Six times in recent days, Marco Antonio Cabachuela, his wife, Irma, and their 3-year-old, Valerie, walked up to federal immigration officers at the Hidalgo, Texas, port of entry and asked for asylum.
And every night, they returned to an immigrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, where men and women sit listlessly in a shady courtyard.
“They rejected it,” he says. “They said there was no room for us.”
Irma chimes in, “The last official told us they weren’t processing asylum applicants anymore and not to return. If we didn’t leave voluntarily, they would have us deported by Mexican immigration authorities.”
Every year, thousands of immigrants come to the U.S.-Mexico border and request asylum — or safe harbor and freedom from the fear of persecution in their home countries.
But immigrants and human rights advocates say that federal authorities under President Trump’s administration are discouraging asylum requests and turning away immigrants fleeing persecution.
Marco Antonio says he fled gangs in La Ceiba, Honduras, who were gunning for him because he had threatened to turn them in. He says he has a bullet wound in his abdomen to prove it.
Shortly after their interview with NPR, a pro bono attorney accompanied the Cabachuela family to the international bridge, and they were finally permitted to apply for asylum — on their seventh try.
In recent years, Central Americans have been surging across the southern border, seeking refuge from marauding criminal gangs and, in the case of women, from abusive husbands.
The number of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans — mostly mothers and children — who were granted asylum jumped 400 percent between 2013 and 2015, from 918 to 4,656.
Now there are widespread reports that some U.S. officials at ports of entry — emboldened by the new administration’s tougher stance on immigration — are blocking asylum applicants.
“It’s stricter now”
Sister Maria Nidelvia, director of Casa de Migrante Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, in Reynosa says Central Americans have reported problems asking for humanitarian asylum at the bridge.
“They have been returned,” she says. “It’s stricter now, much more restricted.”
Customs and Border Protection says it follows established procedures, which “protect some of the world’s most vulnerable and persecuted people.” CBP says it does not tolerate any kind of abuse.
But advocates who work with immigrants challenge the agency’s assurance that its port officers are following asylum law.
In January, eight immigrants’ rights organizations filed a formal complaint with the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department. The grievance alleges that CBP officers have been illegally turning away asylum seekers for months now.
“They’re being told President Trump no longer wants immigrants. They’re being told that there is no more asylum in the United States, there’s no more asylum specifically for mothers, which is a terrifying thing I heard recently,” says Elena Alderman, who works with CARA, a pro bono legal group that advises detained immigrants seeking asylum.
Alderman and other advocates have rented a ranch house in Dilley, in south Texas, to be closer to clients held in the nation’s largest family detention center. She says she has heard dozens of similar stories.
“We are seeing the beginnings of the systematic denials of asylum seekers all along the border, which represents a complete violation of human rights, and a complete disregard for international and domestic law,” she says.
There are also reports coming from inside detention facilities. A 24-year-old Mexican asylum applicant named Marta, who asked that her last name be withheld because she fears retaliation, called NPR from an immigrant jail in Laredo, Texas.
She says immigration agents told the detainees that “asylum doesn’t exist anymore. Everyone in the facility asking for asylum is going to be deported.”
Trump’s Homeland Security Department has indicated that it wants to bring order to the chaotic asylum process on the southern border and crack down on asylum fraud.
Officials want to ensure that applicants are telling the truth. They have tightened up the screening process that allows an asylum seeker to get to the final stage — a full hearing before an immigration judge.
Katie Shepherd, with the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council, worries that those changes “will possibly have the impact of reducing the number of asylum seekers who are allowed to have a meaningful day in court.”
A decline in immigrants traveling as a family
The asylum turn-aways and Trump’s more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws may already be having an effect.
Last week, Homeland Security reported the number of immigrants traveling in family units and apprehended on the southern border dropped 66 percent from January, when Trump took office, through February, to 3,124.
At the immigrant sanctuary at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas, the number has dropped from 300 to 30 immigrants a day.
Margarita Yxtuc is one of the lucky ones.
She left the Guatemalan highlands for Texas last month with four of her children to flee a violent spouse. She was admitted into the U.S., and she has a court date to make her asylum claim.
Yxtuc says she knows women back home who have decided not to make the dangerous journey north.
“They say, ‘The new American president doesn’t want us. He’s sending us all back to our countries,'” she says. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s not go.'”
Trump’s stricter asylum policies may only be the beginning of actions to deter families from leaving Central America for the U.S.
Last week, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said he is considering separating children from their parents if they cross the border illegally. He said the move could discourage them from making what can be a treacherous trip.