Tijuana, Baja California — Danny Mejia was wiping the tears from his eyes by the time he arrived at the El Chaparral port in Tijuana, just on the other side of San Ysidro, California.
It wasn’t the scorching heat or the way journalists buzzed around him or the mistreatment he said his 8-year-old son endured during their eight-day stint in U.S. custody that finally broke him.
“My dream is gone,” said the 35-year-old Honduran, as his wife and son collected water and snacks under a tent set up by volunteers outside the San Ysidro pedestrian border crossing. “I have to go back to Honduras.”
Mejia said he didn’t know how he was going to get home or where he and his family were going to sleep for the night. He was handed over to Mexican immigration officials in Tijuana at the El Chaparral border crossing on July 22 without any money, food or even a phone number of someone he could call in Tijuana.
“We don’t know anyone. We don’t have any money. We don’t have a place to sleep. The only thing we can do is go back to our country from Tijuana,” said Mejia, whose first appearance in immigration court was set for October 28.
If the Trump administration’s goal with its new immigration policy, Migrant Protection Protocols, is to encourage large numbers of migrants to abandon their asylum claims and return home, it appears to be working.
A Mexican official estimated Friday that about half of those returned to Baja California like Mejia have also decided to go home. Migrants have been returning mostly through private bus companies making exact figures hard to track, he confirmed.
Under the policy, better known as Remain in Mexico, asylum seekers from Spanish-speaking countries, including from the Northern Triangle, Nicaragua and Cuba, are sent to Mexico to await asylum proceedings in the U.S. with initial court dates often set months into the future.
Previously, asylum seekers were allowed to wait in the United States, usually in a detention facility or with a family member while their immigration cases proceeded in court.
During the past five months, the U.S. has returned about 20,000 asylum seekers to Tijuana, Mexicali, Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, according to Mexican officials. More than half of those returned, some 13,428, have been released into Baja California.
In Mexico, U.S. asylum seekers have been targeted by criminal groups and become victims of kidnappings, extortion scams, and human trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation.
Honduran farmworker Edin Santos Martinez, 38, and his 15 year-old son came north to join his brother in Los Angeles, who had managed to cross the border illegally only a few months ago.
Santos Martinez and his son were kidnapped twice along the way: In the southern state of Veracruz, where they were held for three days until they paid $6,000 and again on the border in Tamaulipas where they were held for a week until they paid $8,500. That’s in addition to the $10,000 Santos Martinez paid smugglers.
“If anything happens to us over here, it’s the responsibility of the government over there,” he said, pointing to the U.S. from the border in Nuevo Laredo. “What else can we do?”
After five months of the Migrant Protection Protocols program, not a single asylum seeker has been granted refuge in the United States, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which tracks immigration court records.
Researchers found that of the 1,155 cases under the Migrant Protection Protocols program that have been decided, only 14 of them had legal representation — that is just 1.2 percent.
The message is being heard loud and clear.
“We don’t have a chance,” said a 41-year-old Honduran in Tijuana.
Alexander Hernandez said he came to the U.S.-Mexico border mostly looking for economic opportunities to support his three children and wife back in Honduras. He said U.S. border agents told him his chances of being granted U.S. asylum were close to zero.
Hernandez plans to return home on Wednesday with a group of 19 people.
In border cities across northern Mexico, thousands of of other migrant returnees were still trying to decide what to do.
Penniless and saddled with debt from their trip north, many decided to head south. Some still planned to pursue their U.S. immigration cases, but many more said they were trying to return home without being kidnapped or killed.
In Nuevo Laredo’s Tamaulipas state, more than 3,000 migrants have been returned, despite U.S. State Department warnings against travel due to kidnapping and other crimes.
In the past few days, the entrance to the parking lot where migrants waited near the border bridge in Nuevo Laredo was always open, without armed guards. Migrants were left without shoelaces and belts (confiscated by U.S. Border Patrol) which made them easy targets.
They were desperate, with no steady supply of food or drinking water. Some children begged for a drink.
“Where is the shelter?” a Honduran mother asked.
Nuevo Laredo’s six migrant shelters were full with about 1,500 migrants and not accepting returnees, said Rev. Aaron Mendez Ruiz, who runs Casa Amar shelter.
“In all the border cities, this is a problem,” he said, and busing migrants south “is the only solution.”
Though it’s difficult to get an exact count on how many migrants are giving up and returning home after being returned to Mexico, shelter directors across Tijuana said the number is definitely increasing during the past few weeks as border shelters fill up and immigration court dates are pushed further and further out.
“I feel like a recycling center,” said Pastor Albert Rivera, who runs a migrant shelter in Tijuana and has been helping people arrange for bus trips and free flights home. “The minute I drop off a group at the bus station (to go home), immigration calls me again with a new group of people to pick up at El Chaparral.”
