A father and son kidnapped while waiting in Mexico under a Trump-era policy barring asylum seekers from entering the United States were allowed into the country on Wednesday. They were among the first to be admitted since the Biden administration announced last week that it would start taking in some migrant families who had been excluded from politics.
José, 29, crossed the border shortly after sunrise in Brownsville, Texas with his 4-year-old son Santiago asleep in his arms wearing a blue mask.
“We have just entered. Thank goodness we were successful, ”said José. “I have no words to express the joy I feel now, to be able to join my family.”
It had been 20 months since the father and child, originally from Honduras, presented themselves to the American authorities at the border and applied for asylum. They were turned away and said they could return for hearings in their asylum case, but the Trump administration subsequently sealed the border and closed immigration courts due to the coronavirus pandemic. This left them, along with thousands of other migrants, waiting for months in Mexican towns along the border, often victims of violence, theft and extortion.
José and his family fled Honduras when gangs demanded a “war tax” from the business they operated there, a car wash. José’s wife Cindy, who had a visa, and their eldest son, who is a US citizen, were able to travel to New Jersey, but José and Santiago, who did not have a visa, applied for asylum. at the border and were forced to stay in New Jersey. Mexico.
They were abducted from a street in Reynosa, Mexico in November 2019 by thugs who were apparently looking for money. While his son watched, José was beaten with bats by his captors, who threatened to kill him until his wife, listening on the phone, paid the ransom.
Both men continue to fear for their safety if their full names are released.
For nearly two years they spent in Mexico, they lived in two shelters, an abandoned structure and on the streets.
On Wednesday, father and son were treated at the US border and met by an American volunteer who took them to a nearby hotel. They then made arrangements to join Cindy in New Jersey.
“The nightmare is over, thank goodness,” Cindy said. “I couldn’t sleep all night.”
The Trump administration introduced the “Stay in Mexico” program, officially called the Migration Protection Protocols, in December 2018 for migrants seeking to cross the California border, and extended it to the entire southern border. west the following year.
The policy aimed to stop the influx of Central American asylum seekers fleeing violence and extreme poverty and arriving in large numbers at the border, and to deter more people from heading north. . Trump administration officials said many migrants were trying to play with the asylum system with frivolous demands.
Some 67,000 people, mostly families, have been enrolled in the program.
Human rights activists have attacked the policy, which they said endangered families who had to wait in Mexico and strayed from the long-standing practice of allowing most migrants who request l asylum to live in the United States pending a decision on their case. The policy also created an additional hurdle for migrants with complicated asylum cases, as most could not reach lawyers on the US side of the border.
Stranded migrants have invaded shelters in Mexican border towns. Hundreds of people lived in tents at the foot of a bridge leading to Texas from Matamoros, Mexico, creating a makeshift refugee camp.
The policy has survived several legal challenges. Then in March 2020, President Donald J. Trump put an even bigger obstacle in the path of asylum seekers, invoking the coronavirus crisis and sealing the border. Thousands of asylum seekers have given up and returned to their countries of origin, according to lawyers who have worked with the migrants, leaving around 25,000 people still officially awaiting treatment.
On January 20, the first day of President Biden’s term, his administration suspended new registrations to the program and on February 1, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to overturn pleadings in a case challenging the policy.
On Tuesday, the administration confirmed it would begin processing some asylum seekers waiting in Mexico, but stressed the border remained closed to other migrants as part of the pandemic emergency measure.
“We warn those seeking to immigrate to the United States that our borders are not open and that this is only the first phase of the administration’s work to reopen access to an orderly asylum process,” indicates the press release.
Migrants enrolled in the Migration Protection Protocols program will need to register online before approaching the border. Only 300 asylum seekers per day will be allowed to enter the country, with priority given to those deemed to be the most vulnerable, for reasons of health or safety, and who wait the longest in Mexico. Once processed, they will be allowed to travel within the United States, to live with family and friends, while their immigration cases go to court.
José’s ordeal began as he walked down the rue de Reynosa. The assailants pulled a hood over his head and pushed him and his son into a vehicle. After blindfolding him and tying his eyes, the kidnappers asked him to contact relatives or acquaintances in the United States to pay a ransom if he wished to come out alive. As the child cried and cried, the men beat José with a bat, kicked him, and pushed his head into a bucket.
It was only after Cindy transferred $ 2,000 from New Jersey to them that the attackers let them go.
After his release, José went to the US port of entry and pleaded for permission to enter the United States, due to his fear of remaining in Mexico. But following a telephone interview with an asylum officer, he was told that he had failed to establish “a clear likelihood of persecution or torture in Mexico”, and was told to stay. over there.
Santiago developed severe asthma and separation anxiety, according to José and his lawyer, who asked a pediatrician to examine the child. Both were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The lawyer applied for humanitarian parole that would have allowed him to enter the United States despite previous findings, but the government did not respond. José has become a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the “Stay in Mexico” policy.
He was busy making repairs at the Matamoros shelter, where he and his son shared a room with about 15 other fathers and children subject to Trump’s border policies.
On Tuesday, José’s attorney, Haiyun Damon-Feng, was informed that José’s parole application had been granted – the first of his clients to be put on the Trump-era program.
“So many people are in incredible danger,” said Damon-Feng, who teaches at the University of Washington Law School. “Anything we can do to facilitate the release of vulnerable people, we must use all means to do so.”
On Tuesday, José and his son were dropped off at the border before sunrise. José was carrying an orange suitcase with their few personal effects, their birth certificates and, draped over his shoulder, Santiago.
A border official seemed to know they would come, he said. “We were expecting you yesterday,” he recalled the official saying. “Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?”
They were given apple juice, orange juice, two packets of cookies and two bags of chips. The father and son then continued on their way.