The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Migrants risk it all seeking asylum. The answer in court is almost always ‘no.’

In one of Mexico's most dangerous cities, migrants await their fate as the Trump administration tightens asylum rules. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

EL PASO — The road to “no” meanders through deserts, skids into rivers and cleaves mountain passes. It tumbles out of Honduras and Guatemala, snakes up through Mexico and slips into far western Texas.

The road to “no” stinks of sweat from days without showers in cramped Texas holding cells and of rancid breath from the mouths of migrant detainees who say they were denied toothbrushes and toothpaste.

It reeks of confusion about the way forward.

But, for migrants seeking asylum to enter the United States through West Texas and eastern New Mexico, it frequently ends in the same place — inside a warren of spare federal courtrooms in downtown El Paso, where some of America’s most immovable immigration judges say “no” to migrant asylum seekers in droves. Winning asylum from an El Paso judge is close to impossible, local immigration advocates and lawyers say. One judge in the court rejected 98.8 percent of asylum requests over a recent five-year period, according to an analysis by Syracuse University.

But still they come. Coffee growers abandoning fields. Indigenous people escaping threats of violence. Shopkeepers fleeing gangsters’ extortion. Hondurans such as Gloria Acosta, a 30-year-old woman who says she fled her small town when gangs started killing members of her family and taking their land. Or Guatemalans such as Milvia Azucena Esteban Palomo, who says thugs threatened to beat her if her son did not join their criminal cabal.

They stream northward with seemingly little understanding of the U.S. laws governing asylum. Only a legitimate fear of persecution related to political opinions, race, religion, nationality or membership in particular social group opens the door to potential refuge, not economic deprivation or dangerous living conditions in their home countries.

Asylum claims along the border have nearly quadrupled from 43,000 in 2013 to 162,000 in 2018. Only a fraction of the migrants apprehended at the border make asylum claims, but they can still clog the courts with lengthy and complex legal showdowns. Trump administration officials have said less than 20 percent of asylum requests by migrants from the Northern Triangle nations of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are granted by the courts, and have suggested that the low rate is evidence that most of the claims are meritless.

Even as the flow of migrants entering the country without permission has shown some signs of tapering, the city of El Paso across the border from Ciudad Juarez, has become an inflection point in both nations’ chaotic immigration wars. Democratic presidential candidates and members of Congress have flocked to the area, and reports of young migrant children being held in deplorable conditions have sparked national outrage and presidential tweetstorms denying mistreatment.

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All the while, the trail of migrants into the downtown El Paso courthouse has gone on with metronomic regularity. They are flung into a bureaucratic and legal maze, a cross-border puzzle of holding cells and courtrooms that can last for months with little chance of success and may soon become exponentially more complicated because of a planned policy change. The Trump administration announced last week that it intends to strictly limit access to the U.S. asylum system to Central Americans who did not seek protection from countries they passed through before arriving in the United States.

Hope eventually rests on accomplishing the difficult, time-consuming task of proving they’ve been targeted for persecution in their home countries.

“It’s a deportation machine,” says Carlos Spector, a prominent El Paso immigration attorney. “Everything in its path is a clog to be cleared.”

Fleeing danger

The big highway that folds out of Ciudad Juarez runs past a southern edge of the United States. At 60 miles an hour, the United States flickers through the spaces between the rusty metal bars, offering blurred glimpses of forbidding desert no different from the forbidding desert on the Mexican side.

On the fence’s flat top portion, graffiti artists on the Mexican side have spray-painted giant letters that read in Spanish: “Neither delinquents or illegals — we are international workers.” Next to that someone has written a profane message in Spanish condemning President Trump and “his wall.”

An unmarked dirt road spurs off the highway, running past cinder-block shacks, some with rebar sprouting from unfinished roofs. Around a bend lies a cluster of sun-blanched yellow buildings that have been converted into a migrant shelter run by members of a local church called Pan de Vida. For now, this is home to Adilson la Inez, his wife and two daughters.

La Inez — a soft-spoken ­44-year-old with neatly trimmed black hair, a wisp of a mustache and a round, gently curved face — says he once had a comfortable life. He and his wife, Claudia, ran a convenience store in Tegucigalpa, the sprawling capital of Honduras. He owned a house and a car.

