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SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS – At first, Denilson didn’t want to go to the United States. But his friends and neighbors insisted.
Denilson, who is now 20, had been running from Honduras for years. When he was teenager, the mayor of the town where he lived wanted to kill him. Then, after he’d fled to a different city, gang members threatened his life. He had lived in Panama for a while and tried escaping to the United States multiple times – the last attempt had resulted in a brutal kidnapping.
But with a promise of a safer journey in the caravan, Denilson was eventually convinced. And in October 2018, he left his work and studies to set off with thousands of other Hondurans for Tijuana.
I first met Denilson and his friend, Edgar, in Tijuana in November, when they were staying in Benito Juarez, a makeshift migrant shelter that was created from an old sports complex when the 6,000-person Central American caravan arrived. (VOSD is withholding their full names because they were asylum-seekers.)
A little over a month later, they crossed into the United States and requested asylum.
Edgar was deported back to San Pedro Sula at the beginning of 2019. A few months ago, he found me on Facebook and we reconnected.
Edgar and I weren’t able to meet again in person when I was in San Pedro Sula – the scheduling just never worked out – but he told me via Facebook that he’s working as a mechanic, and hopes to open up his own shop with a friend. He plans to try to go to the United States again. He is just trying to save up for the journey.
Denilson spent five months in detention centers throughout the United States trying to win asylum. He was finally deported – the day before I arrived in San Pedro Sula. We met and talked about the past five months.
Aside from the fortuitous timing and coincidence of meeting him in Tijuana – my backyard – and then finding each other again – this time in his – Denilson’s story illustrates the difficult decisions and the arduous journeys migrants face, often only to be turned around and end up back where they started.
Caravans have been traveling from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border for years, but in October 2018, the largest one – made up of thousands of people, mostly from Honduras – left the country after the continuous poverty, violence and corruption was compounded following a 2017 presidential election widely believed to be fraudulent. Honduran police and military brutally cracked down on protests over the election outcome, resulting in more than 30 deaths.
“We suffered a lot along the way,” Denilson told me of the journey. “The sun, no water, the cold. We went from town to town, where people helped us. We would walk 15, 16 – one day we walked 20 – hours. Sometimes we would be able to hitch a ride in a car that stopped for us in the street.”
That’s how they traveled to Mexico City, where they spent a week. Then they continued, going from city to city, until they reached Queretaro, where they got a bus to Tijuana. It took about a month.
“What happened in Mexico on the journey – I don’t like to remember it,” he said. “There was a lot of suffering.”
Tijuana didn’t feel safe. While they were staying in the Benito Juarez shelter, Denilson recalls hearing gunshots, though he never knew where they were coming from or who they were directed at.
He remembers the fateful day when hundreds of migrants tried to enter the United States near the El Chaparral border crossing during a protest, which resulted in a border shutdown and led Border Patrol agents to launch tear gas at migrants.
Denilson didn’t leave the shelter that day. His sister, who is living in New Jersey, had advised him to not participate in the protest. But he remembers watching videos and that later that day, some of his friends returned to the shelter injured.
Then, after rains flooded Benito Juarez, authorities moved the migrants to El Barretal, another makeshift shelter converted from an old concert hall. Denilson only spent about two weeks there, before jumping the fence with four other men, including Edgar, to get to the United States.
It was the middle of the night and cold, Denilson recalled. They turned themselves into a Border Patrol agent. Denilson told the agent that he feared returning to Honduras.
The agents asked them for identification and confiscated their belongings. They made them take off their belts and shoelaces, he said. They put them in a vehicle and took them to a hielera, a common nickname for Border Patrol holding cells. Denilson spent 24 hours there.
Denilson said he was first transferred to another Border Patrol station in Chula Vista, then to a facility in San Luis, Arizona. One morning, he was taken to the Phoenix airport, where he was flown to Memphis, Tennessee. Edgar spent time in San Luis, but did not go to Tennessee. He was deported at the end of January.
From Tennessee, Denilson was transported by bus to the Jackson Parish Correctional Center in Mississippi. There, he said he was given his credible fear interview – one of the initial steps in determining whether someone is eligible for asylum – but was told his fear wasn’t credible.
“Why?” Denilson said. “I said I had evidence, but my evidence was in Honduras. I explained my case.”
The mayor of the small town where he’s originally from had threatened him, after he had an issue with a company in town that he had worked for at the time and tried to report it. He was 13 at the time.
His family moved to a different city in Honduras. Denilson said he tried to keep a low profile. He worked during the day and studied at night and on weekends. But one night, when he was 15, his mom received a phone call from gang members.
“They told her they didn’t want to see my face in the neighborhood or they would kill me,” he said. They continued to call his mom, his siblings and finally him with the threats.
He went to Mexico to try to escape to the United States, but was caught and deported by Mexican officials. The calls started again upon his return and he fled for Panama, where he stayed for almost a year, until things calmed down and he could return to Honduras.
Denilson tried twice more to go to the United States. The first time, he was caught in Mexico and deported again. The second time, in 2017, he was kidnapped in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Denilson said he and the others he was with were taken to the jungle and tortured, until their families could scrounge up $5,000.
After that, he vowed he’d never try to go back to the United States. But when the opportunity to travel with the caravan came up, his friends convinced him it would be safer than his previous attempts. That’s how he eventually found himself in a detention center in Mississippi, asking U.S. officials for refuge.
But officials denied his asylum claim, he said. He’d have two options: Leave the United States immediately or take his case to an immigration judge.
“I decided Option B,” he said.
He spent three months in the detention center in Mississippi and in March, he was transferred to Louisiana.
His time in detention was terrible, he said. Many of the guards would insult them. He got into a fight once with another detainee, who made a comment about being able to easily squish Denilson, since he is small. He spent a few days in a solitary cell for that.
“They were rare, the guards who would treat us well,” Denilson said.
They would get an hour and a half outside in the yard each day. But sometimes, guards would arbitrarily take away their outside time, he said.
In April, he finally had a hearing before an immigration judge.
“The judge only told me three things,” Denilson said. “He said what he decided, I couldn’t appeal. That my deportation order was in place, and that was the end of my case. It didn’t even last three minutes. He didn’t even ask me anything.”
He remained in detention. A month later in May, the Honduran consulate contacted him to tell him that he was going to be deported. It was about 3 in the afternoon, he recalls.
Denilson was scheduled to come to Honduras on June 7. Edgar told me via Facebook, and I planned to wait at the spot where the planes carrying deportees landed to meet him that day. But Denilson was removed even sooner, on June 4, the day before I landed in San Pedro Sula.
Deportation came with mixed emotions. On one hand, he was happy to see his family: his mom, his siblings and his nieces and nephews – the children of his sister in the United States who remain in Honduras.
“But I also felt broken down,” he said.
Five months of waiting to see whether he’d be granted asylum. Five months of being hauled from facility to facility, and treated like a criminal in each one.
Denilson isn’t sure what he’s going to do next, but he doesn’t want to try going back to the United States. He might try to stay in Honduras, finish the studies he set aside to join the caravan and work as a mechanic. He could renew his visa in Mexico that he got while traveling in the caravan or return to Panama.
At the very least, he said, he’ll stay in Honduras just long enough for his mom’s next birthday and for Christmas. He missed them both last year.
Srikrishnan’s trip to Honduras was funded by the International Center for Journalists.