Meet Maria 
Hard working mother, 

Honduran,
asylum seeker.

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This is Maria's story. Maria is an asylum seeker, but she is much more than that. She is a 30-year-old mom of two children whom she loves dearly. She is our sister.

 

Travel along with Maria on her journey.

 

The Flight

Maria was living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras where her children’s father emigrated from to the United States a few years ago to find a job and help the family, leaving Maria and the kids behind. A few years ago, a gang began controlling her neighborhood. In early 2019, her daughter witnessed a girl selling drugs at her school. After her daughter told some friends what she saw, the gang targeted her and beat her up. 

Why did Maria Flee?

According to the US State Department Overseas Security Advisory Council, there are approximately 7,000-10,000 gang members in Honduras. At the end of 2019, that averaged to there being 43.6 gang members per 100,000 citizens.

High levels of gang affiliation help contribute to a culture of violence, leading to high murder rates in Honduras and across Central America. 

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According to official 2016 data by the World Bank, more than 66% Hondurans live in poverty. Despite high levels of poverty, gangs often terrorize communities through extortion, also called a "war tax." Gangs force people to pay a certain amount of their wages to the gang for "protection." Failure to pay often results in death. For example, bus drivers and other transportation workers report having to pay a minimum of 30% of their salary to gangs.

A few days later, a young boy came to Maria's house and told them that they had 24 hours to leave. Three days later, Maria fled Honduras with both her children.

Why didn't Maria just go to the police?

The US Overseas Advisory Security Council states "The government [of Honduras] lacks resources to investigate and prosecute cases; police often lack vehicles/fuel to respond to calls for assistance. Police may take hours to arrive at the scene of a violent crime or may not respond at all. As a result, criminals operate with a high degree of impunity."

Gangs often control the police, which allows gangs to get away with crime, extortion, and threats.

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According to a study done by Transparency International, Honduras received a score of 26/100 regarding corruption. Gangs have infiltrated most public and government run systems in Honduras. A 2016 commission on police in Honduras found that at least 100 police officers were members of MS-13. Five of these officers were high ranking, and in charge of entire regions.

The police likely would not have been willing or able to help Maria and her children. As a single mother, Maria had no viable option but to run for her life.

The journey

 

Maria and her family finally arrived in Mexico, where she contacted her children's father who was living in the United States. He encouraged them to join him in the US. They made their way north on a minibus.

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How do people travel from Honduras to the US?

The journey through Mexico is often seen as the most dangerous stretch of the journey for Central Americans seeking asylum.

The journey through Mexico is often seen as the most dangerous stretch of the journey for Central Americans seeking asylum.

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On their way north, the bus Maria and her children took was stopped by an armed criminal group. They were blindfolded and heard people being beaten, tortured, and electrocuted. The kidnappers demanded a $5,000 ransom from each person. If they did not pay, they would be killed. The father of Maria’s children was able to send money to secure their release.

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Are all migrants experiencing this kind of violence in Mexico?

Many do. Gang violence is very prevalent in Mexico. One of the quickest ways for gangs to make money is kidnapping migrants traveling north and demanding ransom. According to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission, criminal gangs make around $50 million each year due to these kidnappings and extortion payments.

Single mothers like Maria face even greater risks while they are traveling. They are vulnerable to trafficking and as many as 6 in 10 migrant women and girls are raped on their journey, according to Amnesty International.

Then, Maria and her family were dropped at the Rio Grande River and given a rubber ring. With the children inside the ring, the adults crossed the river holding onto the ring. The water reached their necks and all of their documents were soaked.

If Maria was seeking asylum, why didn't she go through a legal border crossing?

Since 1994, the strategy oPrevention Through Deterrence (PTD) has made it more difficult for people to enter the US to apply for asylum at legal points of entry. It is one of many factors that push migrants to attempt to cross the Rio Grande.

In reality, PTD further endangers migrants by forcing them to take highly dangerous routes, such as crossing the Rio Grande, or traveling in the desert for long distances.

From October 1, 2018 to June 8, 2019, Border Patrol Agents in the Del Rio sector have rescued at least 315 migrants. The year prior, agents in the same sector rescued 12 migrants.

