‘If we’re all together, I can handle it’

‘If we’re all together, I can handle it’

Originally published by The Washington Post

From a little brick house in Tapachula, Mexico, Rosa Gomez tried to outlast President Trump.

She had a stack of gruesome evidence to support a claim for asylum in the United States. The newspaper clipping about her husband, gunned down by gangs in Honduras. The text messages that followed after she fled: We know where you are. We’re going to kill you.

A sworn statement that says the gang found her family hiding in Mexico.

“It’s like a horror movie,” she said.

But she refused to try to enter the United States until Trump stopped his “zero tolerance” policy of separating parents and children, even though she intended to cross through a legal port of entry and therefore would not have been subject to automatic separation.

“Mami,” her oldest daughter called out June 20, after scanning her phone for the latest news. “He’s not doing it anymore.”

“Que bueno,” Gomez replied. “Let’s go.”

Their journey over the next few days would show that the threat of family separation was one of many obstacles faced by migrants from Central America trying to cross the border into the United States.

Asylum seekers like Gomez who arrive at legal entry points — where the Trump administration says they should go — are forced to wait on bridges for hours or days. Some have been turned back before reaching U.S. soil and told to come back later.

Other migrants cross illegally, on land or through the waters of the Rio Grande, often unaware that choosing those routes — as opposed to a legal entry point — exposes them to criminal prosecution.

No matter how they arrive, they face long odds that their asylum requests will be granted, thanks in part to a recent ruling by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that gang or domestic violence in most cases is not grounds for asylum.

In the end, the Gomez family would be separated in a way they never expected.

Rosa Gomez, left, from Honduras, camped overnight on the Mexican side of the Gateway International Bridge, just across the line that separates Brownsville, Tex., from Mexico. Threatened by gangs in their home country of Honduras, the family was waiting to seek asylum in the United States. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

As proof of her family's need for asylum, Rosa Gomez holds a newspaper clipping about her husband, gunned down by gangs in Honduras. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Gomez’s granddaughter Ashly, then almost 3, and her daughter Sol, 8, eat donated sandwiches as their family camps next to a U.S. customs checkpoint June 23 on the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Crossing the bridge

Three days after Trump signed an executive order ending the separation of families that cross the border illegally, Gomez and her family arrived by bus to the Mexican side of the Gateway International Bridge, a steel and concrete structure that connects Matamoros and Brownsville, Tex., over the muddy Rio Grande.

As they stepped onto the narrow pedestrian walkway, Gomez told her children that they were in the United Stateswhich according to U.S. and international law means they can apply for asylum.

But they were not yet in America. They were inches away, waiting in line alongside a farmer from Brazil and his 17-year-old son, named Washington.

In recent weeks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has stationed customs officers at the official border, halfway across the bridges, under tarps or tents — in one case, with a generator that shines a bright light into Mexico.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers say the border stations are not spacious enough to handle an influx of asylum seekers and point out that their main mission is to facilitate travel and trade between the United States and Mexico. They are also tasked with protecting the United States from drugs, crime and terrorism.

Officers say they are allowing asylum seekers in, just in stages.

“Depending upon port circumstances at the time of arrival, individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities,” an official said in a statement. “As in the past when we’ve had to limit the number of people we can bring in for processing at a given time, we expect that this will be a temporary situation.”

But advocates say the practice is endangering people’s lives. Lawyers who filed a federal lawsuit in California say more than 1,000 people are waiting in Mexico to seek asylum in the United States.

“We’re very disturbed by this,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who stopped by to observe the crowded Gateway bridge, and the relocated checkpoint, on June 23. “They’re trying to seek asylum. That’s the international law we should be complying with. It’s unthinkable we should be making these guys wait.”

On the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge, a short drive away, a father from Honduras said customs officers offered to allow his wife and four children to cross the border and seek asylum but said he would have to stay in Mexico.

They refused, preferring to wait on the Mexican side of the bridge for another chance. The children had coloring books to pass the time.

“I’m their father,” he said.

At 2 a.m., Rosa Gomez, left, from Honduras, tries to burn the sugar-fueled energy of her granddaughter Ashly as their family camped overnight on the Mexican side of the Gateway International Bridge. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

After her family was stopped on the bridge, Gomez cast a wary eye at the guardrail separating the pedestrian lane from the vehicle lanes. She directed her family to sit down on the concrete. Oscar, 19, his daughter Ashly, who was almost 3, and Gomez’s daughters, Sol, 8, and Alondra, 15, did what she said.

Hours passed.

Elsewhere on the bridge, travelers with U.S. passports or visas flowed easily across: girls in sparkly party dresses on their way to parties in Brownsville, rows and rows of passing cars, shoppers rolling carts to pick up groceries at H-E-B.

