MATAMOROS, Mexico — Moments after leaving a contentious court hearing that would determine the rest of his life, Francisco trudged across the US border into Mexico. It was an overcast afternoon. The 24-year-old Honduran arrived at an open-air camp along the Rio Grande River, surrounded by hundreds of immigrants who, for now, also called the place home. Some people cooked on stoves made of mud and wood. Some settled around a game of cards outside their tents.
Francisco stood there, his eyes wide and unfocused. He was exhausted. I asked how the hearing went, and he just kept repeating, “I don’t know.” He didn’t know if he’d be allowed to stay in the US. He didn’t know if Mexican police would find him where he stood. He didn’t know if he’d be sent back home, to great danger. He didn’t know if hope of a better life had been lost in the bungalow that served as his courtroom.
After seven of his family members were killed in Honduras, Francisco, who is being identified by a pseudonym because he doesn’t want to draw unwanted attention to his case, fled for his life. He traveled by boat, bus, and tractor trailer across two countries. He said he was kidnapped and raped by Mexican police. He was extorted by an immigration agent. And he was sent by the US government to live in this squalid camp in Matamoros for months.
Winning his asylum case would be beyond a rarity, a stunning example of someone finding refuge in the US even after the Trump administration redesigned the immigration system, through relentless and confusing rules and policies, that made gaining protection even harder. Among those policies are the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which since January 2019 have forced more than 67,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers like Francisco to wait in dangerous Mexican border cities while they attended court hearings on US soil.
Back inside the courtroom, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement trial attorney was trying to convince the judge to deny Francisco asylum. It would have been Francisco’s lawyer’s job to argue for him. Except he didn’t have a lawyer.
“I tried to get an attorney, but I couldn’t get anyone to look at my case,” he said. This is not unique. So Francisco went toe to toe with the US immigration system on his own.
Few immigrants in MPP are granted asylum, but the odds of winning are significantly higher for people with attorneys. Lawyers and even judges urge immigrants not to fight their cases alone. Not only are immigrants unfamiliar with the intricacies of complex immigration law, but some lack a formal education and must prepare and translate their documents to English, sheltered only by tents, while living in fear of being kidnapped by organized criminals for ransom. Immigrants lose more often than not — because they never had much of a chance to begin with.
Not enough attorneys are willing to represent people in the so-called Remain in Mexico program because of the logistical challenges of traveling to the border, and the risks of meeting with clients in cities the State Department warns US residents against — where murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault are common. An analysis from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that only 7% of 67,790 immigrants in MPP had attorneys. Of the 43,250 MPP cases completed, only 1% of immigrants were granted asylum or another type of relief that would allow them to start new lives in the US.
At his final hearing this past winter, Francisco sat inside the makeshift immigration court in Brownsville, Texas, right across the Rio Grande river from Matamoros. It was brightly lit and sterile, a sharp contrast to the camp. Like the judge, the government attorney was beamed in on a large television.
The ICE attorney had a question for Francisco: Were he and his family criminals? The lawyer pointed to one of the newspaper clippings Francisco presented as evidence, in which the then-director of Honduras’s National Police said that given the nature of how one of Francisco's family members was killed — a shooting, in public, by men wielding high-caliber firearms — he believed “this was a dispute between two groups” over an illegal matter.
Francisco was immediately filled with anger and dread. He collected himself, and then explained that in his country, it was not uncommon for police to avoid having to solve crimes by writing a report that reflexively blamed killings on fighting among gangs and criminals.
“If you can find a criminal record for me, my brothers, my mother, or any of my murdered family members, I will sign my own deportation form,” Francisco said.
But despite standing up for himself, he felt he had suddenly lost any hope of winning his case — and it would be weeks before the judge ruled. Would the judge believe the ICE attorney? he wondered. If so, would that derail his case? Francisco didn’t have the answers, nor did he have anyone he could ask. All he could do was wait.
“I called my mom crying because I couldn't take the suffering.”
Francisco’s chances of winning his asylum case were close to zero. He’d join thousands who were sent back to Mexico before him since the start of 2019, people who were ground to bits in both body and mind, worn down by a system that forced people to wait for months in dangerous border cities and impoverished conditions until they give up hope. Only after that, they’d be officially denied.
There were times when Francisco himself almost gave up. Like in October 2019, when he went in for his first hearing and was told he would have to come back for a second one — in three months. So many friends at the camp went to multiple hearings for months, only to be ultimately denied. Francisco was tired of living in a tent, bathing in a dirty river, and constantly living in fear of organized crime and Mexican authorities. He thought about going back home.
"I couldn't take it anymore, I called my mom crying because I couldn't take the suffering," Francisco said. "My mom told me to have faith and hope, that God put me there for a reason. She gave me the strength to keep going, and I did it for her. I was ready to go back home on a bus that night."
