To reunite a family kept apart, a wedding on a cross-border bridge

Why We Wrote This

The year-old “Remain in Mexico” policy has created a new kind of family separation. Some committed couples are getting legally married at the border to try to help their asylum cases.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
José and Damaris with their daughter, Angelica, are wed on the Progreso International Bridge between Texas and Mexico, Feb. 1, 2020. The couple hopes marriage will help Damaris and Angelica join José in the U.S. and gain asylum after they fled Honduras.

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After 12 years together, José and Demaris are getting married. Where they are from in Honduras, committed unmarried couples are commonplace. But this is a foray into the culture and expectations of the U.S., the country that they hope to adopt.

José was granted asylum last year, having left Honduras after being tortured for his political activism. But his wife and daughter are living in Mexico under the U.S. policy that requires migrants to stay there while their cases proceed.

These newlyweds are among just 3% of asylum-seekers who have legal representation. “We’re hoping that U.S. authorities will recognize the sincerity of the family unit,” says Elissa Steglich at the University of Texas at Austin immigration clinic.

Asylum in the U.S. is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, however. “We’re trying to do things the right way ... and it’s hard,” says José. “If my family goes back [to Honduras], it’s certain my wife will be murdered.”

“I want to create a life, a future, with our daughter – things that in Honduras just wouldn’t happen,” he continues. “We’re just going to get back that time we lost, and do the best we can as a family, as human beings, so we can contribute to this country.”

The gusting wind and the passersby shouting their congratulations make it difficult to hear the Spanish-language ceremony.

Even on this sunny weekend morning, the Progreso International Bridge is not ideal for a wedding. But for José, the groom – who fled his native Honduras and was granted asylum in the U.S. in November – it is one of the happiest days he’s had in years.

Damaris, his bride, wears a pink satin dress. She holds their daughter, Angelica, a garland of daisies in the little girl’s hair. Today is one of just a handful the family has spent together since José left Honduras in 2017.

Damaris and Angelica are also seeking asylum in America, but for the past four months they’ve been living in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. They are among tens of thousands of migrants in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a policy implemented last year that requires migrants to stay in Mexico while their cases proceed.

José and Damaris have been together for 12 years but never married – a common practice in Honduras. Today’s ceremony, José hopes, will help his family’s asylum cases. “There’s no immediate benefit” legally, says Elissa Steglich at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law immigration clinic, which represented them in their first hearings. But “we’re hoping that U.S. authorities will recognize the sincerity of the family unit.”

Whether they do or not is another question. All asylum claims “are handled on a case-by-case basis,” an official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told the Monitor in an email.

“Individuals from vulnerable populations may be excluded on a case-by-case basis,” added the official. But ultimately the goal of MPP is “to reduce the extraordinary strain on our border security and immigration system by freeing up personnel and resources to better protect U.S. sovereignty and the rule of law.”

Following the rules

José, who did not want his last name published, met Damaris when they were in school – right before a military coup threw their country into chaos.

By 2017, José was an activist in the Yoro state in northern Honduras, campaigning against the president. That year, after he says he was captured by police and tortured, he fled to the U.S.

A few months later, unbeknownst to José, Damaris and Angelica (their names have been changed because their cases are pending) fled north as well.

“They [had] started threatening her,” says José. “She knew that I would immediately leave and try to find her and help them come. ... That’s why she didn’t tell me.”

He is sitting in the Brownsville bus terminal alongside his attorney, and he doesn’t want to discuss their cases too specifically while they’re still pending. But what happened next is difficult to recount anyway, he says, and his voice softens. Damaris reached Mexico, and sought asylum there. But “frankly, they were abusing her,” José says. “That’s when she decided not to apply for asylum” there and instead apply in America.

When she reached the U.S. border, José was living in Austin, Texas, waiting for a ruling on his asylum claim. MPP had just been implemented.

Six months earlier the Trump administration had ended its “zero tolerance” policy at the southern border. That policy provoked major public criticism for separating more than 5,400 migrant children from their families.

But MPP was pitched as a way to deter unmeritorious asylum claims, “getting immigration court results at a much faster pace … while keeping families together,” then-Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan told the Council on Foreign Relations in September 2019.

At the time, Damaris and Angelica were in Matamoros, looking for somewhere to sleep. They spent eight days living on the streets, José says. They both got sick.

“There was rain, there was cold, there was no place to bathe, to go to the bathroom,” he says. “She couldn’t wash their clothes. They didn’t know what they were going to eat the next day.”

At José’s court hearing in December, it was the first time he’d seen his family in two years.

“I could only be with them for 20 minutes, during the time that I could meet with my attorneys,” he says. “I couldn’t give [Angelica] a hug. I couldn’t play with her.”

“It’s very difficult, the way this government is dividing families,” he adds. “We’re trying to do things the right way, asking legally for them, and it’s hard.”

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Damaris and José have been together for 12 years, but were married Feb. 1. Since José left Honduras in 2017, he rarely sees his family. Damaris and daughter, Angelica, are staying in Mexico because of the U.S. policy which requires asylees with pending cases to wait there.

Success rate of 0.3%

His family is still in Mexico, and still in MPP, but they at least have legal representation (only 3% of asylum-seekers do). And they are no longer in Honduras. For this, José is grateful.

“I went through a legal process. I went in front of a judge, I defended myself, I was heard,” he adds. “In my country, with the position I had as an activist, you only have two things: one, you’re assassinated; or two, you’re locked up.”

Asylum into the U.S. is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, however.

A goal of MPP “is to discourage the abuse of U.S. laws as well as non-meritorious or false asylum claims,” the CBP official wrote. “This allows the United States to more effectively administer its laws, including assisting legitimate asylum seekers and individuals fleeing persecution.”

The Trump administration restricted asylum further in 2018 by eliminating fears of gang and domestic violence as credible grounds for asylum. Persecution based on political beliefs is still a valid basis, however. In that context José’s asylum case was straightforward – relatively speaking, at least.

“It was a very strong and compelling case, but in this climate nothing can be taken for granted,” says Professor Steglich.

About 60,000 migrants are in MPP deportation proceedings, and through December 2019 just 187 cases, or 0.3%, had been successful, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Many of the successful asylum cases are Venezuelan and Cuban migrants fleeing political persecution, adds Professor Steglich, but Central American claims are often more complicated.

“The factual complexities of the cases require experts, require a more intimate understanding of their stories, and MPP does not allow for that at all,” she continues. “MPP has been crushing. It has truly made a mockery of the immigration court system.”

Wedding season

Damaris and Angelica can both request asylum based on “imputed political opinion” – that in Honduras they faced the same political persecution José claims he faced.

Getting married will make their case that little bit stronger, they hope – and they’re not alone.

Sallie Gonzalez, the local justice of the peace who officiated their wedding last weekend, says she has done several.

“I have actually probably two or three more in my calendar for [February]. I love seeing happy families together,” she adds. “I don’t know the actual process of [asylum], but if it helps them then I’m all for it.”

So far, the marriage hasn’t helped Damaris and Angelica get out of Matamoros. Two days after the wedding, CBP denied their request to be paroled or removed from MPP. For privacy reasons, CBP is precluded from discussing individual cases.

At the bus terminal last week, José’s eyes well with tears. “If my family goes back [to Honduras], it’s certain my wife will be murdered,” he says.

Angelica is “already getting her own personality. I don’t even know her, and she doesn’t even know who I am,” he adds.

“I want to create a life, a future, with our daughter – things that in Honduras just wouldn’t happen,” he continues. “We’re just going to get back that time we lost, and do the best we can as a family, as human beings, so we can contribute to this country.”

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