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Members of a caravan of Central American migrants walk to the U.S.-Mexico border crossing in April. / Photo by David Maung

A group of more than 300 Central American migrants – remnants of what started as a more than 1,000-person caravan in Tapachula, Mexico – arrived at Tijuana’s border in April, many hoping to cross into the United States to seek asylum. Their arrival incited the wrath of the Trump administration.

About a week later, on May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions held a news conference in front of the border fence near San Diego to drive home the zero-tolerance policy he had launched the month before to try and prosecute everyone caught crossing the border.

“I have put in place a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry on our southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions said.

What followed was a surge in family separations and chaos in federal courts along the border as prosecutors filed an increasing number of misdemeanor criminal cases against people caught crossing the border illegally. The Department of Justice even put out a press release touting the first caravan members it prosecuted.

President Donald Trump characterized the group as a threat to the country.

“Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release. Getting more dangerous. ‘Caravans’ coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!” he wrote in one tweet.

For years, Central Americans — particularly those from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — have fled violence and extreme poverty in their countries, and headed north to join family, find safety and seek better opportunities.

The journey is dangerous. Many migrants risk rape, theft, assault or forced labor with little hope that any crimes committed against them will be investigated. They log many days with little food, endless walking or rides on top of a perilous network of freight trains, where they risk amputation or death if they fall.

The immigrants’ rights group that organized the caravan, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, for years has tried to band migrants into larger groups that travel together to create a collective power that not only keeps them safer during the journey, but helps them draw attention to their plight.

The 2018 caravan was the largest yet.

Though their decision to band together is what propelled them into the spotlight, the members of the caravan have since scattered throughout the United States and Mexico, into Tijuana neighborhoods, the homes of relatives or sponsors found by advocacy groups in the United States and detention centers. One even lost her life. Many still live in limbo – their asylum hearings are pending, they’re awaiting release from detention or they’re trying to make ends meet in Mexico.

Despite their divergent paths, they still share something. The caravan helped give the migrants a newfound voice and power, which many of them are finding ways to use as they continue fighting for a better future.

We checked in on some of the migrants from the caravan that arrived in Tijuana months earlier to see where they are now, what they’ve faced in the months since and what they have to say about their future.

Fighting for Better Treatment in Tijuana

One Sunday evening in September, a group of Central America migrants and organizers from Pueblo Sin Fronteras set up a vigil in Tijuana’s Bicentennial Plaza, near the Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral.

About two weeks earlier, two members of Pueblo Sin Fronteras were beaten and arrested by Tijuana police. Israel Lopez, a caravan organizer from Guatemala, and Irineo Mujica, director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, said they had gone to a municipal police building to inquire about the arrest of a Honduran immigrant who had also been part of the caravan.

The police told KPBS that Mujica and Lopez had been shouting and resisting arrest. Lopez said it was the cops who became aggressive as he and Mujica asked questions and began to take video of the encounter.

Israel Lopez is a Central American migrant who says he was abused and detained by the police in Tijuana. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Days later, Tijuana’s secretary of public safety, Marco Antonio Sotomayor, agreed to provide training for police to improve the treatment of migrants, in collaboration with Pueblo Sin Fronteras.

Organizers from the caravan, several of whom had arrived in Tijuana with the group in April, said these kinds of interactions with Tijuana police are common for migrants. This time, though, they’d had enough. They began holding vigils and press conferences each week to draw attention to the issue.

The Tijuana police department has not responded to a request from Voice of San Diego regarding its overall treatment of migrants.

At the vigil, several members of the caravan who’d had run-ins with the police gave testimonies about their experiences.

Lopez, who had traveled with the 2018 caravan and one in 2017, took the microphone and began to tell the story of the first time Tijuana police detained him a year earlier.

He and a friend had gone out to look for a job.

“Because what we always do when we arrive here, the first thing, is look for a job,” Lopez said in Spanish.

The police detained them, asking them if they were looking for problems, if they carried drugs.

They said no, but the police held them anyway. The first thing the police asked them as they loaded them into their vehicles, Lopez said, was if they had any money.

“I had 200 pesos, but I didn’t say it, because it was the only money I had,” he said.

Lopez, who is now 24, told Voice of San Diego he had first come to the United States as a teenager. In 2017, he was deported. He quickly turned around, traveling from Guatemala to Chiapas, Mexico, alone and from there joining with the 2017 caravan.

He initially decided to stay in Tijuana and try to find a job, but the police kept harassing him, he said. He only stayed about a month there the first time.

