by Daniel Zawodny Oct 11, 2019

Karen Sosa needs $16,000 if she wants to have any chance at seeing her husband and young daughter again.

A native Honduran, Sosa arrived at the border that separates Nuevo Laredo, Mexico and Laredo, Texas in August 2019 with her husband and their three daughters. They turned themselves in to Border Patrol, and later were separated while in custody. She was released into the United States alongside her two older children without receiving news about her husband or youngest daughter.

Days after arriving at the home of a friend in Maryland who agreed to sponsor Sosa and her family, she received a call that she almost did not answer.

“It seemed strange because it was a number from Mexico,” explained Sosa, who did not know anyone from that country. Her husband and 8-year-old daughter were on the other end of the line and gave her the instructions – get $16,000 together or else the gang that kidnapped them would not let them go.

In an effort to address what White House officials classified as a “security and humanitarian crisis,” the Trump administration has changed asylum protocol at the U.S./Mexico border in ways that critics argue are putting already vulnerable people like Sosa and her family in further danger.

Before the Trump administration introduced MPP – the Migrant Protection Protocols – more commonly known as the Remain in Mexico program, asylum seeking families that arrived at the Southern border would spend anywhere from a day to several months in custody with either Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more commonly known as ICE.

They would be issued an alien registration number and a Notice to Appear detailing immigration court information, and later be sent to the nearest Greyhound bus station, sometimes with as little as the name of a U.S. city where a friend or relative lived indicated on a crude map.

“They were just lost – they didn’t have anywhere to go, they didn’t know how to use the phone,” says Edith Cedillo, who runs La Frontera immigrant shelter in Laredo, Texas. Cedillo and other community members would meet migrants at the bus station in Laredo to offer them a phone call, money for food, and general orientation for their trip ahead.

La Frontera can also house migrants for a few days before they depart the border region to reunite with friends or family that reside in the U.S. According to Cedillo, during some of the busiest months for border crossings, this relatively small shelter would offer food, housing, and showers to between 150 and 250 newly arrived migrants per day.

Since Remain in Mexico started, the numbers of migrants coming to La Frontera has dwindled to nearly 0, Cedillo explains. Now, after migrants crossing in the Laredo area are issued their registration numbers and paperwork by immigration officials, they are dropped off at the international bridge and must await their court date outside of the United States.

On that same bridge is where gang members kidnapped Karen Sosa’s husband and daughter. 

“I thought they were going to let us all leave together,” reflected Sosa regarding her time in detention at the border, “I didn’t know anything about him or my daughter, they told us they had already left.”

During that phone call in which Sosa was able to speak to her husband, she gathered the following details:

After processing with immigration officials, Sosa’s husband and their 8-year-old daughter were sent to the international bridge and told to return in November for their court date. It was never explained to them why they could not leave with the rest of their family.

While crossing the bridge, they were seized by people they could later identify as gang members. All of their personal documents were taken, including identification, birth certificates, and even their immigration paperwork. 

The gang got in touch with Sosa using WhatsApp, where they allowed the family members to talk to one another and made their demand for $16,000. If she did not pay, they claimed that Sosa would never see her family members again.

“It’s not a new thing,” said Cedillo, explaining that kidnapping and extortion are unfortunately common realities that migrants face along the border. At La Frontera, most migrants reported having paid gangs and cartels up to $6,000 just to be allowed to cross at sections of the border that were under their “control.” 

Of 19 in-depth interviews conducted with asylum seekers as part of a July 2019 Human Rights Watch report, several indicated experiencing kidnapping, assaults, and other acts of violence since being sent back to Mexico to await their immigration court appearance. 

The report also details a severe lack of services available to migrants upon their arrival in Mexico. Many shelters in border towns were full, and the Mexican government had yet to fulfill its promise to give migrants work authorization in the country in the meantime.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Remain in Mexico will block migrants from taking advantage of the asylum system by preventing them from “disappearing” into the United States after their initial release, as explained in their MPP release publication. According to statistics listed in that same publication, Customs and Border Protection apprehended over 94,000 family units from the three Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras in fiscal year 2017, the most recent year with available data. Of that number, 99% still resided in the United States at the time of publication. 

Within this same publication, DHS further justified Remain in Mexico by saying that it would mitigate migrants’ vulnerability to smugglers, traffickers, and criminal organizations like gangs, and ultimately allow migrants with valid asylum claims access to the protections they need.

Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as Customs and Border Protection did not respond to several attempts for comment on this story.

According to Cedillo, taking migrants at their word, there is no lack of valid claim to a credible fear of returning to their home countries.

“Some of them have horrible stories and you are looking at them like, yes, this is what’s going to qualify you for asylum,” she said, “they want part of the American Dream, and to them, anything else besides what they were living would be an American Dream.”

This makes sense to Daniela Ochoa, a Family Reunification Case Manager at Baltimore’s Esperanza Center, a comprehensive immigrant resource center. In her work accompanying recently reunified families in Baltimore, she explained that just having a safe, stable place to live is a great first step for immigrants to work through traumas resulting from experiences in their home countries or from their trek to the U.S.

“Clients will say, like, ‘okay well I’m no longer in the same neighborhood as the person that sexually abused me, so that already makes me feel a lot more safe,’” she said, “For them, the simple fact of being separated from that environment is already a healing process.”

Critics of the Remain in Mexico program argue that by forcing migrants to grapple with some of the same violent realities in Mexico that they fled in their home countries, the protocol is ultimately retraumatizing already vulnerable individuals.

Thanks to a couple of partial ransom payments that Sosa managed to get together with the help of a local church, the gang has released her husband and daughter. However, they are not totally free to go – the gang has told Sosa that they are still watching her family, and will hold on to their documents until the ransom is paid in full.

This complicates things as the family’s court date approaches this November. Living in Maryland without the ability to work, Sosa has not been able to find an affordable attorney that will be able to meet and represent her husband and young daughter at their court hearing along the border.

In the meantime, Sosa, who has herself now expressed fear of going to her own immigration hearing, is left with her two adolescent daughters to pray for the best. She hopes that if the rest of her family is able to make their court appearance, their story will be enough for an immigration judge to grant them the protection they seek. November could bring the reunification of her family in Maryland, their deportation to Honduras, or a continuation of a grueling limbo that has separated the family of five.