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‘Life in your hands’: Migrants must clear high asylum hurdles

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- All Isela can do is hope.

She's one of dozens of migrants who have found temporary refuge at the Buen Samaritano shelter in Juarez.

The Peruvian fled from her home country six months ago. The pandemic shuttered her business, and that left her in debt. A debt that she says gang members came to collect.

"They came to our home with guns," Isela said in Spanish. "If my country were safe, and if there were work, I wouldn't be here."

Isela requested asylum in December, and she has yet to have her first hearing in immigration court. She has family in New York, and hopes that she'll be allowed to reunite with them as she navigates her asylum process.

"My biggest fear is being sent back," she said.

Manuel Tinto, a Honduran asylum seeker, arrived to Juarez with his teenage son more than two years ago. He lost his case.

"I started crying when I lost my case," Tinto said. "I felt a strong pain in my chest, my heart. I came here with the idea that I could live a more secure life for my family."

Rather than showing up to his appeal hearing, he decided to stay in Juarez. He currently works in construction and is hopeful that he could some day be granted asylum in the U.S. Returning to his home country is not an option. He said gangs tried to force his son to join.

"Proving that you may be killed or proving that you will likely be killed is actually not enough to win asylum. Asylum is not meant to protect all who are in imminent danger," said Linda Rivas, the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.

The government defines an asylee as someone who is, "unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

There's a key difference between asylees and refugees. The U.S. caps how many refugees it accepts each year. But since asylum seekers must set foot on U.S. soil to request protection, there is no cap.

So, asylum seekers must prove they are being persecuted, and that their government can't protect them.

“They want a better situation. If they could keep themselves and their children safe, they would not come to the United States,” Rivas said.

That was the case for Julio Gonzalez and Enrique Henriquez. The Salvadoran couple made their way to the U.S. in 2017.

"Gangs realized that we lived together. They realized that we're gay," Julio said.

They were extorted, and Julio said when they went to the police, officers laughed in their faces.

After asking for asylum, Julio and Enrique spent a year detained at the El Paso ICE detention facility.

"It was a very difficult process. We were detained for practically one year," he said.

But they had an attorney, Linda Rivas. Having legal representation exponentially raises the chances of success.

According to data compiled by Syracuse University's TRAC, only 7 percent of asylum seekers have been able to win their cases without an attorney in the last 20 years.

Julio and Enrique had to get letters from friends and loved ones corroborating their story, and show pictures from their time in El Salvador to prove that they were in fact a couple.

"The same thing you told the customs agent, is the same thing that’s written in the asylum application, and it’s the same thing you’ve told me looking me in the eye," Julio says the immigration judge told him.

The couple are now lawful permanent residents living in Arkansas.

Julio, once a teacher, and Enrique a dancer now work at a cleaning company, and as a cook at Sonic.

"We didn't have an American dream. Our dream was to be together and happy," Julio said.

It's tough for Julio and Enrique to know that they're some of the lucky ones. Many of the people they met while they were detained have been deported.

"It's sad to see. Unfortunately, they don't meet the criteria," Enrique said. "We are truly blessed."

There are several factors that determine whether an asylum seeker is successful. Asylum rates vary greatly depending on who the immigration judge is. Denial rates range from 76.8% - 92.2% with El Paso immigration judges.

"It feels really nice to be able to be ourselves," Enrique said.

And it's that dream of feeling comfortable and safe that keeps migrants heading North, despite the odds being stacked against them.

Article Topic Follows: On the Border

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Mauricio Casillas

El Paso native Mauricio Casillas is a former co-anchor of ABC-7’s Good Morning El Paso.


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