“I was desperate, fearful because any time we went out, the police would try to grab us,” he said. “I was desperate, so I tried to cross into the United States.”

U.S. border officials caught him, and he was deported again to Guatemala in December 2017.

He returned with the caravan in March. Lopez said he didn’t feel safe in Guatemala. His brother had been shot.

This time, he decided to stay in Tijuana and stand up to the police.

Pueblo Sin Fronteras organized a vigil to draw attention to police abuse of Central American migrants in Tijuana. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“Sometimes we just have to grab onto something because our rights are being violated,” Lopez said. “Just because we’re immigrants and come from another country doesn’t mean we’re not humans or that we don’t deserve respect.”

At the vigil, another caravan member, Sandra Perez, called on others to share their stories of abuse by Tijuana police. Mexicans who had come to Tijuana from other parts of the country, or who had been deported from the United States, stepped up in a show of solidarity to share their experiences of abuse and extortion.

“This is why we’re having this unity vigil,” Perez told the crowd in Spanish. “To invite all the people of Tijuana to fight with us.”

YouTube video

Perez has always been an organizer at heart. Back in Progreso, Honduras, she worked with the Committee for Relatives of Disappeared Migrants, an advocacy group for families who had relatives who had tried to make the dangerous journey to the United States but “disappeared” somewhere along the way.

When Perez decided she needed to leave Honduras – she couldn’t find a job and her daughters and mother depended on her financially – she continued to lead as an organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, she said in an interview.

Perez said that although she came from a violent place just like many who seek asylum in the United States, she decided to stay in Tijuana.

On top of the police abuse, Perez said, migrants face discrimination in finding jobs and places to live in Tijuana. Employers often attempt to pay them the least amount possible, especially while their Mexican immigration papers are still pending, making it difficult to buy food and make rent.

Perez worked at a few hotels in the city, but faced the same problems. She said she applied for a humanitarian visa through the Mexican government and received a response that the request had been granted, but her documents still haven’t come through.

“Sometimes we just have to grab onto something because our rights are being violated. Just because we’re immigrants and come from another country doesn’t mean we’re not humans or that we don’t deserve respect.”

Renting an apartment is still a struggle. Some landlords will suddenly threaten her and other migrants with immigration enforcement to force them out, she said.

“We’re going from one place to another,” Perez said. “No one gives us the support we need.”

So the migrants, with the help of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, are creating their own support.

They host feedings for Tijuana’s homeless, Perez said. They try to provide others in the city, not only Central American migrants, opportunities to raise their voice against the abuses they face.

They’re trying to start a movement.

“They’re uniting with us,” Perez said. “Thank God, they’ve responded to the call we’ve made to continue the fight. It’s not just us, but it’s necessary that all the people of Tijuana unite. The more people, the better the authorities will hear our call.”

Languishing in Detention

Pedro Pavon of Honduras came with the caravan to Tijuana. After requesting asylum, Pavon found himself at the Otay Mesa Detention Center.

Pavon remains there to this day. Though pretty much all caravan members who arrived at the border in April had to spend some time in detention, Pavon is one of roughly 30 who remain in detention, said Alex Mensing, a Pueblo Sin Fronteras organizer.

Those held in immigration detention can secure release if they pay a bond, or on some occasions can obtain humanitarian parole for medical or other reasons.

A security guard walks around the exterior of the Otay Mesa Detention Center. / Photo by Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement also sometimes makes decisions about who to detain and who to release based on space issues. A recent surge in Guatemalan families arriving at the Arizona border, for example, overwhelmed detention capacity and forced a mass release of immigrant detainees.

Through their network of other caravan members and migrants, advocates, attorneys and organizers, those still in detention have been trying to raise awareness of their plight inside the facilities.

Pavon harnessed the network to draw attention to the grueling heat detainees endured at the end of August, when the air conditioning at the facility sat broken for days amid a terrible heat wave. Pavon left a message on Mensing’s cell phone from the facility.

“We can’t bear the situation here, how bad it is,” Pavon said in the message. “This is an oven. It’s like they’re cooking us in here. It’s disrespectful to the detainees. We didn’t come here as delinquents. We can’t take it anymore.”

Other detainees were scared to speak out, fearing retaliation from the facility’s employees, he said.

CoreCivic, the private company that runs the facility, told KPBS at the time that it had fixed the air conditioning problem after five days, but that the temperature never exceeded 74 degrees even during the outage. A company spokeswoman said they provided ice and cold water to detainees and opened doors to the recreation area to allow for air circulation.