So Francisco remained in that ramshackle camp, driven by family, faith, and hope that he could succeed where so many others had not. But sometimes hope for one person is really luck and circumstance for another. And, as Francisco found, there are often horrors along the path to a better tomorrow.
Francisco grew up in Puerto Cortes, a city on Honduras’s Caribbean coast. He is a Jehovah’s Witness and was baptized when he was 12. He lived a quiet, middle-class life. But that peace was shattered in October 2013 when his uncle, who ran a supermarket, was shot by a police officer he was attending to. Francisco never learned why he was killed.
Over the next five years, alleged gang members, sometimes dressed in police or military uniforms, killed seven members of Francisco’s family, most of them public shootings. First was his uncle, then two of his cousins. Seven months later, his father was shot and killed outside their home.
Francisco went to the morgue early in the morning on Aug. 19, 2014, to identify his father’s body. When he went to use the bathroom, he heard gunfire. He stayed hidden for what seemed like an eternity. When the shots stopped and he finally emerged, Francisco walked into the street and saw eight lifeless bodies, including that of his aunt. The press called it a massacre.
Shortly afterward, Francisco’s older brother fled to the US in the hopes of finding refuge there. Francisco, then 18 years old, became the main income provider for a household that included his mother, sister, and nephews while he finished high school.
On the evening of May 31, 2015, two men dressed as police officers barged into his home. One put a gun to his head while another pointed a gun at his 2-year-old nephew. They said they were looking for Francisco’s brother — to kill him and collect the inheritance money their father had supposedly left him. His brother was gone, Francisco said, and there was no inheritance. The officers took a television and their cellphones and left.
Francisco and his family no longer felt safe in their home and moved to the city of San Pedro Sula in the hopes the violence wouldn’t find them there. But like so many other Hondurans, it did.
On March 24, 2017, an aunt called Francisco’s family to tell them that another one of his cousins had been killed this time on a beach in Puerto Cortes. This time, it was men dressed in military uniforms. They didn’t say a word.
Two more years passed in San Pedro Sula. Francisco found work and, though he was still on edge, was building a life. Then, last year, a series of frightening incidents convinced him it was time to leave his country to save his life.
On Feb. 12, 2019, Francisco was walking to work when a car without a license plate cut him off. Two men dressed as police officers kidnapped him and forced him to withdraw money from an ATM. They drove him to an area outside the city, took his belongings, and left. At the police station the next day, officers refused to let him file a complaint.
A few weeks later, another uncle was killed by men in police uniforms, this time at the car wash he owned. Francisco believes it was because the family could not pay the extortion fee that organized crime often charges business owners.
Then, on July 29, 2019, Francisco received a series of calls and texts telling him he was next in line to be killed. The following day he left for the US, leaving behind his mother, sister, and nephews. He took with him only the clothes on his back, identification, and evidence to support his asylum case in the US.
More danger lay ahead. Last summer, Francisco entered Mexico illegally through Belize. He bought a bus ticket bound for Mexico City, but it was stopped outside the city of Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco by Mexican federal police inspecting documents. An officer told Francisco to get off, that he was being arrested for not having documents. Francisco thought he was being taken to prison. Instead, the officer took him to an abandoned house.
For eight days the man sexually assaulted Francisco. To this day, Francisco only remembers a dark room, a window, a broken bed, and a Santa Muerte (“holy death”) altar with candles. A mother and daughter were also being held at the house. One day, his captor left the window open and Francisco escaped. He ran to a gas station. A truck driver offered to help him and, despite being worried he would get kidnapped again, Francisco accepted.
The truck driver was true to his word and drove Francisco to Reynosa, a Mexican city on the border across from South Texas. Francisco crossed the Rio Grande on an inflatable raft with other immigrants and eventually made it to US soil. For the first time in years, he felt safe, even after he was detained by Border Patrol.
Then he was told that because of the MPP policy he would have to fight for asylum while living in Mexico. Inside the office at a border facility in Brownsville, Texas, other immigrants were being told the same. Some people cried and others begged to be deported to their home countries instead. Francisco thought about the federal police officer who had kidnapped and raped him. If he was sent back, he risked being kidnapped again. What if the federal police were looking for him? Still, he felt he had no option. He was sent to Matamoros with a court date two months later and nowhere to sleep.
On his second day in Matamoros, Francisco was talking to another immigrant about Mexican politics. An agent with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, the country’s immigration enforcement agency, overheard his criticism.
“He told me he hated Hondurans and detested them so much that one by one he would disappear them,” Francisco wrote in testimony he submitted to the court.
The agent threatened to hand Francisco over to the Gulf Cartel unless he paid him $45 a week. With financial help from his older brother in the US, Francisco met the agent at the outskirts of the camp at nightfall to pay the bribe. That went on for two weeks.
