Deported Asylum Seekers Differ On Reaction To U.S. Policy Sending Them To Guatemala
Guatemala has sealed its borders and banned the arrival of commercial flights, including those from the United States, in an attempt to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Cargo is exempted, but commercial flights are banned for now. But there is one exception in Guatemala's aviation profile and it covers immigration enforcement. Deportations from the U.S. continue. These flights are ongoing despite data indicating that as of April 3, 2020, four recently-deported Guatemalan nationals have tested positive for the virus.
Flights carrying one subset of the migration mosaic, asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador, were also taking off to Guatemala until recently, with the planes departing from Texas. In March, those particular deportation flights were temporarily suspended. However many detainees have already landed in Guatemala and claim they were misled about where they were going in the first place.
The asylum seekers were sent to Guatemala under the terms of a Trump administration policy that is under challenge in U.S. federal court. Opponents claim U.S. law and international treaty obligations are being violated by sending people to countries where they will face danger.
Blanca Díaz is a 26-year-old from Usulután, El Salvador, where she operated a one-person unisex hair salon from home. She methodically recounted a string of what she said had been extortion threats from pandilleros -- criminals who are in essence the soldiers for organized crime in Central America’s Northern Triangle, a security-challenged region comprising El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
She said she opted to leave El Salvador after one threat too many. She described the difficult choice she confronted: to stay in an insecure situation or leave all that she loves to find safety elsewhere. Díaz said she paid $12,000 to a coyote, a human smuggler, to bring her from El Salvador to the U.S. border.
She had crossed the Rio Grande where Reynosa, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas meets McAllen, Texas. She was arrested within hours in McAllen and placed into the migrant detention center there. Days later, she said she and other Salvadorans and Hondurans were placed onto a bus in handcuffs. It was late at night. She said the bus stopped to pick up other asylum seekers at another migrant detention center in Donna, Texas. Several hours later, she arrived at an airport.
"Once I saw the airport in Texas, I knew something wasn't right,” she said in Spanish. She explained that she wasn’t sure where she was. She said the bus passed signs indicating the airport was somewhere either in or near San Antonio. She recounted that she became nervous when she saw a lone jet waiting to meet the bus at an otherwise inactive, and in her description, non-civilian airport.
“They told me I was going to another place to continue my application for asylum. I wasn't sure where that was but I thought it was inside the U.S.” she said.
I heard similar stories from multiple people unsure of where they were going when they departed Texas or what it meant for their U.S. asylum cases. A Dept of Homeland Security spokesperson asserted in an emailed statement for this story that asylum seekers are told on multiple occasions during the deportation process that they are being sent to Guatemala.
Eduardo Woltke defends migrant rights in the Office of Guatemala’s Attorney General and he is unclear on what the new arrivals were actually told.
"The people sent here need clear information,” Woltke said in Spanish. “I don't know what happened in Texas. But many people say they signed papers that they thought would send them to their home countries. Then they found themselves here."
They found themselves in a country that many are trying to leave. In 2019, Guatemala was the largest source of migrants detained at the U.S. border, more than 264,000. "More than 800 people have been sent here so far but just 25 have applied for asylum,” Woltke continued.
“We have interviewed many people who say asylum in Guatemala is not an option. I think most of them will try to return to the U.S.,” he said. There are fewer than a dozen asylum officers in Guatemala. It takes years to get a decision. Very few applicants are accepted.
"When they arrive in Guatemala, they're afraid. They start crying,” said Manuel Aguirre, who manages a migrant shelter. He said most asylum seekers he deals with are crushed but undeterred.
"They tell me that they would prefer to die trying again to go to the United States than to go back to their own countries,” said Aguirre.
The union representing U.S. asylum and refugee officers has filed a brief in federal court stating the policy is sending vulnerable people to a country in which "their lives and freedom are directly threatened." As for Blanca Díaz, she knew exactly what her next step would be.
"I'm going back to the U.S. again. At least I'm going to try because I am not staying here in Guatemala and for sure, I'm not going back to El Salvador." International law does not allow the U.S. to deport asylum seekers directly back to their home countries. For most people targeted by the policy, Guatemala is a trampoline, a brief stop before another attempt to return to the U.S. in hopes of gaining a formal asylum interview.