More than 40,000 people are in immigration detention across the country. Only about 14 percent of them have access to legal counsel, and their phone and visitation rights are limited, like in prison, meaning that their experience in detention often remains out of the public eye.

But the caravan’s network, both among migrants in detention who know one another from the caravan and with organizers and other migrants on the outside, is helping provide a megaphone to convey their concerns.

Organizers helped connect the Otay Mesa Detention Resistance – a volunteer group of San Diegans who, after seeing news of family separations, decided they needed to do something to help migrants in detention – to caravan members inside.

Migrants from the 2017 caravan went on hunger strike in the Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino to protest the conditions there. One El Salvadorian migrant from the 2017 caravan, who had a miscarriage in detention, joined with two other women who were pregnant in detention upon their release to raise money for those still detained in Otay Mesa to help them pay for phone calls and items from the commissary.

Though caravan members face difficult circumstances in Mexico and in the United States, those stuck in detention arguably have the hardest plight.

While being held in a detention center in New Mexico in May, a transgender member of the caravan from Honduras, Roxana Hernandez, died in ICE custody.

After turning herself in for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in May, Hernandez spent several days in Customs and Border Protection custody, in what many migrants refer to as hieleras, or ice boxes. She was then taken to a transgender unit at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a federal prison facility in New Mexico that contracts with ICE.

The following day, Hernandez was admitted to Cibola General Hospital and later transferred via air ambulance to Albuquerque’s Lovelace Medical Center, where she remained in the intensive care unit until she died on May 25. The preliminary cause of death was cardiac arrest, according to ICE.

Hernandez had previously told Buzzfeed News that she had contracted HIV after being gang-raped in Honduras.

Immigrant advocacy organizations blamed immigration authorities for her death.

“Roxana – or Roxy as her friends knew her – traveled over 2,000 miles through Mexican territory on foot, by train, by bus because her last aspiration and hope was to save her own life,” several groups wrote in a statement. “She fled the violence, hate, stigma and vulnerability that she suffered as a trans woman in her country, Honduras, and also in Mexico. She saw in the United States the opportunity to start new life free of abuse, risk, and threats, by seeking asylum. What she found in the United States, however, was death.”

Prosecuted for Entering the Country Illegally

Two mothers, who were part of the caravan and had both been separated from their children when they entered the United States from somewhere other than an official port of entry, were found guilty in July of illegally entering the country.

Hondurans Olga George and Marbel Ramirez had been arrested in a group of 18, including children. Because they were identified as part of the caravan, the Department of Justice touted their arrests and criminal prosecutions in a press release.

Other than these individuals, it’s unclear how many people from the caravan have been prosecuted.

George was separated from her four children, and Ramirez from one child.

The two women tried to have their complaints dismissed on the grounds of discrimination. While they had been arrested in a group of Central Americans and Indians, only the Central Americans were prosecuted, they argued. A magistrate judge ruled against them.

At their joint trial in July, the women’s attorneys argued that they did not cross between ports of entry to elude examination by immigration officials, but to request asylum.

An organizer from Pueblo Sin Fronteras testified that a month prior to arriving at the border, the women had expressed they wanted to apply for asylum in written documents collected by caravan organizers. The organizer also testified that the women knew asylum-seekers were being turned away at ports of entry – a matter at issue in a current lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

They both were fleeing violence in their home country, according to excerpts from Pueblo Sin Fronteras intake forms the women had filled out in March that were read out loud in court.

“Because they killed an uncle of mine,” Ramirez wrote in the form, describing why she left Honduras. “This was awful because he – if you could see how they left him, and the one who killed him is on the loose looking for trouble with me, and the rest of the proof, well, later I will give it to you, but it has been awful for me.”

George said she left because of domestic violence.

Both George and Ramirez had been found by immigration officers to have “credible fear” of returning to their country, meaning they could move forward with their asylum requests.

A family from Honduras, center, waits to be received at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico in April. The couple said they planned to seek asylum in the United States because of increased violence in Central America. / Photo by David Maung

But Magistrate Judge Ruben Brooks, who heard the case, said he did not think that was sufficient to show that the women crossed between ports of entry to seek asylum.

One of the arresting Border Patrol agents who testified during the trial said that the women did not immediately request asylum while with him. Brooks said that showed that although the women had “contemplated seeking asylum in March,” when they had filled out the documents for the caravan organizers, they did not necessarily show that same intent in April, when they chose to enter the country in a place other than a port of entry.