Many immigrants in Matamoros are afraid of venturing too far from the camp, as they’re easy prey for organized criminal groups who kidnap them and extort their families in the US for ransom. (A Human Rights First database has tracked more than 1,100 public reports of rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violence against people sent back to some of the most dangerous cities in the Western Hemisphere under MPP.) Even so, Francisco would make the 30-minute trip to an internet café deep inside Matamoros to work on his asylum application and translate his documents.
He had an advantage, something that slightly improved his chances of winning his case despite having to represent himself: Francisco is college educated. But although he speaks some English, he still needed to use Google Translate to help file his application.
For those who speak no English at all, it is difficult to understand and fill out the paperwork effectively on their own. Francisco also helped a friend fill out her application, and soon, word spread at the camp that he could help them. He started filling out asylum applications for free, then realized it was a lot of work, so he charged $4.50 per application. It was how he sustained himself while in Matamoros.
The work also required that people tell Francisco about some of the worst things that had ever happened to them: rapes, domestic abuse, and state-sanctioned killings of family members. Francisco would tell them not to worry, that whatever they told him would stay with him until he died.
One day this spring, about six months after arriving at the camp and the day the judge would rule on his case, Francisco and the other immigrants who had hearings got up before dawn and presented themselves to Customs and Border Protection at the international bridge that connects Matamoros and Brownsville. He arrived at 5 a.m. Francisco didn’t see the inside of the courtroom until 2 p.m.
Inside, Francisco noticed there was no one else there except for the court staff and a group of people, including Department of Homeland Security employees, at the very back. Then the judge, beamed in on a TV screen, told him he had met the qualifications to receive asylum.
“My attorney in the sky is Jehovah and on Earth is me.”
“I won?” Francisco said in disbelief.
Yes, the judge said. Francisco bawled like a child, tears of relief, disbelief, and joy. An attorney who had declined to take his case walked into the courtroom and saw him crying. She told him she was sorry, believing Francisco had lost, and offered to represent him on his appeal.
No, Francisco told her, he had won. She asked him where his lawyer was.
“My attorney in the sky is Jehovah and on Earth is me,” Francisco answered.
On the surface, Francisco’s story looks like a beacon of hope. But the reality is that his victory was a combination of luck and the moderate advantage he had over most asylum-seekers: He came from a slightly wealthier family and had access to higher education.
As notable as Francisco’s victory was given the odds, attorneys and advocates see his victory a different way: They warned against pointing to his case as an example for other immigrants and asylum-seekers. Francisco was the exception, not the rule.
Kennji Kizuka, senior researcher in refugee protection for Human Rights First, called Francisco’s victory a “unicorn” because there are so few asylum-seekers who are able to present their claim and actually win.
Kizuka sat inside the Brownsville tent courts for a few days in 2019, watching a revolving door of unrepresented immigrants have their hearings postponed for months because they weren’t able to file a complete application or present evidence due to a small mistake. The system, he said, is not designed to inspire hope.
“MPP is not fair procedurally and there's just no way to make it fair,” Kizuka said. “Even with an attorney, people are still living in such dangerous, terrible conditions that it’s really unconscionable that that's how someone seeking protection could be treated.”
How is someone with a very limited formal education supposed to know what's legally relevant to claim asylum? Kizuka asked. An asylum-seeker might not realize how important it is to tell a judge that the person who attacked or threatened them back home is also a police officer in addition to being a gang member, or maybe someone who is well known or holds a position in local government.
“So much of any case, whether you have a lawyer or not, has to do with which judge, which trial attorney you have and other factors like is it Friday afternoon and is everyone tired and nobody wants to do cross-examination.”
Jodi Goodwin is one of the few attorneys who venture into Mexico to meet with and represent immigrants and asylum-seekers — when she walks into Matamoros, immigrants rush to ask her questions or try to get her to represent them. In Francisco's case, he had luck on his side and the ability to prepare his documents ahead of time, said Goodwin, who is trying to help Francisco get his work permit.
“So much of any case, whether you have a lawyer or not, has to do with which judge, which trial attorney you have and other factors like is it Friday afternoon and is everyone tired and nobody wants to do cross-examination,” Goodwin said.
On another day in another courtroom, Francisco could’ve easily been denied asylum, Goodwin said.
She reiterated that his case should be viewed as a rare victory. She tells immigrants up front if she believes they won’t win and suggests they seek refuge in a country with less restrictive asylum requirements.
One family, after being told they have a weak case, pointed to Francisco’s victory as a reason to stay. Their cases were similar, they told Goodwin, who disagreed. Another mother with two kids at the camp is waiting for the courts to reopen, despite Goodwin telling her she has a weak case.
“She is one of those people that keeps saying, ‘God is going to open the gates there's going to be a miracle,’” Goodwin said. “I'm sorry but God ain't opening no gates.”