According to the TRAC data, which records 14,152 individuals in the MPP program through the end of June 2019, the vast majority of people have not yet had their first immigration hearing. Some 11,513 people are still waiting for their initial appearance.
But, of those who have had hearings, 701 people of the 2,639 people — or more than 25 percent — did not show up to their last appointment in immigration court. That percentage may increase because of longer waits for an initial appearance in U.S. immigration court.
When the “Remain in Mexico” program first started, most people were given return court dates a couple months in the future. In the last few weeks, those initial court dates are sometimes more than six months out. Several migrants who were returned to Tijuana last week said they were given initial court appearances for mid-to-late January, which they said is too long to wait in a dangerous border city.
Jesús Ruiz Uribe, Mexico’s federal delegate to Baja California, has been closely monitoring the number of migrants returning to Baja California from the U.S. every day and whether the shelters are becoming too full.
Although he did not have an exact count for how many migrants have returned home in recent weeks, he said he knows the number is significant because hundreds of new people are returned to Tijuana and Mexicali every day, but the shelters are not overflowing, according to Uribe. He estimated 50 percent of those returned decide to go home.
At the Agape shelter that Rivera runs, the Organización Internacional para las Migraciones (OIM) set up a table Thursday to sign up people for free flights home or voluntary departure.
Juan Santos, who came to Tijuana with his 6-year-old daughter, Kenia, was given a return U.S. court date of Jan. 17, 2020. He said that was too long to wait without a job. Santos plans to return to Honduras on Wednesday on a free flight arranged by OIM.
“We’re losing too much money sitting here, waiting,” said Santos. “And with a little girl, it’s complicated to be here in Tijuana. I can’t leave her to go to work all day.”
Santo joined about 19 people Thursday signing up with OIM for a free flight home, which leaves Tijuana next Wednesday for Honduras.
He said he knows he isn’t alone.
“In this moment, many have lost hope,” said Santos.
Some migrants returned to Mexico have attempted to re-enter the U.S. again illegally and died in the process.
On Thursday, Mexican officials in Nuevo Laredo recovered the body of an unidentified man from the Rio Grande river near the bridge where migrants have been staying. On Monday, officials in El Paso found the body if Vilma Mendoza, 20, a Guatemalan migrant who entered the U.S. on the Fourth of July, was returned to Juarez and drowned trying to cross again.
“We’re not staying here anymore,” said Nery Hernandez, 30, who was among a group of about 30 people who left Tijuana last week via a private bus company.
Hernandez made it with his 5-year-old son to the U.S.-Mexico border and crossed near Reynosa on the other side of McAllen Texas. U.S. immigration officials flew him to San Diego, he said, because he had a child with him.
On July 24, Hernandez negotiated a discounted bus fare of about $62 per person for a group to leave Tijuana for the Guatemala border. By Monday this week, he had arrived back home in Honduras.
“I’m already home and thanks to God with my family,” messaged Hernandez, whose initial court date in U.S. immigration court was set for January.
Hernandez said one of his main reasons for deciding to return home was how he and his son were treated during their approximate week stay in U.S. custody. He said U.S. border agents told him he didn’t have a chance of being granted asylum. (He said he migrated mainly for economic reasons; to find a job that supports his wife and children in Honduras.)
Many other migrants also said the way they were treated in U.S. custody soured them on the idea of the American dream.
“I just saw how badly they treated me and my son and I decided it was not a place I wanted to be anymore, anyway,” said Hernandez. When he arrived home, he said he briefly considered coming back up to Tijuana in January to cross into San Diego for his U.S. immigration appearance.
But, after a few days home in Honduras, Hernandez said he didn’t think he would be able to afford a return trip.
“I don’t believe I am able. I don’t have the money to return,” he said.
Hernandez said he was telling other people in his hometown how difficult the trip north was and the conditions in U.S. custody. He said he hoped they realized it wasn’t worth it and didn’t lose everything making the trip.
Single mom Elisa Reyes fled Honduras with her 14-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son to join family in Los Angeles, but after spending 10 days watching her children vomit and shiver in Border Patrol detention and a day in Nuevo Laredo without food, she was leaving on a bus for Chiapas headed for home.
She called the U.S. immigration system “a deception.” “They treat us worse than animals,” she said.
Alexander Hernandez, who plans to leave Tijuana on Wednesday, said some things were better in Honduras, after he said he witnessed U.S. border agents grab migrants’ hands to force them to sign their immigration paperwork.
“In my country, sure, it’s a very violent country, but not like that. They wouldn’t treat you like a dog,” he said.
(c)2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.