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Honduran teen wants to reunite with his mother in U.S. But the border remains closed to him
San Diego Union-Tribune - 4/18/2021
David knows well the risks that unaccompanied migrant children are taking to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.
A few years ago, he was one of them.
David, who asked not to be fully identified because he is still receiving threats from people he fled back in Honduras, fell trying to board a rail car on "la bestia," the notoriously dangerous train that many migrants ride north through Mexico. He lost his entire right arm and leg in the accident.
His recovery slowed his progress to the border by years. Now, because he's 19 and no longer a minor, the policies put in effect by the Trump administration — and continued under President Joe Biden — mean that his options for successfully entering the United States to pursue his asylum case and reunite with his mother living in Alabama are slim.
David's hopes are riding on the possibility that a packet of documents sent by an attorney to officials at the San Ysidro Port of Entry will be enough to convince those officials that he needs humanitarian parole — special permission to enter the United States temporarily.
And, as his mother Wendy fights cervical cancer and undergoes chemotherapy, time is still not on his side.
His attorney, Hollie Webb, submitted documents to the port in February and has yet to receive a response.
Webb said that's the case for many of the clients for Al Otro Lado, the legal services organization that employs her and supports migrants in Tijuana.
Customs and Border Protection, the agency responsible for deciding David's parole request, said that it cannot comment on or confirm information about individual cases for privacy reasons.
Dwindling optionsPrior to the Trump administration, humanitarian parole was used for situations such as allowing a parent who didn't have a visa into the United States temporarily to visit a child in the hospital, Webb said. Asylum seekers didn't need it because they were allowed into the United States while they waited for their cases.
With the implementation of the Trump administration's metering policy that limited the number of asylum seekers processed at ports of entry and "Remain in Mexico" policy that required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases progressed through U.S. immigration courts, that changed. Attorneys began using humanitarian parole as a tool to try to get certain asylum seekers into the United States because of medical need or imminent danger they faced in Mexico — though, they admit, with limited success.
Last year, the administration added Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order that allows border officials to immediately expel migrants to Mexico or their home countries because of the pandemic.
It also stopped processing any new asylum cases at ports of entry.
Attorneys began using humanitarian parole to try to help clients stranded in Mexico by these pandemic policies as well.
While the Biden administration has worked to wind down the Remain in Mexico program, it has not stopped expelling asylum seekers under Title 42. The only people exempted are unaccompanied children, a status that no longer applies to David.
And Biden has not started processing new asylum claims at ports of entry.
"The Trump policies have not been dismantled," Webb said. "[Remain in Mexico] was ended in name but with the border closure, it doesn't mean a lot to the people who are stuck."
During the Trump presidency, Webb said, humanitarian parole requests were generally denied.
Under Biden, results are more mixed, she said, though it is still difficult to have enough documentation to prove an asylum seeker's immediate need to enter the United States. That is especially true, she said, for people like David who need support from long-term medical care rather than something like an immediate surgery.
David struggles with phantom-limb pain and needs better prostheses and physical therapy, according to a medical evaluation presented as part of his case. He also needs psychological support for the trauma of his experiences.
"Sometimes when I'm asleep, I dream that I'm OK," David said in Spanish. "When I get up, I remember."
Rejecting the gangsDavid fled Honduras in 2018. He was 16 and alone.
His mother had already fled with two of his younger siblings. She hadn't been able to afford to bring all of her children, she said, so David, the oldest, was one of those who stayed behind.
Their family had become a target for the gangs that many migrants have fled — Wendy's brother was killed that year. Wendy herself had faced extortion over her small business selling vegetables at a market.
Police and other government officials are complicit in the extortion that happens all over Honduras, and the killings that result when someone cannot pay, Wendy said. If someone tries to report the threats, the police pass that information back to the gangs, and the person ends up dead.
"The whole government is bought," Wendy said in Spanish. "It makes people scared to speak."
Gang members tried to recruit David, telling him that if he didn't join, they would kill him.
At first, he didn't believe them because they were people he knew, people who, he thought, cared about him.
"They wanted me to do what they were doing," David said. "I didn't want to do that."
