EL PASO — It wasn’t the first time men with guns showed up at Elizabeth's door. But this time, they were coming for her.
Six years after gangsters arrived at her house and took her brother away and killed him, Elizabeth, who as a young girl was teased for liking other girls, was running for her life from the same Honduran gang in April.
“We heard their footsteps and saw that they were armed, and they said, ‘This time we get the lesbian,’” she told an asylum officer, according to a transcript of her credible fear interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer. (Elizabeth is being used as a pseudonym for the woman to protect her safety.)
Elizabeth’s journey from her native Honduras led her and her mother through Guatemala and Mexico on their way to the U.S. In Mexico, they were confronted by members of a cartel, who Elizabeth said kidnapped and sexually assaulted her for days because she and her mother didn’t have any money or any relatives in the United States who could send them cash. After five days, she said, they were abandoned near a U.S. port of entry.
Elizabeth is now detained in the U.S., but her previous journey through Mexico could spell more trouble for her because of the latest Trump administration policy targeting asylum protections for migrants who didn’t seek asylum in another country before arriving in the U.S.
The rule, announced in July, is the latest salvo in the White House’s efforts to deter asylum seekers from coming into the country, whether they enter the country at ports of entry or illegally by crossing the Rio Grande. It was halted and restarted again after several court battles. When Elizabeth was interviewed by asylum officers in early September, she was told how the rule will affect her.
Elizabeth gave a sworn statement to asylum officers that in 2013, gangsters and corrupt police officers killed her brother because he declined to be part of their group in Honduras, according to the interview transcript. But an asylum officer told Elizabeth that because of the new regulation, she can't apply for asylum in the U.S.
Immigration attorneys argue the rule could forever diminish U.S. asylum policy. Before the rule, the asylum process was still difficult for migrants who didn't receive previous permission to be in the country. But there was a process in place allowing applicants to argue their case and have a chance at an appeal should they be denied. But with the third-country rule, those opportunities are eliminated, attorneys say.
"Our laws require we offer a meaningful chance to seek asylum. This rule denies people that chance," Jeremy McKinney, second vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said when the rule was announced. "If the administration truly wanted to make our asylum system more efficient, maximize the chances that bona fide asylum seekers are protected, and live up to our values, then the steps they should take are clear. This rule isn't one of them."
The regulation was put in place after the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols were implemented late last year. That policy requires migrants to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court dates and has affected more than 50,000 asylum seekers. The combined effects of both policies could lead to the erosion of pathways for asylum seekers, said Linda Corchado, the director of El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.
“This has been a hard rule for me to stomach because it really has been the gutting of our asylum laws,” she said.
Both regulations have been challenged in federal courts but remain in effect. During a news conference last week, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said the agency was intent on expanding the third-country rule.
People like Elizabeth can still obtain relief from deportation if an immigration judge issues an order known as a "withholding of removal." That's applied when migrants prove there is more than a 50% chance they will be persecuted in their home country. But Corchado said that even if that order is granted, it doesn't include a pathway to legal residency and applies only to the migrant, not his or her family. And the relief can always be revoked.
"It feels like if the U.S. [government] feels there’s a change in that person’s country, they can always reopen proceedings and deport them," Corchado said.
The third-country rule is being implemented alongside the Trump administration's metering requirement, which mandates that asylum seekers add their names to a list of thousands of people waiting in Mexico before applying for asylum.
State officials in the Mexican state of Chihuahua said that there are 4,000 to 5,000 people on the waiting list in Ciudad Juárez, though only half of them are still waiting. Hundreds have either gone home or tried to cross the river illegally instead. It’s one sign that the MPP and metering policies are having some effect, Corchado said.
“I think, as a whole, all of these [policies] are compelling asylum seekers to go back,” she said.
Jodi Goodwin, a Brownsville-based immigration attorney, said lawyers expect the third-country rule will be brought up during the merit-hearing stage of the asylum proceedings along the border later this month, and attorneys will have a better idea of how the rule is affecting asylum applications.
But the Trump administration is seeing signs that its policies have had the intended effect.
The number of people who were apprehended by or surrendered to federal immigration officials dipped by nearly 20% last month, the Department of Homeland Security announced last week. After about 64,000 apprehensions in August, the agency reported a September total of about 52,500. That figure is about 40% of July’s estimated 82,000 and is the lowest monthly total of the 2019 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, according to government statistics.
Last week, Morgan, the acting CBP chief, touted the four-month decline of apprehensions of migrants on the country’s southern border. Federal officials see the figure as a barometer of how many fewer migrants are attempting to enter the United States.
“While Congress has failed to put forth a single piece of legislation — even be able to introduce it to the floor to address this crisis — we have addressed this crisis,” Morgan said.
The administration has also praised the Mexican government’s efforts to stop migrants from crossing through that country. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador deployed thousands of federal troops to his country’s southern border to stem the number of people arriving from Central America. The order came after Trump threatened to impose tariffs of up to 25% on Mexican imports if Mexico didn’t secure its border to Trump’s liking. Over the weekend, the show of force from the Mexicans was on full display when National Guard troops detained about 1,000 asylum seekers from moving northward.
But unrest is mounting as more migrants who did make the trip north are forced to wait. In the Mexican city of Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, makeshift tents have sprouted in camps full of migrants with nowhere else to go.
Andrea Rudnik, co-founder of the nonprofit Team Brownsville, which aids migrants across the Gateway International Bridge, said conditions in a refugee camp there are quickly deteriorating. She said the growing number of migrants is causing tension, leading people to grow desperate.
This week, hundreds of migrants protested at the entrance of the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, causing it to close for several hours early Thursday morning. Rudnik said the asylum seekers were asking to enter and complaining about the camp conditions. She said they don’t have access to clean water or medical care. She said in the last few weeks she has been visiting the camp, the river in which people bathe has had dead animals, and the lack of hygiene has caused a lice epidemic. Some migrants told her they were turned away at their hearings and told to return when they are clean of lice.
There has also been an increase in the number of Mexicans who are lining up just beyond the international ports of entry in Texas to try to seek asylum in the United States. The majority, from southern Mexican states including Michoacán and Guerrero, are fleeing violence they say the government can’t or isn’t willing to stop. Both states are under a “do not travel” alert from the U.S. State Department.
M.Q., a woman from Honduras, said she and her 17-year-old son have been living in a makeshift tent in Matamoros since August. She and her son left when local organized crime threatened her son. They rode on a train commonly referred to as "La Bestia" across Central America, crossed into the U.S. illegally, and were caught and told to remain in Mexico as they sought asylum. She said her tent has fallen to shreds, and she fears the upcoming cold and rain. Her son has been sick for a week and can no longer eat.
"It is hard to be here without my family," said M.Q., who asked not to use her full name to protect her family's safety. "They are asking me for a lot of proof that I don't have the money to have sent over, and my mom is too old to gather. I just hope we get a judge with a good heart."
Julián Aguilar reported from El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and Acacia Coronado reported from Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico.