Tim Sullivan, Associated Press, December 29, 2019
By now, the young couple thought they’d be in the United States. Somewhere, anywhere, in the United States. They thought they’d have jobs — he’d work construction, maybe she’d be a waitress. They thought they’d be safe. They thought they’d have asylum.
Instead, an American judge swiftly denied their asylum requests. The Trump administration, in making asylum an increasingly remote possibility for everyone, had closed the door on them.
In early August, immigration officials escorted the couple onto a chartered airliner packed with deportees that flew them back to this industrial city in one of the world’s most dangerous countries.
They were home, back in a two-room apartment in the dusty San Pedro Sula neighborhood of Rivera Hernandez.
While asylum has always been a long shot for migrants, with most claims denied, it has become even harder in the Trump administration, which has focused on making asylum increasingly difficult — some would say nearly impossible — to get.
U.S. pressure on Mexico has forced tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to survive an immigration limbo in shelters and ever-growing tent camps in Mexican border cities, waiting for their cases to wind through U.S. immigration courts. Pressure on Central American governments, meanwhile, has led to bilateral agreements aimed at sending migrants to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to seek asylum there.
Many have been deported back to the dangerous places where their journeys started.
The Trump administration insists that Central Americans in danger already have safe havens.
“For those of you who have legitimate asylum claims, we encourage them to go and seek assistance from the first neighboring country,” Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan recently told reporters.
But most of those neighboring countries are also deeply dangerous, with powerful gangs of their own, drug cartels, corrupt officials and police forces regularly outgunned by criminals.
While immigration advocates acknowledge some cases don’t meet the legal standard for asylum, they believe the real intention of the ever-tighter White House policies is to discourage migrants — even those with valid needs for asylum — from trying to reach the U.S.
More and more migrants are hearing that message.
Immigration apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border have plunged by more than 70 percent in the past six months, down sharply from at least 132,000 in May.
“The goal is to send a deterrent message: Don’t even try this, don’t even leave. Because you’ll be sent back,” said Yael Schacher, a specialist on U.S. asylum issues at the group Refugees International. “The U.S. wants to shift the burden, and put that responsibility on other countries.”
So Guatemala has begun accepting Honduran and El Salvadoran deportees from the U.S. with an invitation to seek asylum there instead, Mexico runs militarized highway checkpoints along migrant routes and Honduran bus companies are under pressure to ensure that Venezuelans and Cubans don’t even get on buses heading toward the United States.
At San Pedro Sula’s main bus station, which until a few months ago was crowded with migrants going north to the U.S., many buses now leave with just a few passengers. Around here, U.S. immigration policies are reduced to one person: Trump.
“That old man doesn’t want to let anyone in,” grumbled Junior Elvir, a 26-year-old Honduran car mechanic who tried to reach the U.S. in late November but was caught by Mexican authorities, who are under immense pressure from Washington.
Mexico sent him home by bus.