Then, one day, they came for him. David ran for his life, but they succeeded in stabbing him multiple times. He ended up in the hospital.
Wendy recalled hearing about her son's hospitalization shortly after arriving in the United States and the phone calls they had when he was well enough to talk.
"He said, 'I want to go (to the United States) because they're going to kill me like my uncle.' I said, 'I don't have money,'" Wendy said. "He said, 'They're looking for me. They're going to kill me like my uncle. I don't want that.'"
With help from other relatives in the United States, Wendy scraped together money to send to David to make the journey.
La bestiaDavid headed north through Guatemala and then Mexico.
"A lot of things happened on that trip," he said, recalling death threats, police harassment and the scramble to find money to keep going as a minor.
He ended up on la bestia, and he was feeling alright about the situation until he reached Veracruz. He got off one train as it pulled into a station and waited for the next one to leave. In order to avoid issues with police and other officials, migrants often jump onto the trains while they are already moving.
When the next train left, it was already moving pretty quickly as he leaped to grab onto a ladder and pull himself up, he recalled. He lost his grip and fell.
The train, in an instant, amputated his right arm and right leg. He has photos someone took of his limbs scattered on the tracks.
He remembers being conscious for a brief moment before blacking out. He ended up in a regional hospital where he had two surgeries, according to his medical records, and received 12 blood transfusions.
When his mother found out what had happened, she was beside herself. She couldn't leave her children alone in the United States, and exiting the country would mean abandoning the family's asylum claim.
"I didn't know what to do in that moment," Wendy said. "It hurt that I couldn't care for my son."
After about a month, she was able to talk with him on the phone. He was tired and only able to speak a little.
What he told her was crushing.
"He said he didn't want to live like that," she recalled in tears.
David's grandmother, who was still in Honduras, tried to get a visa to go take care of him, but Mexico denied her request.
ExpelledAfter eventually being released from the hospital, David ended up in shelters run by Mexico's child welfare agency until he turned 18 last year. Then he was transferred to a migrant shelter for adults.
He received prostheses for his arm and leg from the Red Cross and began learning how to use them.
In October, he finally arrived in Tijuana and went to the port of entry to present his asylum claim. Officials there told him that ports of entry were not processing asylum seekers because of the pandemic.
He tried crossing anyway in a place where the border barrier was under construction and fell. Border Patrol agents found him sitting on the ground. His right shoulder was injured, and he's barely worn his prosthesis since because of it.
The agents quickly expelled him back to Mexico.
"This is just one of literally thousands of examples of the harm that Title 42 is causing to people right now," Webb said. "We see family separation like this all of the time. We see hundreds and hundreds of people who are in severe danger and life-threatening situations in Mexico because of cartels and criminal groups. This policy is prolonging that and making it worse every day that it stays in effect."
David went to the port of entry again after he found out about his mother's cancer. Again, he was turned away.
Dreams of familyFor now, David and his mother talk over the phone at least daily. They take turns comforting each other.
"He tells me, 'Tranquila.' He says, 'I understand what it is not to have anyone taking care of you when you're stuck in a bed,'" Wendy said.
In other moments, he tells her how much he wants to be with her, that he doesn't think he will endure much more being alone in Mexico.
Mostly, they talk about their dream of the future, of being together.
The dream doesn't have many specifics. It doesn't matter what kind of jobs they have or what their home looks like. All that matters is that they're together and able to keep going, they said.
That's because they've never lived together before.
Wendy, 34, was a teenager when David was born. He was raised by another family but stayed in contact with her.
And as their family experienced tragedy after tragedy, he grew closer to her.
As he waits in Tijuana, David is working through the feelings of anger and sadness that come over him, exacerbated by microaggressions and discrimination, like the time when someone at a migrant shelter told him the place was for "complete people" only.
He tries not to think too much about life before the accident. He used to enjoy soccer and swimming. While he had access to pools at the children's shelters in Mexico, he has not been able to go to one as an adult.
His mind instead remains focused on where his future could be.
"Frontera y familia, frontera y familia, encerrado y peligro, encerrado y peligro," he said, narrating his thoughts. Border and family, border and family. Locked in and danger, locked in and danger.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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