Gerson handed the border officer his Honduran passport and placed his fingertips on a small scanner. This was the last hurdle before his family could escape the kidnapping, threats, and extortion they had endured in Mexico while trying to gain asylum in the US.
Now, he and hundreds of other asylum-seekers who spent months holding onto a sliver of hope while being forced by the Trump administration to wait in Mexico are entering the US.
"I doubted my faith," the 35-year-old told BuzzFeed News. "I felt like I was going to have a heart attack."
Gerson, his wife, and two sons are among some of the first people to be removed from the Migrant Protection Protocols, a Trump-era policy that forced more than 71,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while a US immigration judge adjudicated their cases. For months and sometimes years, immigrants waited in some of the most dangerous border cities, where they were frequently targeted by cartels and the Mexican authorities meant to protect them.
On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden promised to end MPP, unofficially known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and faced pressure early on in his administration to quickly start the complicated task of undoing it. As of Thursday, the administration has allowed at least 1,127 people with open MPP cases into the US. That still leaves thousands who have abandoned or lost their cases or went back home. The White House has not announced what it would do for them.
Gerson, who asked to only be identified by his first name fearing retaliation from Honduran and Mexican authorities if he's ever deported, never thought he'd be one of the thousands of his compatriots who leave their country for the US. Like many of the Central American immigrants, Gerson was threatened and attacked by gangs; once he arrived in Mexico, he was targeted by cartels and police. Unlike many others who are facing the same situation, he believed in going through the criminal justice system — only to find that it would make his family's situation worse.
For six years, Gerson, who graduated with an industrial engineering degree, worked as a sales representative for Pepsi and Coca-Cola. To make extra money, he bought three used cars from the US, repaired them in Honduras, and resold them. His side business caught the attention of local gang members, who threatened to kill him if he didn’t pay the equivalent of about $164 every Friday.
He called his extorter to tell him the amount was unreasonable and ask if there were other options. Only death, the gang member said.
"The only other option you're leaving me with is to leave my country," Gerson recalled saying.
A few days later, while running an errand with his sons, he was intercepted by a truck filled with armed gang members who told him if he didn't leave they would kill him.
He reported the incident to police, who told him there wasn't much they could do to protect him and it would be better if he fled.
"Hearing that was awful," Gerson said. “I never saw myself as an immigrant."
He and his wife sold everything they could for enough money to make it to the US border and ask for asylum. They arrived at the US–Mexico border in August 2019, waded across the Rio Grande into McAllen, Texas, and were quickly apprehended.
Armed with the police report, Gerson was confident his family would be granted asylum in the US. But a few days later, they were sent to the Mexican city of Matamoros with instructions to return in three months for their first court hearing.
"That was one of the hardest moments of this experience, being sent back and having to sleep on the street with my kids," he said. "I didn't know anyone. I had no money."
He eventually found work as a cashier in a pharmacy and a place for his family to live in Matamoros while they fought their asylum case. But once again, they were extorted — this time by cartel members who demanded that Gerson work for them.
It's not uncommon for immigrants and asylum-seekers to be targeted by cartels and Mexican authorities who view them as easy targets. Human Rights First has counted 1,544 public reports of murder, rape, and other attacks committed against people in MPP.
Gerson went to the police to report that he was being threatened by the cartel but was told to instead file a complaint with the Honduran Consulate. After telling them it wasn't an immigration problem, he said, the police in Matamoros refused to take down his report.
Afraid the cartel would make good on its promise to kill Gerson if he didn't pay, he moved his family to Tijuana in September 2020. But the family was also extorted there, this time by police, according to a complaint he submitted to Baja California authorities, which was reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
Shortly after arriving in the border city, Gerson and his family were stopped by officers who asked for his phone number, identification, and documents that proved he was legally in Mexico. They also saw the $400 in his wallet.
"To give you back your ID documents, we are going to take the money you have," one of the Tijuana police officers said, according to Gerson.
Shortly after, he started to get text messages and calls from an unknown number demanding $2,000. He replied that he didn't have any money.
"Do you want us to get your [wife] and your [children]," the texts said, according to the complaint he filed. "You need to give us $2,000 in 72 hours. … If you don't you will die."
When Gerson filed the complaint, he told authorities he recognized the voice of one of his extorters as a police officer who had stopped him. Days later, when he and his family went to buy medicine for one of his children, they were kidnapped and handed over to what he described as "juvenile delinquents," who held them for ransom in a house near the US–Mexico border.
His wife was able to escape with one of their sons, and she crossed the border into the US with her hands still bound. Gerson said Border Patrol agents found her, helped untie her, and then handed her over to Mexican immigration authorities. He escaped with their other son after convincing his young kidnappers that no one would pay a ransom for him and that he had no money to give.
"They practically let me go, but this time I wouldn't make the same mistakes as the last times and file a police report," he said.
With the help of Mexican immigration authorities, the family reunited in a hotel, where they quarantined before being sent to a shelter. But the combination of being in a crowded shelter without work and the death of his mother-in-law back home drove Gerson to try to cross into the US undetected in November.
He and a group of other immigrants were caught by Border Patrol agents and quickly sent back to Mexico. Since March 2020, US agents have been expelling people caught at the border under a public health law known as Title 42, which former president Donald Trump used, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
After the Biden administration announced it would begin to wind down the “Remain in Mexico” policy, hundreds of immigrants anxiously waiting on the Mexican side of the border were instructed to register on a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees website. After registering, the refugee agency said, immigrants would be given a date to show up at an official border crossing and allowed into the US.