Both women were found guilty of illegally entering the country – a misdemeanor – and were sent to Texas to be reunited with their children. They’re now both appealing their convictions.

Last month, their attorney, Eric Fish, submitted a brief arguing they were discriminated against and that the magistrate judge who found them guilty had been mistaken in his decision when he stated it was not clear the women were seeking asylum.

“That the government targeted Ms. George and Ms. Ramirez based on their national origin is also plain, given the overwhelming focus by the President and the Attorney General on deterring and punishing people from Latin America, and particularly Honduras, who formed a part of the caravan,” wrote Fish in the brief.

Further, he wrote, “a defendant who crosses into the United States between ports of entry solely for the purpose of seeking asylum has neither purposefully nor knowingly come to the United States to elude examination and inspection.”

The government will file its response at the end of this month, after which the judge will set a date to hear arguments.

Out on Bond, Awaiting Asylum

Brytani, a transgender Honduran woman who asked that her full name not be used due to the sensitive nature of her pending asylum case, arrived in Memphis, Tennessee last week, welcomed by a kind stranger who decided who open her home to an asylum-seeker.

There she’ll stay for at least a year, while she continues to fight her asylum case and begins building a life for herself in the United States.

Brytani moved to an apartment in New Orleans after spending more than three months in immigration detention in New Mexico. The New Orleans apartment was a temporary place for her to get her bearings before moving to a more permanent home in Memphis.

Along with many others in the caravan, Brytani had requested asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry along with others in the caravan after they arrived in Tijuana, and was subsequently detained.

Roughly 200 people from the caravan turned themselves in for asylum at the port of entry. Some, like Pavon, remain in detention, but most are like Brytani. They’ve either been bonded out or released on parole from detention, and are living either with relatives or with hosts that Pueblo Sin Fronteras helped them find. In cities across the United States, they await their asylum proceedings, try to adjust to life in a new country and start to chip away at the new beginning for which they made the long, difficult journey.

Brytani said she was threatened, not only for being a black, trans woman, but also for being a witness to a crime in Honduras. After a friend was murdered in front of her and she received death threats, she thought, “I’ve got to go,” she told me.

Image courtesy of Brytani

She went first to Guatemala before realizing that the people after her could reach her there, too. Then she went to Mexico, where she stayed until she heard about the caravan and joined up with the group in Puebla, Mexico.

“I thought, I need to take advantage of this moment to go with the caravan, to go to the country where I am now, which I know with time will give me a lot of opportunities and a better life,” she said. “In all the countries in Central America, they could come and kill me.”

Brytani didn’t have family in the United States the way some migrants do, so she has been provided with sponsors, homes, food, legal representation, plane tickets and more thanks to a network of support that’s been developed by Pueblo Sin Fronteras and other advocates.

“This is how you come from hell and begin to work for a better life, for a better future,” she said. “I left hell and I feel that I’m now in a place where I can start building a better future for me and my family, where there isn’t crime, there isn’t danger.”

Back in Honduras, Brytani said she worked with an organization that helped children living on the street. She’s passionate about community organizing, human rights and social justice, and dreams of one day starting her own organization and shelter for street children, where they can receive therapy, help in reuniting with their families and other services.

She’s starting to take the first steps here. In New Orleans she began trying to meet with activists who support the black LGBTQ community in the United States.

“I thought, I need to take advantage of this moment to go with the caravan, to go to the country where I am now, which I know with time will give me a lot of opportunities and a better life.”

“The first thing is to plant the seed and work hard, really hard,” Brytani said. “To work in activism, in all that involves defending human rights.”

Adjusting to life here is a process. And it’s not easy. Family members back home have had health issues. Brytani is not yet able to work to care for herself or send her family money. On occasion in New Orleans, she said she even ended up in places where people made rude gestures and insulted her because she’s not from the United States. But in general, she said she likes being in the country, thanks especially “to the people with good hearts who have come her way.”

“Here in the United States, there are many people who think migrants are bad, that they’re criminals, rapists, but that’s not it,” she said. “If I could be OK in my country, if every Central American brother and sister of mine could remain in our own countries, we wouldn’t be coming here to seek asylum in the United States. We want the United States to hear us, to support us because the truth is, we come here to work, to fight, to search for a better life. If you live in Honduras, you don’t live in peace.”

Adriana Heldiz contributed to this report.

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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