She said it feels like every day the Trump administration rolls out a new ruling that narrows what qualifies as asylum or that makes every step of the legal immigration process more difficult. She likened dealing with the Trump administration's barrage of anti-immigrant policies every day to “wak[ing] up and hit[ting] my head again and again against a brick wall.”
“The administration acts so rogue, so outside the boundaries of law, and certainly outside the boundaries of decency, that it’s such a struggle to do the most basic thing,” Goodwin said. “I have a hard time keeping hope these days, and quite frankly I'm not really sure I'm going to keep doing the same kind of work if I have to do it for another four years with this asshole at the helm.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment on the criticisms of MPP.
Still, Francisco, having crossed hurdles he never would have imagined in order to reach the US, is optimistic about his future here, even as the US barrels toward a chaotic election and the pandemic continues to rage around him. The coronavirus isn’t so daunting to him, Francisco said, because he’s had to learn how to adapt — and he’s aware of the safety and comforts he has access to now.
"In Mexico, I had to quickly adapt to living in a tent, because there was no other choice," Francisco said. “I'm in a much better place now, I have a bed and heating."
If his journey to the US has taught him anything, it's the importance of keeping hope alive within himself and those around him. His faith, family, and friends at the camp, Francisco said on a recent afternoon, have helped him stay hopeful.
“My life is on hold,” Francisco said. “I’d like to have a document that will give me a sense of stability in the US.”
But more than seven months later, he still doesn't have the work permit or Social Security card that would allow him to start really building his life.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field offices, where immigrants who have been granted asylum by a judge go to obtain a form generally needed to get a Social Security card, were closed. That left immigrants who won asylum in a sort of limbo.
Francisco has permission to be in the country and legally work — but most employers won’t hire him because they are unfamiliar with the asylum process and want to see a Social Security card. Separately, he’s also still waiting on his work permit. As a result, Francisco can't get a driver's license, a credit card, or a job with benefits. All he has is a folded page with the immigration judge's order saying he was granted asylum. The Social Security office should accept the judge's order, but in practice will only accept the form Francisco is still trying to get. He joked that he might as well be undocumented.
"My life is on hold," Francisco said. "I'd like to have a document that will give me a sense of stability in the US."
Francisco, who was in the middle of getting a finance degree in Honduras when he left, hoped to work and get his bachelor's degree in the US. Now, he works 14 hour days building roofs.
The logistics of the immigration system are complicated even after being allowed into the country. Francisco applied for the form he needs to get a Social Security card in Florida, where he initially lived after winning asylum. Since then he has moved to a city in the Midwest with his older brother, who has a pending case in the immigration system. He recently got a call from a USCIS office in Florida to complete the process, but because he was across the country, he couldn’t. He’s starting the process again and recently got the call to go to the local office for an appointment.
At the beginning of quarantine, he would go out to work and then come straight home, which was difficult because he's a social person. He was worried about being locked up at home.
"I didn't know anyone, my life was really boring," he said.
More recently, he said he's been able to make friends at work and bars, which he said strangely are open despite COVID in parts of the Midwestern city where he lives. Some of his new friends are white people who don't speak Spanish, but Francisco communicates with them in the limited English he knows. They ask Francisco to teach them Spanish, always curse words first.
Francisco said he’s lucky to have a supportive family in the US because some immigrants have no one, or live with people who see them as a nuisance. He hopes that one day he’ll become a citizen and be able to bring his mom to the US, but that is likely years away.
People take for granted what it's like to walk down the street without having to be constantly on guard, he said.
“After seven years of not feeling safe, I’m free to walk down the street staring at my phone without having to look over my shoulder,” Francisco said.
In the US, though, there are other fears. He tries to stay in the back aisles of supermarkets out of fear that a mass shooter will enter. The way Francisco sees it is yes, Honduras is violent, but attacks there are more targeted. In the US, you can be killed in a mass shooting simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
MPP was like a test for him, he said. Before arriving at the US–Mexico border, he said he was arrogant and prideful. He would stick his nose up at the tortillas he was offered and would only be hospitable when he felt like it.
"I learned to value people, value what I had," Francisco said.
Things look fairly grim for the friends he left behind in Matamoros. They’re worried that if they leave and aren't able to make it back for their court hearings in time, they will have a deportation order and ruin their chances of getting refuge in the US.
Right now, with MPP courts closed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic, some immigrants at the camp have gone back home or paid smugglers to get them into the US. A friend of his was recently caught by Border Patrol, and Francisco hasn't heard from him since.
Others are waiting anxiously for the November presidential election. Even if Trump loses, Francisco said, it could still be months before Joe Biden ends MPP like he has promised, and who knows what that will look like.
"I feel anguish because I know what they are still going through, I suffered through the same things," Francisco said. “You need to have hope, and to have hope you have to have faith — it moves mountains.” ●