When Isela arrived at the US southern border, a man had already injured her spine in an anti-gay attack and she was still reeling from being raped by Mexican police officers. She thought her experiences would be enough to convince US authorities to let her in to claim asylum, but she was wrong.
Instead, Isela, who declined to use her full name out of fear of retribution from Mexican authorities, found there were few pathways for asylum-seekers into the US. Isela and her partner of 13 years, Sofía, requested humanitarian parole, which would allow them to enter the US temporarily.
Their request was denied by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Sept. 1, and the two Honduran women have since been living on the streets of Mexico with no end in sight.
"I don't know why the government is closing its door to immigrants like us, we have proof," Isela told BuzzFeed News. "Just like in our country, there is a lot of homophobia and discrimination in Mexico."
Nearly all pathways for asylum-seekers to seek protection at the US border are currently sealed off, the result of constantly shifting immigration policies and court rulings.
Most asylum-seekers are being blocked by a Trump-era policy the Biden administration has decided to continue. Citing an obscure public health law known as Title 42 to contain the coronavirus, the US immediately expels immigrants at the border, blocking them from accessing the asylum system. Border Patrol agents, however, aren't applying the policy to unaccompanied children and some families. Whether or not Title 42 is used to expel families from the US generally depends on nationality, where immigrants cross, and whether border authorities decide to put them on flights to quickly oust them somewhere else.
Immigrant advocates have condemned the expulsions, saying it sends people back to danger and is more about controlling migration than the coronavirus. A Human Rights First report tracked at least 6,356 kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violent attacks, such as rape, kidnapping, and assault, against immigrants blocked at official border crossings or expelled to Mexico by the US since President Joe Biden took office.
On Thursday, a federal court ordered the Biden administration to stop using Title 42 to expel immigrant families with children, though Judge Emmet Sullivan put his order on pause for two weeks.
There used to be exemptions to Title 42 expulsions for vulnerable immigrants through a lawsuit filed by the ACLU as well as a separate process by which organizations chosen by the Biden administration identified people, such as LGBTQ immigrants, who should be allowed into the US to seek protection due to heightened risks in Mexico.
Both those processes no longer exist. In August, the Biden administration halted the exemption process with the ACLU after settlement talks ended. A consortium of humanitarian groups, which were identifying vulnerable immigrants for the government through a separate track, stopped their efforts this summer after realizing there was no end in sight for Title 42.
"Considering the lack of justification of keeping Title 42 in place for health reasons, and the threat of supporting a system that externalizes US asylum in violation of international human rights law, HIAS will discontinue its Title 42 referrals," said Bill Swersey, a spokesperson for the global Jewish nonprofit that helps refugees, in a statement this summer.
Advocates said one of the few remaining pathways for asylum-seekers to enter the US is humanitarian parole, which allows people who would otherwise be barred into the country temporarily, but successfully gaining the status is difficult.
Margaret Cargioli, managing attorney for Immigrant Defenders Law Center’s Cross-Border Initiative program in San Diego, said the humanitarian parole process is highly discretionary and it’s not clear exactly why some cases are approved and similar ones are denied.
"It's especially alarming to see these denials now because there's no other recourse for asylum-seekers," Cargioli told BuzzFeed News. "Quite literally, asylum law is dead right now for someone fleeing for their safety."
In a statement, DHS said that on a case-by-case basis, the agency can, and does, allow immigrants who would otherwise be subject to Title 42 to be exempt for humanitarian reasons. DHS said it can’t comment on individual cases due to privacy and security reasons.
Isela and Sofía, who also declined to use her full name out of fear of Mexican authorities, left Honduras in 2018 after they were both sexually assaulted by two police officers. The assaults, Isela said, followed years of discrimination at home for being lesbians.
They made their way to Mexico, landing in Tapachula, a city near the Guatemalan border. Tapachula is a popular crossing point for asylum-seekers that has a reputation as a prison city for immigrants who are unable to get paperwork that would allow them to travel freely through Mexico. Advocates say immigrants are also routinely targeted by criminals and Mexican authorities in the city.
Sofía and Isela were sleeping in a Tapachula park one night when they were detained by Mexican police and placed in their car. The officers then drove the couple to a dark bridge and raped them, Sofía said.
"They said if we said anything we would be dead and thrown in the river," Sofía told BuzzFeed News.
A few months later, Isela, who worked at a general store, was attacked by her employer's drunk son. After he started calling her anti-gay slurs, he pushed her and she fell in a sitting position with her outstretched left hand. The pain to her pelvis and back was unbearable, and an ambulance had to pick her up.
Isela suffered a fractured spine, pelvis, and hand as a result of the attack. Isela said she tried to file a police report against the store owner's son, but authorities refused to document it because the family had paid a bribe.
Doctors told Isela she needed surgery for her pelvis and spine, but the couple was only able to afford the pelvis procedure.
From there, it only got worse. While recovering from her surgery and unable to move, Isela said a social worker with the hospital tried to force her to perform oral sex on him.
"He said he would make me like men," Isela said. "He grabbed my head and I tried to move away even though I could barely move my neck. I yelled for help and that's when he stopped."
Isela and Sofía filed a police report, but authorities refused to give them a copy and Isela started getting threatening text messages, prompting her to check out of the hospital. They suspect Tapachula authorities told the social worker about the report and that he was the one threatening them. In June, Isela and Sofía left Tapachula and made it to the US–Mexico border, but they discovered they couldn't even start the asylum process because of Title 42 expulsions.
Through the help of other immigrants, the couple was able to get in touch with an attorney from Al Otro Lado, a binational legal service provider, who filed a humanitarian parole request, their only hope of leaving Mexico.
"We've suffered so much because we're part of the LGBT community, and we hoped that the US would help us, but instead they closed the door on us," Sofía said. "We're very confused about why we were denied."
The ever-changing immigration policies and court orders are also creating confusion, despair, and vulnerability for people who are already in a precarious situation, Cargioli, the immigration attorney with Immigrant Defenders, said. The confusion, she added, allowed smugglers and the cartel to spread misinformation about the border being open in order to get more business. It's also made it easier for people to scam immigrants into paying to submit asylum applications that can't actually be filed.
"The Biden administration has had ample time to handle and resume processing of asylum-seekers," Cargioli said. "Asylum is legal, it is an essential service, and a legal obligation the United States must abide by."