Asylum authorities could, theoretically, deny credible fear because the immigrant appears stressed, a dangerously fuzzy behavior to appraise, considering previous versions of the rule note demeanor is often affected by cultural factors, like being detained in a foreign land, not speaking the language and trauma suffered at home or along the way to the United States.

David was transferred to a detention center in Pompano Beach, Florida, and his case would be heard in a Miami area immigration court. Across the United States, immigration courts, on average, reject 53 percent of asylum applications, but there is cavernous range from court to court and between individual judges in the same court. Between 2012-2017, the denial rates of all judges in the Miami area’s two immigration courts ranged from 53 percent to 97 percent, and the courts’ combined rejection rate of 82 percent far outpaced the U.S. average. At the Newark, New Jersey court the variance is even wider, the odds of denial swinging between 11 percent to 99 percent depending upon the presiding judge.

Rumors and intel spread among the immigrants in custody, and some courts and judges have reputations that precede them. A few courts, in Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas and Atlanta, are called “asylum free zones” by detainees and immigrant advocates because of their high denial rates. In Miami, David drew Judge Scott G. Alexander, who had a denial rate of

91 percent from 2016-2017, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization based out of Syracuse University.

“I was held there for three months, and the situation seemed worse,” David said. “I heard that the judge there doesn’t grant asylum to practically anyone and I was very concerned. It’s a very tough court.”

As David was being transferred from Texas he got word to his mom that he was on the move. By then, her lawyer had also agreed to take on his case.

There is no guarantee of a lawyer in U.S. immigration courts, and nine out 10 asylum applicants who do not have an attorney see their claims denied. Those with representation have a 46 percent acceptance rate. The nationality of the applicant also weighs heavily. Of the 10 nationalities with the highest number of applicants between 2011-2016, Mexico had the highest denial rate at 90 percent, with Honduras close behind at 80 percent. Whether or not the asylum seeker is released on bond is also an important factor, and immigration bonds, when granted, tend to be higher than criminal bonds and must be paid in cash.

“There are incredible inconsistencies among judges,” David’s lawyer said. “Some grant one percent and some grant 95 percent. There is no justice really. It’s the luck of the draw. One of the most important things to highlight is it is much, much harder to win asylum from detention. It’s harder to gather evidence, to work on your own case. There is no due process in detention.”

A migrant at reads a newspaper at a camp at the El Chaparral Border Crossing, in Tijuana, Mexico. Camps of men, women and children have sprung up along the border as they face long waits to see U.S. immigrational officials.

When David appeared for his credible fear interview and bond hearing, his attorney represented him by phone. She explained the threats targeted not just David but the entire extended family, and that he has a child and wife who counted on his support. Separately, he passed the credible fear interview, and the judge eventually lowered his bond. After four years David was going to see his mom again. He boarded a plane and she, his wife, son and many others met him when he landed.

“There were like 30 people there, and I really didn’t want to cry,” David said. “But my mom started to cry, and I just couldn’t help it.”

Their attorney filed asylum applications for each family member and requested they be consolidated under one case in the city where David’s mom, and now the whole family, had resettled. It was also a court where the rate of asylum denials was close to the national average.

By early 2017, roughly nine months after David entered the United States, he was granted permission to work while the asylum case proceeded. Meanwhile, they helped their attorney compile as much evidence as possible, poring over the fine details of traumas, reliving past attacks in hope of escaping future ones. There were witnesses who supported their claims of harassment and violence, newspaper articles, letters, medical records, police and government reports, photographs and more. Some family members, scared for their own safety, declined to help.

“What touched me particularly about this case was that the family members kept getting threatened and harmed as we worked on the case,” David’s attorney said. “Typically people come and tell me what happened to them in the past. But with this one, all these horrible things kept happening as we went. Things keep happening even now. They still aren’t safe.”

In spring 2018, almost two years after David crossed the Rio Grande, and four years after the case began with his mom, a judge granted the family asylum.

“My mom could not stop crying … from happiness,” he said. “At that moment she was just finishing a battle against cancer. She had suffered so much, and I think in that moment she saw that things were starting to turn out well.”

For David’s part, he felt a sense of relief, but no great joy. He returned to his job as a roofer after the court hearing, a job he hates because it’s not mechanical engineering, or the military, or any of the dreams he was on the way to accomplishing in Honduras. The education he worked hard for is “worth nothing” in this country, he said, and there are only so many jobs he can land without English skills. He has struggled to find community and feel at home in the United States, and has been confronted with anti-immigrant epithets more than once.

“It’s very difficult, one of the most difficult things to do is change countries,” he said. “You lose weight. You get depressed. You want to be able to talk with people, but you can’t. It’s very difficult here.”

David leaves for work at 6 a.m., returns home at 6 p.m., then focuses on spending time with his wife and son. Worried about the safety of those still in Honduras, he limits contact with friends and relatives back home.

“I appreciate that I’ve been offered refuge, but I still like my country for all the problems it has,” David said, tears filling his eyes. “To be forced to go because your government cannot protect you, to go where you don’t know anyone, don’t know the language, you don’t know what to do … I mean I was about to graduate from university, and I had to throw it all away. It’s extremely hard.”

One thing David does have now is some stability. With asylum granted, the whole family can finally turn toward the future, though always wary and aware of the threat back home.

“I understand that I probably can never go back to Honduras ever again. Members of my family have been attacked there recently,” David said. “But I have a family I need to take care of, and I have plans. I’m going to go to school and learn English so I can work toward a better job.”

Maybe he’ll join the U.S. armed forces, he says, military service still interests him. Now 23, sitting at a dining room table in an apartment he’s lived in for six months, scarcely a picture or decoration hung on the walls, he has severed his old life to start anew. Like a rotting limb hastily hacked off to save the patient, he knows the decision was for the best, but the phantom visions of what was lost may never fade.