Guatemala’s government affords people such as Díaz 72 hours, three days, to apply for asylum but only for asylum in Guatemala. After that, if they do not apply, they are supposed to be deported to their home countries. That doesn't appear to be happening on a large scale.
The U.S. asylum process is also not a legal option for the next five years. Before getting on the plane in Texas, the Salvadorans and Hondurans signed papers saying they cannot legally return to the U.S. for five years. Díaz has close relatives in Texas. She was already in touch with them as she prepared to leave again on the migrant trail.
When she was in custody in Texas, Díaz found herself sharing a cell for nine days with a woman from Honduras named Natalia Medina. Medina and Díaz looked out for each other throughout their shared experience in detention in Texas. However Medina has had the opposite reaction than that of her friend. She said she now believes that the price of arrest, detention and being sent back to the region she fled is not a price she’s willing to pay again, a sentiment cited by policy supporters as evidence that the removals represent a deterrent to would-be U.S. asylum seekers.
I saw people crowded around a cell phone charging station at the Casa del Migrante, one of the few migrant shelters in Guatemala City. Their faces were a tableau of confusion and anger at having realized they were no longer inside the U.S.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” said Medina referring to her removal, days after she had been arrested in Texas but before any formal hearing where she would have had the opportunity to detail her petition to stay.
Medina was still trying to find her bearings. She is a highly educated high school English teacher from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. She had hoped to join close relatives in the U.S. She had been taken from the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen the night before and put on that bus with Blanca Díaz.
"We stayed right there, seated, sitting down, not moving, in handcuffs all the time,” she said of the time on the bus.
Medina said approximately four to five hours later, she and others from El Salvador and Honduras were on a flight to Guatemala. She remained in handcuffs until the plane arrived in Guatemala. As was the case with numerous others I spoke with, Medina believed she could still apply for asylum in the U.S. from Guatemala.
"They said, 'You're going to continue with that in Guatemala,' Medina recounted. “I thought that it was going to be possible to have asylum here in Guatemala and then go back to the States. But it was, like, totally a lie."
That is a heavy allegation. I asked Medina specifically, ' What exactly were you told before the flight,?' She said it was made clear to her after speaking, in English, to Dept of Homeland Security personnel in McAllen before the flight that she could move forward with her U.S. asylum application from Guatemala.
The U.S. Dept of Homeland Security, DHS, rejected the allegation.
In an emailed response to questions for this story, a DHS spokesperson writes "At no point are migrants told they can wait in Guatemala for U.S. asylum." Medina was disappointed upon hearing that. "I guess I misunderstood or maybe they didn't explain it very well."
Guatemalan human rights defender, Quelvin Jiménez, believes the U.S. policy is short sighted. Jiménez is the attorney for the Xinca Parliament which represents the interests of the Xinca, one of the country's four main ethnic groups. Jiménez said it is not credible to believe people fleeing chaos in other parts of Central America will willingly remain in Guatemala.
"The United States is sending these people to Guatemala, a country that cannot protect its own citizens. This is a violent country so it's not a good idea to send anyone here," said Jiménez.
Unlike the vast majority who stated they will definitely try to head to the U.S. again, Medina said that for her, that dream is over. "I would think twice to go back because I don't want to happen the situations that happened in jail,” she stated. “I don't want to go back again."
She alleged some DHS personnel in the migrant detention centers in Texas humiliated her and others as they ate or if they asked to have a shower. Medina said it was apparent to her that DHS agents did not know that she speaks fluent English. She stated that she clearly heard agents mocking migrants saying they smelled bad and looked strange, perhaps not realizing that an English speaker was overhearing the conversation.
"I could perceive that they didn't want us to be there. I have never felt depressed before. And I have been feeling depression just because I was in jail."
She told me she was leaving Guatemala for Honduras in a few hours. “How they can send me to a place that is more dangerous than my country, Honduras. How is it possible?” she asked rhetorically.
While both countries are dangerous in certain places, Honduras is actually statistically slightly more violent than Guatemala. However for people like Medina, that's a distinction without a difference, a meaningless number. Both nations, indeed the region generally, are plagued by criminal groups that, among other illicit criminal enterprises, target migrants for income through extortion and kidnapping.