Denied Asylum, Migrants Return to Fear

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) -- It had been nearly a year since the soft-spoken factory worker applied for U.S. asylum, saying he feared being killed. It had been four months since he'd been deported and flown home to Honduras.

And now, sitting at a TGI Fridays in San Pedro Sula one day in late November, he tells the story of how he had escaped death just three days before.

He was walking on a crowded downtown street two blocks from San Pedro Sula's city hall, where the policemen outside carry assault rifles and wear body armor.

Suddenly, a man stepped toward him. He fired one shot from a pistol, and fled.

The worker slumped against a wall, disoriented, a sensation of warmth rippling through him before the pain hit. But he'd been lucky. He'd been grazed just below his belt line, leaving a bloody welt about 3 inches long. He was discharged from the hospital after a few hours and returned to his tiny rental apartment and a life in hiding.

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This story is part of an occasional series, "Outsourcing Migrants," produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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While asylum has always been a longshot 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 --- like the unfortunate factory worker --- have been flown directly back to the dangerous places where their journeys started.

He says he and his relatives have been hunted for more than 20 years by a powerful criminal family from his small hometown, ever since an attack left his stepmother and stepbrother dead. The other family, he said, fears the men of his family will seek revenge.

"I've spent my whole life running," he said in his soft mumble, looking down at a half-eaten cheeseburger as he talked about life underground. "One day they are going to get me."

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The rules are clear for outsiders who enter the gang-controlled neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula: Roll your windows down so the spotters can see you're not a threat; drive slowly; stay on main roads, leave before nightfall.

There are police stations in these neighborhoods, but everyone knows who is in charge. The gangs monitor the streets, the police patrols and rival gangs using a complex network of young boys who work in shifts around the clock and report anything suspicious.

San Pedro Sula's criminal life is dominated by two street gangs: MS-13 and Mara 18. Very little escapes their notice.

"They told us they knew where to find my son," said a middle-class San Pedro Sula mother after she and her husband ran out of money to pay their "war tax," the extortion payments the gangs demand.

So the family ran. The father took the 11-year-old boy to the U.S., where they applied for --- and were refused --- asylum. The mother took their teenage daughter into hiding in the mountains.

After the father and son were deported back home in late November, and a brief, tearful reunion, the family again split up so they'd be harder to track.

"No one knows where we are," the mother said in a telephone interview a few days after her husband and son returned. "No one."

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The Trump Administration has long insisted 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 are 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.

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 heading north toward the U.S., many buses now leave with just a few passengers. Around here, U.S. immigration policies are reduced to one person: President Donald 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.

(KR)