Asylum-seekers face anxious wait at border

By Lia Zhu in San Ysidro, California | China Daily | Updated: 2019-05-06 07:13
A corrugated metal fence at the border. [Photo by Lia Zhu/China Daily]

'Credible fear'

Recalling the life she left behind in Honduras, a 37-year-old woman, calling herself Maria, breathed a sigh of relief while resting on a cot at a shelter run by the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition of human rights and faith organizations.

The shelter is in a former courthouse in downtown San Diego, about 27 km from the San Ysidro port of entry.

"The economy is really bad in Honduras, but the main reason we fled home is that there is a lot of violence there," Maria said through a translator.

Her family made a living by selling food in Honduras, but she said gang members kept extorting them. "If you don't pay them, they threaten to kill your family," she said.

Events on the night of Dec 29 were the last straw for the family.

"One gang member wanted to be with me, but I didn't want to be with him. At about 11:30 pm that night, he broke into the house where I was staying with my mother. He then started stabbing me," Maria said.

"He didn't kill me, but only because my younger brother intervened," she said. Her brother ended up with a broken knee.

Maria's knife wounds have healed, leaving red scars about 5 centimeters long on her forearms, but the incident is etched permanently on her mind.

In January, Maria, her 20-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son boarded a bus heading to Guatemala. Her husband was in Mexico at the time and had heard that the US was granting asylum to people from Central America.

After traveling thousands of kilo-meters by bus across Mexico, Maria, her husband and their two children arrived at the San Ysidro crossing and were given a number. They waited in Mexico for six weeks before being held in custody for three days by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

After passing the initial screening, known as a "credible fear" interview, the family was released and dropped off at the shelter.

"I'm in a place where I feel I'm protected. That person who hurt me will not come here and hurt me again," Maria said.

Wearing a monitoring bracelet around her right ankle, she said they would leave the shelter in two days for Iowa, where her husband's sister lives. The family is required to appear in an immigration court later, which will decide whether their asylum case is legitimate.

"I'm not worried now, and believe that if you follow the law, everything will be OK," Maria said.

At the start of this year, Central Americans were among the largest groups of people applying for asylum in the US.

According to the International Rescue Committee, people living in Central America's Northern Triangle region, which comprises Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are enduring violence comparable to that in a war zone.

According to an NBC News report on April 9, the White House is working on plans to approve fewer Central American migrants in initial screenings by putting border agents in charge of the interview process because they will be tougher on asylum seekers.

The issue has become a humanitarian one because the White House has significantly cut the number of asylum applications it processes daily, creating a bottleneck of hundreds of frightened, vulnerable people on the Mexican side of the border, the San Diego Rapid Response Network said.

On Oct 26, the US began releasing hundreds of migrant families on to San Diego's streets without following the usual protocol that ensures asylum seekers have travel plans and the means to join relatives and friends elsewhere in the country, the response network said.

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