But from the beginning, the registration process was confusing and riddled with errors. First, the date that the website would go live was delayed. Then thousands of people desperate to get out of Mexico logged on at the same time, and the site kept crashing.
Gerson stayed up until 5 a.m. on a Sunday and was finally able to register. The next day, he received a message telling him that he and his family had to show up at an International Organization for Migration shelter.
They arrived at a large building operated by IOM, where they and a group of other immigrants placed in MPP were tested for COVID-19. There were bunk beds for each family sectioned off with tarps inside the windowless building.
All the families were told they’d be leaving early the next morning. Anxious and excited, they packed and lined their suitcases up against a wall.
No one slept that night, Gerson said. They talked about how long they'd been in Mexico, where they were heading in the US, and the opportunities their children would have. There were about 28 people from Venezuela, Cuba, and Central America in the group.
"None of us could believe that we were there. It was true happiness," Gerson said. "All the adults just watched our children play. It was indescribable. I will never forget that night."
The families had been told to be ready to leave at 7 a.m., but everyone was cleaning their areas and ready two hours earlier, Gerson said. IOM personnel lined them up at 7 a.m. — first the few immigrants who were entering the US alone and then the families — and loaded them onto a bus.
"When the bus took off, we all cheered," Gerson said. "My wife looked over at me and said she wished we had graduation hats to throw into the air."
Once they arrived at the official border crossing that connects to San Diego, officers with the National Institute of Migration, Mexico's enforcement agency, escorted the group through a side entrance. Gerson felt like they were being treated with honors, as if authorities from both countries were trying to make up for all of the bad things they had done to asylum-seekers.
Then it was time to be inspected by Customs and Border Protection. Finally, one of the agents handed him his Honduran passport and said, "Welcome to the United States."
"I didn't scream, because I really didn't want to do it there," Gerson said. "I just looked back at my wife and smiled."
After a dog inspected all their bags, an attorney working with a nonprofit told the asylum-seekers they would be taken to a hotel. Once again, they were tested for the coronavirus and brought to their rooms.
Kate Clark, the senior director of immigration services at Jewish Family Service of San Diego, said the group has taken in nearly 300 people who were previously stuck in Mexico under the Trump administration policy. Clark and her group help facilitate the process by placing the immigrants in hotels, testing them for COVID-19, connecting them with medical and mental health services, and setting them up with traveling and legal services. Some pregnant people, she said, have needed more urgent prenatal care as well.
In the coming days, the group plans to work with California officials to quarantine immigrants in hotel rooms for seven days before they are released. Healthcare workers from the health system at the University of California, San Diego, will soon be testing immigrants for COVID-19 at the port of entry as well. Most of the group, Clark said, leave San Diego for other parts of the country after they have been tested for COVID-19 in their hotels.
“They are in shock that they have actually arrived in the US. They are just overflowing with joy and are in disbelief after having endured so much suffering and confusion,” she said of those who have been able to cross into the US.
Officials believe they can process up to 300 people a day within the first few weeks at some locations. In San Diego, for example, the number of immigrants processed each day has recently gone from 25 to 40, according to advocates on the ground.
The Biden administration’s plan, which started at three ports of entry across Texas and California, targets those who were pushed into the “Remain in Mexico” program and still have cases that are either active or under appeal in US courts, of which an estimated 26,000 people could qualify.
An unknown number of immigrants with cases that are active or under appeal have left Mexico for various reasons — often threats, violence, and poverty, advocates said.
That still leaves about 45,000 immigrants who were sent back to Mexico under MPP who have either lost their cases or stopped showing up to court. In Matamoros, where Gerson had his court hearings scheduled, immigrants who live in tents along the Rio Grande would often show up before dawn to tent courts installed along the border to make their case as to why they should be allowed into the US. Few of them had attorneys, and many lost their cases.
Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, sat in on some MPP hearings and said the entire process was riddled with violations of due process.
"I watched person after person after person go up before a judge, not knowing what was happening. Some spoke languages that weren't being interpreted," Toczylowski told BuzzFeed News. "When I think about what justice would look like, it's giving these people the ability to make their asylum cases in fair and just proceedings."
Toczylowski, who was in Tijuana when the first 25 immigrants were taken out of MPP and allowed into the US, said that while the road to justice is a long way away, seeing the beginning of the end of “Remain in Mexico” made her cry.
"I was there two years earlier when the first 25 people were sent back to Mexico," Toczylowski said. "It's not perfect. It's not enough. We have so much work to do, but just being able to experience that and know we're starting to move in the right direction made me hopeful."
Earlier this week, Gerson and his family boarded their first flight for Minneapolis to live with his sister. He and his wife want to learn English as soon as possible so they can find work and enroll in college.
"I want to study to be an immigration attorney," he said.
Gerson knows there are thousands of people still waiting to enter the US and many more who don't know how or when that will happen. Some people in MPP went back home after being attacked and didn't show up for their immigration hearings, likely leading to a deportation order. Others lost their cases in hearings that immigration attorneys have described as kangaroo courts where asylum-seekers never had a chance. There should be a solution for them too, Gerson said.
"We can't forget about our brothers and sisters," he said. "As we walk into these new moments, I understand they must be anxious and stressed not knowing what will come next. But I hope our case is evidence that there is hope and that one day, their day will also come."