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From Darkness To Light: At The Heart Of The Immigration Crisis Are Stories Of Horror And Hope

Credit Ryan Loyd / TPR News
TPR News
Jose, a nickname given to the two year old boy released with his mother Tuesday, looks at the people gathered to hear the story of their long journey.

On Tuesday evening, three small families were led out of the Karnes County Residential Center to begin a new journey.

A woman who is being called Margarita cradled her two year old son, nicknamed José. They took their first steps out of the center southeast of San Antonio into the bright Texas sun. The tension could be felt in the air. Margarita and two other mother and child pairs, San Pedro Sula natives, made bond through the immigration law group, RAICES, which spent more than $15,000 that was collected through donations.

Akin Gump attorney Dennis Windscheffel, who works with RAICES executive director Jonathan Ryan in fighting for the immigrants' rights, said the situation is a human rights crisis. He detailed two reasons why he is working to free the women.

"This facility is just women and children, and sometimes when the families come across with the father or husband, they're actually separated," he said. "A lot of the kids are traumatized. We're finding that a lot of the kids aren't receiving the necessary medical and psychological counseling they need to deal with these issues."

Margarita decided to speak about her journey with Ryan and Windscheffel by her side. She said that she was comfortable for the most part.

But the experience wasn't all that great.

"We felt like we were in a jail," she said. "We were trapped inside."

Margarita made the trip to the United States after her mother passed away. Her attorneys say the insurance money she received from the death made her the target of gangs. She used the money to make her trek.

"I lost my mother and friends," she said. "I'm sad to be separated from them."

Most people in the United States have probably never heard of San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa or Juticalpa, unless, perhaps, they’re true crime junkies. San Pedro Sula, a city of over 1 million in the northwest Honduras, is a place where swaggering gangs wage a brutal war in the streets and drug lords hold sway over them all. Corruption is rampant, and the police, apparently, can be as pitiless as the thugs they have sworn to fight. Those that live there call it hell on earth. And in 2013, it was also the murder capital of the world, with more than 187 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

According to written testimony presented by various federal agencies to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs this July, just three countries, Guatemala, El Salvador, and the Honduras, represent the nationalities of over three-quarters of the 50,000-plus unaccompanied children who had crossed into the United States by mid-June of this fiscal year. 

By September 30, the end of the fiscal year, the final tally for the year was at 68,434. But, according to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson last Thursday in Washington, D.C., September was actually a two-year low for illegal crossings by unaccompanied minors. Most of these children, incidentally, turn themselves in to the US Border Patrol at the Rio Grande Valley, here in Texas.

A Pew Research Center report this summer, quoting the Department of Homeland Security, stated that the Honduran municipalities of Tegucigalpa and Juticalpa, together with San Pedro Sula, make up the top three places from Central America that were sending children illegally into the U.S. 

“Many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the U.S. Salvadoran and Honduran children, on the other hand, come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home,” the Pew report quotes the DHS as stating.

And that is the risk Margarita took, when she picked up her son, cashed in an insurance payout she received after her mother’s death and hopped on a crowded, rickety bus headed north. She was fleeing warring local gangs, who had emphatically informed her they would take everything she had, and some. “Was it easy? No, it was hard, and it was sad, but I had no choice, and more importantly, I realized my son would have no choice if I stayed.”

More than 60% of Hondurans live below the poverty line, and in the rural part of the country, which accounts for where roughly half the population lives, more than 50% exist in extreme poverty, or less than $1.25 a day. Expectedly, the Honduras tops the global country rankings for homicide rates, with more than 90 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012.

Just to put this in perspective, the homicide rate for South Sudan is 13.9, Afghanistan is 6.5, Iraq is 8 and the United States is 4.7. South and Central American countries are much higher up this dubious roster, but no one comes close to the Honduras. All the inmates currently being held at the Karnes County center are from that country. And every one of those women and children was desperate enough to risk being trafficked, raped, murdered and kidnapped in the course of a perilous journey across Central America and Mexico, to make it to the United States — for them, the land of the free and the hope of the brave.

What they found here though, wasn’t quite as expected. Perhaps they believed the tales of horror from their countries would precede them and immediately open doors. Perhaps it was the idea of a magical American dream that distanced them from reality. But even as hundreds of women and children crossed illegally into U.S. territory, they suddenly found themselves detained and moved to centers around the country.

For Margarita and the others who have been “bonded out” with her, there now begins a process, with the help of civil rights groups, of trying to get a court date to make a case for political asylum. But thousands of others remain within these centers, even as a furious debate rages outside over their presence here. The Department of Homeland Security thinks them a “national security risk” against the backdrop of various terror threats. An attorney for the DHS says that to allow them to remain in this country would encourage “human trafficking.” And a number of American taxpayers are unwilling to bear the cost of their migration.

For the moment though, these women and children are here, and are holding on to the hope offered by the efforts of groups like RAICES, which is working towards bonding out several families with the help of anonymous donors. Before Tuesday, only two families had made it out, but for those fighting a difficult battle, every one of those happy faces counts as a victory.

Sister Patricia Connolly, who works with the international group, Daughters of Charity, posted their bond Tuesday morning, with three checks in hand.

“The arrival of all these women and children, we needed to respond," she says from outside the DHS’s office in northeast San Antonio.

Ryan has spent hours working with judges, arguing Constitutional points and pulling case law to secure the detainees' release. “This is what we’re facing as attorneys and this is what these poor women and children, literally fleeing for their lives, are facing here in the United States, a place they thought they were coming to receive protection. Instead, they’re having to pay bonds,” he says.

Ryan adds that — strangely, perhaps, given the national security logic — men in the same situation are not put through the same process or protocol, as the women and their children. He says men do not even have to post bail, unlike the women, who are given "no bond."

The high bond prices aren’t the immigrants' only worry. The bright Texas sun will soon fade, and they will be dropped off at the local bus station, to make their own way from there. It's no place for a woman and a child at night, says Ryan. “Even when people do get out of the immigration detention system, they go from the frying pan into the fire, because they are released into the world with really no services and no (official) support," he says.

But that’s when outfits like the Welcome Home Network, made up of faith-based organizations, step in, and provide resources to get them started. Meanwhile, the bonds, even though paid, will be appealed. If they win, Ryan says, the money will be put back to help have others released.

This fight, and the complex debate around it, will go on in the midst of real human stories. Stories of mothers like Margarita, who stake their lives, and that of their children’s, on this — the hope that one day, there will be a future. “We’re going to California to live with a friend,” she says with a final smile.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.