The message was loud and clear: “Don’t come.”
This would be the Biden administration’s first attempt to prevent migrants who have fled dangers in their home countries from seeking refuge in the United States
First President Biden in March discouraged Migrants from the north to the US-Mexico border to seek asylum. He suggested staying in their home countries – many of which are subject to violence and persecution – as the government addressed the increase in the number of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the southwestern border.
Then the administration continued to rely on the controversial Trump era Title 42 Ordering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to refuse migrants at ports of entry and expel those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization, thereby denying their legal entitlement to asylum.
And in June the government warned prospective asylum seekers from Guatemala again: “Don’t come!” said Vice President Kamala Harris during a press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders. If you come to our border, you will be turned back. “
Sarah Rich, senior attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the vice president’s comments were strikingly similar to the Trump administration’s rhetoric.
“To seek protection from violence and persecution is a fundamental human right, and the right to seek asylum is protected by US and international law,” said Rich. “These statements contradict the right to seek asylum in the US and indicate a worrying continuity between the Trump administration and the Biden-Harris administration.”
For many vulnerable migrants, waiting in their home countries for a better time to seek asylum in the US is not – and never could be – an option.
“I fled my country because I wanted to survive,” Emiliana Doe, whose name was changed in this story to protect her identity, told the SPLC in Spanish. “I will reside. I want to be someone Nobody wants to die. “
Doe – a transgender woman from Honduras – is one of 13 plaintiffs in the SPLC’s class action lawsuit Al Otro Lado, Inc. v Mayorkas.
The lawsuit, filed in July 2017, alleges that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials illegally and deliberately restricted the number of people who could gain access to asylum procedures at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.
This so-called “turnback policy” comprises a number of practices that CBP has been using since at least 2016 to prevent migrants from applying for asylum in the US, according to the allegations of the lawsuit. For example, during the Trump administration, the CBP misinformed many migrants by telling them that President Donald Trump had signed new laws stating that there was no asylum for anyone.
Doe escaped from Honduras and survived a dangerous and difficult journey through Central America and Mexico, during which she was sexually abused and threatened with death.
She eventually arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, where the news of the turnback policy had gotten around. Other migrants told Doe that if she wanted to apply for asylum in the US, she would have to put her name on a waiting list
Doe then went to the port of entry at San Ysidro near Tijuana, where two women gave her a slip of paper with the number “1014” telling her to return in six weeks. Desperate and unsafe, Doe returned to the port of entry just a few weeks later.
But CBP dismissed them under the guideline.
Treated “like trash”
You could say that Doe’s journey began some time ago when she was a kid and felt like a girl trapped in a boy’s body. She began her transition when she was 12, but the Hondurans did not accept her. When Doe was growing up, she was constantly threatened with violence because she was transgender. At one point, her drug dealer said she had 15 days to leave the country or they would murder her.
Doe could never count on the police to help, no matter how often they were threatened. After all, she was raped many times by police officers who, Doe said, “believed they could treat me like trash.”
“The police [in Honduras] are people who use their uniforms to persecute the transgender community, “she said. “You don’t protect us. For them, it’s more of a business. They rob us, they beat us, they laugh at us. “
Doe was kidnapped and held for three days by another group of drug dealers who brutally beat them. One day, the group decided to “rescue” Doe by throwing her out of a moving vehicle, leaving her with serious injuries that a hospital would not care for.
“I went to the hospital on bloody and swollen legs to see a doctor,” she said. “I waited six hours, but nobody saw me. The people who hit me wanted to see me dead, wanted me to be gone. “
Doe’s mother lived two hours away and Doe’s father was absent from her life. Alone, suffering and with no support system, she spent two months in bed to recover. She fled Honduras on foot on June 5, 2018. She crossed the border from Honduras to Guatemala and slept outside wherever she could, rain or shine. In the morning she would get up and continue north.
Feeling that she had no other choice, she gathered the courage to board the infamous “La Bestia” freight train, where she was raped six times by various men demanding money, threatening her with machetes and her homophobic slurs called. She got off the train in Mexico City and continued her journey on foot.
Five months after escaping Honduras, Doe finally made it to Tijuana, where she slept on park benches and on the street. She was afraid that she would be raped again as the men shouted at her meanness all night long. She had nothing to eat and was always hungry.
“I’ve lost all hope,” she said. “Mexico should be a place for me to survive. But I couldn’t live there. It’s dangerous, more dangerous than Honduras. “
With her life at stake, she decided to apply for asylum in the United States
Then she came across the blockade known as the turnback policy. A CBP official told her that the port of entry could no longer accept asylum seekers because it was “full”. It seemed like Doe’s trip to the US border had been in vain.
But after filing the second amended complaint in the lawsuit, the SPLC and its current co-attorney – the Center for Constitutional Rights, American Immigration Council, and the law firm Mayer Brown LLP – worked with the government to get Doe into the US
At last she had peace.
“I felt liberated, like a baby deer running free and no one is going to hurt it,” said Doe, 34. “There are angels and now I have protection.”
Doe said her immediate goals in the US are to volunteer, learn English, obtain citizenship, become a baker or nail technician, pay taxes, and be “the most productive.” [she] may be.”
Promises not kept
While a candidate, Biden promised to reverse Trump-era policies that punished migrants for asylum seekers. He promised to make the US asylum system more humane.
These promises have not yet been kept. With the CDC regulation and repeated warnings not to seek asylum, many migrants remain in suspense fearing that they will be sent back to Mexico or sent back home if they make it to the southern border.
But there are also thousands of migrants who have been stranded on the border for months or even years, waiting to be let into the US. The SPLC and its co-lawyer are directly challenging this crisis with their lawsuit.
“Whether or not the Biden-Harris administration wants people to flee Central America, they will continue to do so, and the US government should welcome them with humane guidelines that confirm their dignity and are lawful,” said Rich. “This administration promised a break with the racist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies of President Trump and Stephen Miller. But as far as asylum is concerned, the administration’s policy is more or less the same. “
Do’s story is similar to that of many other migrant refugees – stories of beatings, death threats, and severe persecution or torture.
Migrants, Doe said, are not free to wait in their home countries or in Mexico for the Biden government’s decision to allow them to enter the United States. Applying for asylum in the US is their only option – a last resort. This applies to transgender asylum seekers like Doe as well as to countless cisgender migrants whose lives are currently in danger in Central America. Doe said that whatever US policies these people must flee.
“I had to leave immediately,” said Doe. “I had no choice. [Migrants] think we feel. We hurt People suffer a lot. We just can’t afford to wait. “
Photo above: Asylum seekers leave Mexico as they enter the United States on March 16, 2021 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Credit: John Moore / Getty Images)