A former gang member from Houston, wearing a long-sleeved shirt to hide his tattoos, showed up to distribute ham and cheese sandwiches to the waiting migrants. Drivers opened their car trunks and handed them juice boxes and sodas. One man dropped off ice cream. A woman slipped them some cash.

Night fell, and a stiff breeze chilled their sunburned skin.

Gomez did not yet grasp how her odds of winning asylum had changed in recent weeks. Asylum seekers do not have to cross legally, but they must meet specific criteria to receive protection in the United States, proving that they fear persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in “a particular social group.”

She knew she could be kept in federal custody while U.S. officials considered her case. “If we’re all together, I can handle it,” she said. “As long as we’re all together.”

But customs officials said they cannot guarantee that extended families — such as Gomez’s — will stay together. And children can still be taken from adults in specific circumstances, such as if the adult has been deported before or has a criminal history, has abused the child or is suspected of lying about being their parent. Government officials said they also may separate parents and children if they lack the bed space to detain them together.

Before dawn, the customs officers ushered the Brazilian father and son inside an air-conditioned building at the end of the bridge and said Gomez’s son and his daughter could follow. But there was no room for Gomez and her two daughters. They would not cross until the next day.

“They said we were two families,” Gomez said hours later, still bewildered by their decision, “because my son is an adult.”

Yojany Santos, 31, from Honduras, and her 5-year-old daughter, Betsa, are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border Wednesday in Mission, Tex. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

A woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, Thelma, talks to U.S. Border Patrol agent Robert Rodriguez on Wednesday about her belief that undocumented immigrants were on her family's property in Mission, Tex., the night before. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Yojany Santos, 31, from Honduras, and her 5-year-old daughter, Betsa, rafted across the Rio Grande only after hearing that the Trump administration would stop separating parents and children. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Away from the bridge

Even as families such as Gomez’s line up on bridges to cross legally, tens of thousands of migrants are still paying smugglers $4,000 to $7,000 to cross the Rio Grande on rafts — sometimes in plain view of the bridges that are legal points of entry. Others hike through sugar cane fields or thorny brush alive with the buzz of cicadas.

Each month from March to May, more than 50,000 people were apprehended crossing the border illegally, the highest numbers yet under Trump, who had promised to halt illegal immigration. The number fell in June to about 42,500, nearly twice the number apprehended a year earlier, in June 2017.

On June 27, the illegal crossers included Allan Pacheco, 23, from Honduras, and Sebastian Panjoj Chitic, a 39-year-old father of three from Guatemala.

When they surrendered to Border Patrol agents who were giving The Washington Post a tour of the area, the men were dehydrated and despondent. They had spent 24 hours lost in the brush without food and water as the heat climbed past 95 degrees.

Families from Guatemala are detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border along the Rio Grande on Wednesday in Mission, Tex. They ended up directly underneath a legal port of entry. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Border Patrol agent Robert Rodriquez looks across the Rio Grande into Reynosa, Mexico, as he patrols for migrants who have illegally crossed the border. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Border Patrol agent Robert Rodriguez searches a group of Guatemalan men who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border along the Rio Grande. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

They did not realize they were near a main road. They owed smugglers thousands of dollars, and now faced deportation.

The men laughed when a reporter asked if they could have applied for visas. “They’re very difficult to get,” Pacheco said.

They shook their heads when asked if they knew what asylum meant.

“No,” said Pacheco.

“If I knew how, I would try,” said Panjoj Chitic.

Often the only information migrants have about reaching the United States comes from smugglers, who tend to abandon them once border agents close in. “They have no idea where they’re going,” U.S. Border Patrol agent Robert Rodriguez said.

Sandra Amaya and Yojany Santos and their young daughters also crossed the border illegally that day. Like Gomez, they waited until Trump stopped separating parents and children before they made the trip.

The two women, who are from Honduras, said they and the girls were smuggled through Mexico in a refrigerated tractor-trailer truck. They ended up near the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, another legal port of entry outside Brownsville — though they did not know that’s what it was.

On June 27, they floated in a raft across the Rio Grande. The Border Patrol swiftly caught them, aided by sensors and cameras that allow agents to see migrants crossing in real time.

“The road is dangerous,” said Amaya, 30, who was dressed in workout clothes, as if she and her 10-year-old daughter were headed to the park.

The agents guided them, Santos, and her 5-year-old daughter Betsa out of the searing sun and under the bridge.

An agent pointed Santos, 31, toward the open door of a detention van.

Her face crumpled, and she got in.

People cross the Gateway International Bridge from Brownsville, Tex., into Mexico on June 23. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)


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