The message was loud and clear: “Do not come.”
This would be the Biden administration’s initial attempt to deter migrants who fled danger in their home countries from seeking protection in the U.S.
First, President Biden in March discouraged migrants from trekking north to the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum. He suggested they stay in their home countries – where many face violence and persecution – as the administration addressed an increase in the number of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the southwestern border.
Then, the administration continued to rely on the contested Trump-era Title 42 order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reject migrants at ports of entry and expel those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization, thereby denying their legal right to seek asylum.
And in June, the administration delivered another warning to would-be asylum seekers from Guatemala: “Do not come,” said Vice President Kamala Harris during a news conference alongside Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders. If you come to our border, you will be turned back.”
Sarah Rich, senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, said the vice president’s comments were strikingly similar to rhetoric employed by the Trump administration.
“Seeking protection from violence and persecution is a fundamental human right, and the right to seek asylum is protected by U.S. and international law,” Rich said. “These remarks fly in the face of the right to seek asylum in the U.S. and indicate a disturbing continuity between the Trump administration and the Biden-Harris administration.”
For many migrants in peril, waiting in their home countries for a better time to seek asylum in the U.S. is not – nor could ever be – a viable option.
“I fled my country because I wanted to survive,” Emiliana Doe, whose name has been changed in this story to protect her identity, told the SPLC in Spanish. “I want to live. I want to be somebody. Nobody wants to die.”
Doe – a transgender woman from Honduras – is one of 13 plaintiffs in the SPLC’s class action lawsuit Al Otro Lado, Inc. v. Mayorkas.
Filed in July 2017, the suit alleges that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have illegally and deliberately restricted the number of people who could access the asylum process at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.
This so-called “Turnback Policy” encompasses a range of practices that CBP has been using since at least 2016 to prevent migrants from seeking asylum in the U.S., according to the lawsuit’s allegations. For example, during the Trump administration, CBP misinformed many migrants by telling them President Donald Trump had signed new laws saying, in effect, that there was no longer asylum for anyone.
Doe fled Honduras and endured a dangerous and difficult journey through Central America and Mexico, during which she was sexually assaulted and threatened with death.
She eventually arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, where word had spread regarding the Turnback Policy. Other migrants told Doe that she needed to put her name on a waiting list if she wanted to seek asylum in the U.S.
Doe then went to the San Ysidro port of entry near Tijuana, where two women gave her a piece of a paper with the number “1014” and told her to return in six weeks. Feeling desperate and unsafe, Doe returned to the port of entry just a few weeks later.
But CBP turned her away under the policy.
Treated ‘like trash’
Doe’s journey could be said to have begun some time ago, when she was a child and felt as if she were a girl trapped in a boy’s body. She began her transition when she was 12, but Hondurans did not accept her. As Doe grew up, she was constantly threatened with violence due to being transgender. At one point, drug dealers told her she had 15 days to leave the country, or they would murder her.
Doe was never able to rely on the police for help, no matter how many times people threatened her. After all, she had been raped many times by police officers, who, Doe said, “believed they could treat me like trash.”
“The police [in Honduras] are people who use their uniform to persecute the transgender community,” she said. “They don’t protect us. It’s more of a business for them. They rob us, they hit us, they laugh at us.”
Doe was kidnapped and held for three days by another group of drug dealers, who delivered brutal beatings. One day, the group decided to “free” Doe by throwing her out of a moving vehicle, leaving her with significant injuries that a hospital refused to treat.
“I walked on bloody and swollen legs to the hospital to see the doctor,” she said. “I waited for six hours, but no one would see me. The people that beat me wanted me dead, wanted me gone.”
Doe’s mother lived two hours away, and Doe’s father was absent from her life. Alone, suffering and with no support system, she spent two months in bed as she recuperated. She fled Honduras on foot on June 5, 2018. She crossed the border from Honduras to Guatemala and slept outside wherever she could, rain or shine. In the morning, she would get up and resume walking north.
Feeling that she had no other choice, she gathered the courage to board the infamous freight train “La Bestia,” where she was raped six times by different men who demanded money, threatened her with machetes and called her homophobic slurs. She got off the train in Mexico City and resumed her journey on foot.
Finally, five months after she fled Honduras, Doe made it to Tijuana, where she slept on park benches and on the streets. She was afraid she would be raped again, as men yelled vulgarities at her throughout the night. She had no food, and she was constantly hungry.
“I lost all hope,” she said. “Mexico was to be a place for me to survive. But I couldn’t live there. It’s dangerous, more dangerous than Honduras.”
With her life on the line, she decided to seek asylum in the U.S.
That’s when she hit the blockade known as the Turnback Policy. A CBP official told her that the port of entry could no longer accept asylum seekers because it was “full.” It seemed as if Doe’s journey to the U.S. border had been in vain.
But after the filing of the second amended complaint in the lawsuit, the SPLC and its current co-counsel – the Center for Constitutional Rights, American Immigration Council and the law firm of Mayer Brown LLP – worked with the government to facilitate Doe’s entry to the U.S.
At long last, she was at peace.
“I felt liberated, like a baby deer who can walk freely, and no one will hurt it,” Doe, 34, said. “There are angels, and now I have protection.”
Doe said that her immediate goals in the U.S. are to do volunteer work, learn English, obtain citizenship, become a baker or a nail technician, pay taxes and be “the most productive [she] can be.”
While a candidate, Biden promised to undo the Trump-era policies that punished migrants for seeking asylum. He promised to reform the U.S. asylum system to be more humane.
Those promises are, thus far, unfulfilled. With the CDC order still in place and repeated warnings not to seek asylum, many migrants are left in limbo, fearing that if they do make it to the southern border, they’ll be turned back to Mexico or returned home.
But there are also thousands of migrants who’ve been stranded at the border for months or even years, waiting to be let into the U.S. The SPLC and its co-counsel are directly challenging this crisis with their lawsuit.
“Whether the Biden-Harris administration wants people to flee Central America or not, they will continue to do so, and the U.S. government should welcome them with humane polices that affirm their dignity and comply with the law,” Rich said. “This administration promised a break from the racist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies of President Trump and Stephen Miller. But where asylum is concerned, the administration’s policies are more of the same.”
Doe’s story is similar to those of many other migrants seeking protection – tales of beatings, threats of murder and severe persecution or torture.
Migrants, Doe said, are not at liberty to wait in their home countries or Mexico for the Biden administration to decide to allow them to enter the U.S. Seeking asylum in the U.S. is their one and only option – a last resort. That applies equally to transgender asylum seekers like Doe and to countless cisgender migrants whose lives are currently at risk in Central America. Doe said these people must flee, no matter what policy the U.S. puts in place.
“I had to leave immediately,” Doe said. “I had no choice. [Migrants] think, we feel. We hurt. People are suffering greatly. We simply cannot afford to wait.”
Photo at top: Asylum seekers leave Mexico while walking into the United States on March 16, 2021, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Credit: John Moore/Getty Images)