The destination

 

Once Maria and her family made it across the river, they were arrested by US Border Patrol and taken to a detention center, where they stayed for six days, without a change of clothing.

Why were Maria and her family treated so poorly at the detention center?

An increase in detention at the US Southern Border has led to massive immigration backlogs and crowding in border processing facilities. Under the 1997 Flores Agreement, children cannot be held for longer than 72 hours and must be housed in “safe and sanitary conditions.” Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) facilities are not suited to meet these children's needs. However, many reports over the last few years have indicated that these conditions are not met, and that CBP is failing to meet it's obligations.

Maria and her family were told that "there is no refuge for them in the US" and that "the laws have changed." Maria answered that she and her family can’t go back to Mexico, where they had been kidnapped, or to Honduras, where the gangs threatened them. They were given a court date for their asylum hearing and sent back to Mexico.

Wait ... what?! They were sent back to Mexico?

Expressing fear of persecution, Maria and her children should be eligible to apply for asylum. Before 2017, they would have been given a court date and would have been free to stay in the US while their case is pending or have been held in a US Detention Facility. This process dramatically changed when the US government implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as "Remain In Mexico". 

In January 2019, the Department of Homeland Security instituted the Migrant Protection Protocols, “whereby certain foreign individuals entering or seeking admission to the U.S. from Mexico – illegally or without proper documentation – may be returned to Mexico and wait outside of the U.S. for the duration of their immigration proceedings, where Mexico will provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay.”

According to the JRS report, Stranded, since MPP was launched, the United States has returned more than 64,000 people to Mexico to await their immigration court hearings. Only 6% of these people are able to secure legal counsel.

The Trump Administration has further made it increasingly more difficult to apply for asylum. The National Immigrant Justice Center has a timeline of rulings and decisions that have been implemented since January of 2017.

Since the implementation of MPP, less than 1% of people have successfully qualified for asylum after being returned to Mexico. Only 6% of applicants are able to access a lawyer, even though those with lawyers are five times more likely to win their asylum cases.

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How has COVID-19 Changed this policy?

The Covid 19 pandemic has only exacerbated the difficulties for migrants trying to seek asylum in the US. Since March nearly 43,000 asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, have been turned back at the US southern border after the US government implemented travel and asylum restrictions.

Maria and her family decided to go south to the JRS shelter in Tapachula. Once in Tapachula, JRS offered assistance for Maria to travel back for her asylum hearing, but she decided to forfeit her asylum claim. She couldn’t risk the safety of her children again, and she is now stuck, unable to seek safety in the US and unable to return to where her life is threatened at home.

“I’m very afraid because of what I suffered in the northern border of Mexico,” Maria said. “I don’t want to face again everything I already faced.

What happens to most asylum seekers when they go back to Mexico?

Most stay close to the northern border. The informal Matamoros Camp in Matamoros, Mexico across the border from Brownsville, Texas is one of the biggest encampments, with upwards of 2,000 people making the camp their temporary home. People stay here for months, trying to survive until their asylum court hearing in the US.

Living in tents, exposed to the elements, with little protection leaves migrants particularly vulnerable to violence. There have been more than 816 documented cases of rape, kidnapping, assault, and other crimes perpetrated against migrants who are waiting in Mexico. It is likely that many crimes go unreported.

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What is JRS doing to help?

Jesuit Refugee Service runs a shelter for asylum seekers in Tapachula, Mexico. Though it is far from the US border, migrants are safer here and can get legal, medical, and psychosocial support from trained JRS staff.

It's not just maria

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The number of Honduran migrants apprehended at the southern US border surged from 47,900 in 2017 to 205,039 in just the first nine months of the 2019 Fiscal Year.

Walk with us

 
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Advocate for people like Maria who are seeking asylum at the US Southern Border.​​​

Stand in solidarity with people seeking asylum by connecting with the Solidarity Across Borders campaign.

All photos - unless otherwise noted - were taken by employees of JRS/USA with the exception of the following:

Picture of baby in woman's arms in front of the Mural: Javier Bauluz/ Entreculturas 

Picture of baby asleep in front of the border wall: Javier Bauluz/ Entreculturas