But this spring, he says, gang members began demanding a weekly payment from him. They also wanted 30 percent of his profits. To demonstrate what would happen if he didn’t quickly start making the payments, he says, they leveled pistols at his wife and his daughters —­14-year-old Alison and 9-year-old Maria Jose.

There was no way he could afford to pay, and he had no faith in the local authorities to do anything about it, he says.

“There’s so much impunity,” he says in a weary voice.

With time running out, he sold his car and handed his house keys to a friendly neighbor for safekeeping. He gathered every bit of money he’d ever earned to pay $6,000 to a “coyote,” the Spanish term for a human trafficker who ferries migrants to the U.S. border and shows them where to cross.

Sometime around June 10, he says, he boarded a bus with his family headed north, rumbling through Guatemala, then up through the Mexican state of Chiapas before arriving 10 hard-driving, marathon days later at a house in Ciudad Juarez, a city he’d never seen before.

A man he met there led them into the desert to the west, and told them exactly what to do and what to say after they slipped into the United States at a low point in the fence near the sandy spot where Texas meets New Mexico. When, as his coyote had told him, a Border Patrol agent spotted them, he and his family made no attempt to flee. They asked for asylum.

That single statement ushered his family into the American immigration labyrinth.

They were driven to a Border Patrol station, which he thinks was in the New Mexico community of Santa Teresa. He was placed in a crowded cell with dozens of men, he says. His wife and daughters were taken somewhere else. For the next four days, he says, no one would tell him where his loved ones had gone. Days of excruciating worry that he described as a “form of torture” passed before he found out they were in a cell in the same complex.

Migrants call these cells the “hieleras,” the Spanish word for icebox or freezer, because the temperatures are kept so frigidly low. A sign on his cell said the capacity was 13 people, he says. He counted close to 50. They slept in shifts, he says, alternating which men would stand because there was not enough room for all of them to lie down at once.

The lights stayed on night and day. Once, he says, he asked a guard for the time.

“What?” the guard said, mockingly, la Inez recalls. “Do you have an appointment?”

He never found out what time it was.

He also says he was not allowed to shower or brush his teeth. La Inez’s account of the maximum-capacity signs and the overcrowding, the 24-hour-a-day lighting, as well as the lack of hygiene, is similar to descriptions in interviews with five other migrants at his shelter, and to accounts El Paso immigration attorneys say they typically get from their clients.

(Asked for comment, Roger Maier, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, cited congressional testimony and media interviews in which agency officials have said that there is a “humanitarian crisis” at the border and that their temporary holding facilities “were not set up to process” the high flow of migrants across the border.)

On the fourth day la Inez was held, he says, someone handed him a slip of paper with a court date: Aug. 1. There was a time when he and his family might have awaited their hearing in the United States. But under a new program called Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, he and his family were driven to an international bridge, where after an hour of waiting, they were handed over to Mexican immigration officials. (MPP, which was enacted in January and requires asylum seekers to wait for hearings outside the United States, was recently expanded as part of a deal between the Trump administration and the Mexican government to avert a threatened U.S. tariff on Mexican products.)

Going home after half a lifetime

La Inez’s immigration maze had just gotten more complicated — and binational.

They were handed more papers, this time from Mexican officials, giving them permission to stay in Mexico while awaiting their hearing date in the United States. They were hungry. Their cellphone battery was dead. They had nowhere to go. But they lucked out when another Honduran man who had been released that day called a cousin to pick them up. Eight hours after leaving U.S. custody, he was being driven down a dusty, unmarked road to the shelter with the faded yellow buildings.

A day in court

A narrow hallway leads to a cramped waiting room on the seventh floor of the chunky brick federal building in downtown El Paso.

This is where la Inez and his family will come on Aug. 1 for their immigration court hearing.

Outside the waiting room door, El Paso immigration attorney Taylor Levy stands holding an overstuffed briefcase filled with crayons and coloring books. They have titles such as “Playful Puppies” and “Disney Fairies — Sparkling With Talent.” Levy’s gotten into the habit of bringing them for the children of migrants waiting to appear in court, but on this day, for some inexplicable reason, she’s been told she can’t. Later, she recalls how a little girl spotted the stash and reached for them, but Levy had to tell her she wasn’t allowed to give them to her.

