A father and son who were kidnapped while waiting in Mexico under a Trump-era policy that barred asylum-seekers from entering the United States were allowed into the country on Wednesday. They were among the first to be admitted since the Biden administration announced last week that it would begin letting in some migrant families who had been kept out under the policy.
José, 29, crossed the border shortly after sunrise in Brownsville, Texas, with his 4-year-old son, Santiago, asleep in his arms wearing a blue mask.
“We just entered. Thank God, we made it,” José said. “I don’t have words to express the joy that I feel now, to be able to join my family.”
It had been 20 months since the father and child, who are originally from Honduras, presented themselves to U.S. authorities at the border and applied for asylum. They were turned back and told they could return for court hearings in their asylum case, but the Trump administration later sealed the border and closed the immigration courts because of the coronavirus pandemic. That left them and thousands of other migrants to wait for months on end in Mexican cities along the border, often falling victim to violence, theft and extortion.
José and his family fled Honduras when gangs demanded a “war tax” from the business they operated there, a car wash. José’s wife, Cindy, who had a visa, and their older son, who is a U.S. citizen, were able to travel to New Jersey, but José and Santiago, who had no visas, sought asylum at the border and were forced to remain in Mexico.
They were abducted off a street in Reynosa, Mexico, in November 2019 by thugs who were apparently seeking money. As his son watched, José was beaten with a bat by his captors, who threatened to kill him until his wife, listening over the phone, paid the ransom.
The pair still fear for their safety if their full names are published.
During the nearly two years they spent in Mexico, they lived in two shelters, an abandoned structure and on the streets.
On Wednesday, father and son were processed at the U.S. border and met by an American volunteer who took them to a nearby hotel. They then made arrangements to join Cindy in New Jersey.
“The nightmare has ended, thank God,” Cindy said. “I couldn’t sleep all night.”
The Trump administration introduced the “Remain in Mexico” program, formally called the Migration Protection Protocols, in December 2018 for migrants seeking to cross the border into California, and expanded it to the whole of the southwestern border the following year.
The policy was intended to halt an influx of Central American asylum-seekers fleeing violence and extreme poverty who were arriving at the border in large numbers, and to deter more people from heading north. Trump administration officials said that many of the migrants were trying to game the asylum system with frivolous claims.
Some 67,000 people, mainly arriving as families, were enrolled in the program.
Human rights advocates assailed the policy, which they said endangered the families who were made to wait in Mexico and departed from the long-standing practice of permitting most migrants who request asylum to live in the United States while they await a decision on their cases. The policy also created an additional obstacle for migrants whose asylum cases were complicated, because most could not reach lawyers on the American side of the border.
The stranded migrants overwhelmed shelters in Mexican border towns. Hundreds lived in tents at the foot of a bridge leading to Texas from Matamoros, Mexico, creating a makeshift refugee camp.
The policy survived several court challenges. Then in March 2020, President Donald Trump put an even more significant obstacle in the asylum-seekers’ way, when he invoked the coronavirus crisis and sealed the border. Thousands of asylum-seekers gave up and went back to their home countries, according to advocates who have been working with the migrants, leaving about 25,000 people still officially waiting for their cases to proceed.
On Jan. 20, President Joe Biden’s first day in office, his administration suspended new enrollment in the program, and on Feb. 1, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to cancel oral arguments in a case challenging the policy.
On Tuesday, the administration confirmed that it would begin processing some asylum-seekers who have been waiting in Mexico, but it stressed that the border remained closed to other migrants under the pandemic emergency measure.
“We caution people seeking to immigrate to the United States that our borders are not open, and that this is just the first phase in the administration’s work to reopen access to an orderly asylum process,” the statement said.
Migrants enrolled in the Migration Protection Protocols program will have to register online before approaching the border. Only 300 asylum-seekers a day will be permitted to enter the country, with priority given to people who are deemed most vulnerable, for health or safety reasons, and who have been waiting longest in Mexico. Once processed, they will be allowed to travel to the interior of the United States, to live with family or friends, while their immigration cases wind through the courts.
José’s ordeal began when he was walking down the street in Reynosa. Assailants pulled a hood over his head and shoved him and his son into a vehicle. After blindfolding and tying him, the kidnappers demanded that he contact relatives or acquaintances in the United States to pay a ransom if he wished to get out alive. As the child screamed and cried, the men beat José with a bat, kicked him and shoved his head into a bucket.
Only after Cindy transferred $2,000 to them from New Jersey did the assailants let them go.
After he was freed, José staggered to the U.S. port of entry and pleaded to be allowed into the United States, on account of his fear of staying in Mexico. But following a phone interview with an asylum officer, he was told that he had failed to establish “a clear probability of persecution or torture in Mexico,” and he was told to remain there.
Santiago developed severe asthma and separation anxiety, according to José and his lawyer, who arranged for a pediatrician to examine the child. Both received diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The lawyer submitted an application for humanitarian parole that would have allowed him to enter the United States despite the earlier finding, but there was no response from the government. José became a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
He kept busy making repairs at the shelter in Matamoros, where he and his son shared a room with about 15 other fathers and children who were subject to the Trump border policy.
On Tuesday, José’s lawyer, Haiyun Damon-Feng, was notified that José’s parole request had been granted — the first among her clients who were enrolled in the Trump-era program.
“So many people are in incredible danger,” said Damon-Feng, who teaches at the University of Washington School of Law. “Whatever we can do to facilitate the release of vulnerable people, we should use every avenue to do so.”
On Tuesday, José and his son were dropped off at the border before sunrise. José carried an orange suitcase with their few belongings, their birth certificates and, draped over his shoulder, Santiago.
A border official seemed to know they would be coming, he said. “We were expecting you yesterday,” he recalled the official saying. “Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?”
They received apple juice, orange juice, two packs of cookies and two bags of potato chips. Father and son then went on their way.