Each day seems to bring a new complication to the world of the El Paso immigration attorney. Recently, attorneys who once were allowed to meet with potential clients in the courthouse waiting room before hearings to explain their rights have been barred from doing so. And on this day Levy is steamed about a recently unveiled policy that prevents her and other attorneys from appearing, even by phone, to participate in interviews with asylum officers to determine whether migrants who have expressed fear about returning to Mexico will be allowed to stay in the United States while their cases are pending.

“It’s really absurd,” Levy says.

Behind Levy and to her left is a small courtroom where Judge Sunita B. Mahtabfar presides. According to a Syracuse University analysis, Mahtabfar — a former asylum officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and an Obama appointee — had the third-highest asylum denial rate of any immigration judge in the country: 98.8 percent from fiscal 2013 through fiscal 2018. (Mahtabfar, though, has nothing on Agnelis L. Reese, a Louisiana immigration judge who topped the list: She rejected 100 percent of asylum requests in the same period, according to the Syracuse analysis.)

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On this day, more than 20 migrants are gathering in the courtroom of another judge, Nathan L. Herbert, who was appointed last year by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions as part of a wave of new Executive Office for Immigration Review judicial hirings touted as a step to reduce the backlog of immigration cases. As Herbert is addressing the migrants gathered on wooden benches before him, his voice melds with the sound of a toddler crying in the front row. Behind the distressed child, a dark-haired boy sleeps with his head on his mother’s lap.

Belts were taken away when they were detained. A stockily built man’s pants sag below his waist when he stands to take a document from a court official.

Some of the families inside the courtroom have arrived from the same shelter in Ciudad Juarez where la Inez is staying. One of their primary goals today is to make sure they don’t have to go back. Most have arrived without an attorney.

But a slight Guatemalan woman in a black T-shirt emblazoned with “Bebe” in glittery letters is one of the lucky ones. She is ushered to the defense table by Linda Rivas, the 34-year-old executive director of Las Americas, an El Paso nonprofit that provides free or low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees.

The Trump administration policy of sending migrants to Mexico to await immigration hearings has exponentially complicated Rivas’s life and work. Developing a winning asylum case can take long hours of meeting with clients, gently probing about intimate or traumatic events: rapes, domestic violence, extortion. In the days when asylum seekers typically remained in the United States in advance of hearings, Rivas — a single mother of two — could squeeze in meetings after getting her kids to bed or between after-school activities. Now, that same work involves lengthy trips across the border into Mexico, where the line of cars waiting to pass back into the United States can stretch for miles and take three hours or more.

In court with her Guatemalan client, Rivas is trying to explain another difficulty: She can’t understand the woman, who speaks neither English nor Spanish, but a dialect of an indigenous language Q’anjob’al. While Rivas and the judge work out an arrangement to find an interpreter, the woman’s daughter — a toddler in ponytails and a pink top — bounces up and down, with one hand on the armrest of her mother’s chair and the other on the armrest of Rivas’s. When the mother rises, she wipes tears from her eyes. In her hand is a plastic pouch stuffed with belongings and closed with a red seal reminiscent of the evidence bags in police procedurals.

For most of the men, women and children in the room, due process is meted out en masse. Each of them is given a date in mid-August to return for a hearing to continue their cases. The way it’s trending, they’re all about to be sent back to Mexico to wait.

Then a young man shoots his arm into the air.

“I’m afraid to go back to Mexico,” he says.

Another arm pops into the air.


Now Herbert, who had been genial at the start of the hearing, even occasionally winking at attorneys, starts to show signs of annoyance. His voice hardening, he asks if anyone isn’t afraid to return to Mexico. The room is unanimous. No one wants to go back.

They came to court for clarity. Now they’re back into the maze. There will be another round of questions. Another hearing maybe. Another decision by some person with power over their lives. They may stay or they may return — back to the shelter where Adilson la Inez waits with his family and prays for a miracle. Back to uncertainty.

Back to the road to “No.”