Life after ‘Remain in Mexico’: A family’s struggles in America ahead of immigration court hearings

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Read Part One of the “Life After Remain in Mexico” series: Life after ‘Remain in Mexico’: Honduran family’s harrowing journey to U.S., encampment in Mexico

HOUSTON (Border Report) — Had it not been for the generosity of volunteer groups from South Texas, Carolina Carranza Silva and her family say they would not have survived the nearly four months they lived in a migrant encampment in Matamoros, Mexico.

Carolina Carranza Silva, her husband Jose Escobar, and their daughter Emily wait in line for food on Oct. 7, 2019, in a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, where they lived for nearly four months as part of the Migrant Protection Protocols program under the Trump administration. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Hopeful for a better life in the United States and planning to seek asylum in South Texas, Carolina, her common-law husband Jose Escobar, and their daughter Emily, were among the first to be returned to Mexico in August 2019 under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, or MPP.

The controversial program — which forces migrants to remain in Mexico throughout their U.S. immigration court proceedings — was restarted by the Biden administration this week after being ordered to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court.

To explore the impact of these policies, Border Report has followed this Honduran family for two years. And while we could not independently verify what happened to them, this is what they have shared on their journey to America, and their life after MPP.

‘We had nothing’

At the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, Carolina’s family, along with thousands of other asylum-seeking refugees, was given a tent, daily meals and free legal advice. There was even a “store” located within the camp where they received free items, all supplied by local volunteers from both sides of the border.

A sign written partly in English at Store No. 2 located in the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

“We had nothing. They took care of us,” Carolina, 24, told Border Report recently as the family recounted their two-year odyssey from the time they left Honduras, through two kidnappings in Mexico, their months in the Matamoros camp, and their life now just outside Houston.

They said volunteer organizations — like Team Brownsville, Angry Tias & Abuelas, Global Response Management (GRM), Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers — made living in the camp bearable.

But, all they wanted was to be allowed to live in America.

Their opportunity finally came in late November after Carolina discovered she was pregnant. Medical staff with GRM confirmed the pregnancy and the next time the family appeared in immigration court in Brownsville, they presented the paperwork to a judge.

Three weeks later, on Nov. 26, 2019, they were granted humanitarian parole in the United States.

Carolina Carranza waits in line on Nov. 1, 2019, for a pregnancy test at the medical tent run by Global Response Management in the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Without returning to the camp to gather their meager belongings or even to say goodbye to the other families they had befriended there, they exited a back room at the immigration tent court and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials processed and issued them travel paperwork.

They then walked out onto the streets of Brownsville, Texas, and for the first time in nearly four months, they were free to roam in the country they had longed to call home for so long.

This sign is across from the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas, and is where Carolina’s family were met by volunteers who gave them backpacks and travel supplies in November 2019. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Entering the United States was a moment they had waited months in the squalid camp to experience, but when the time finally came, they said they felt lost and overwhelmed.

They saw a sign that lifted their spirits and quickened their steps.

“We entered a little park and saw the sign that said ‘Welcome to the United States’ and we were very emotional and we started to walk faster and crossed the street to the bus station. It took only 10 minutes,” she said in Spanish from her new apartment in Houston where the family lives now.

They arrived at the bus station empty-handed and purchased three one-way tickets to Houston to join Carolina’s family.

But before they boarded, volunteers from Team Brownsville handed them each a backpack. Carolina said they were overwhelmed by the generosity and amazed as they opened the backpacks during the bus ride to find so many travel items, snacks and even toys for 2-year-old Emily.

A row of backpacks stuffed with goods is seen on Feb. 25, 2021, at the bus station in Brownsville, Texas, which are donations that the nonprofit group Team Brownsville gives to asylum seekers who cross the border. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Scared in America

Months of living homeless had taken its toll on pregnant Carolina. She was malnourished and could not hold down any food or liquids. The bus ride was excruciating for her, she said. She vomited blood. They spent their first night in Houston at an emergency room where Carolina was given fluids and prenatal vitamins. Once stabilized, she was released with a $1,500 bill the family said they could not pay.

That was the first of many unexpected costs and surprises their new life in America would bring to the young family.

They soon discovered that being 350 miles away from the camp — and its resources and network of migrant advocacy groups — life would be very different from what they had imagined. They would have to maneuver the complicated U.S. immigration court system on their own. And, they would have to contend with U.S. laws forbidding new asylum-seekers from working or driving, both things some migrants do anyway in order to make a living.

Carolina Carranza, of Honduras, plays with her daughter Emily on Feb. 28, 2020, in their Houston apartment. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photos)

Carolina had operated a successful hair salon from their home in Honduras. Her father was a police officer and the family was middle class. But, in Houston, they found themselves with no money, alone and scared.

Jose, who had been a barber in Honduras, would work as a roofer and travel for weeks and months to jobs in other parts of Texas and the country. He later found work as a cleaner.

Carolina would stay for weeks sequestered in the sparsely-furnished apartment, afraid to venture out, she said. She would often text and call other migrants still living at the camp, or those who had also been paroled into the United States and were legally living in other cities as they waited for their immigration court proceedings.

“I spend my days all the time in here. I’m afraid someone will take us,” she said as we visited the family in Houston in February 2020, the first time we had seen them since their release.

Carolina Carranza and her common-law husband Jose discuss their asylum in the United States on Feb. 26, 2020, from their apartment in Houston. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

The new baby was due in the summer, and Carolina still had trouble holding down food. She and Jose often fretted about money and were haunted by memories of being kidnapped in Mexico. They said someone had been sending threatening phone messages to Jose and they feared the family was being targeted again.

Their days and nights in the camp terrorized Carolina’s thoughts and had her living like a hermit in the two-bedroom apartment they shared with relatives during that first year of their release.

Andrea Leiner, an emergency medicine practitioner with Global Response Management, stands in front of a hospital tent on April 30, 2020, put up for COVID-19 patients at the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Courtesy Andrea Leiner)

Her reaction isn’t that surprising, given what they had been through, medical experts told Border Report.

“The process of MPP — we’ve seen the humanitarian effects on that pretty acutely from the medical perspective. People are asked to stay in areas in Mexico where they are vulnerable to assault, vulnerable to kidnapping, sexual assault, on top of just being homeless and exposed to the elements, on top of food insecurity and medical insecurity,” said Andrea Leiner, an emergency medicine practitioner with GRM who for months supplied free medical service for migrants at the Matamoros camp.

“Most of our patients that we saw were fleeing for their lives. They were not able to return home. So, not having a path forward, not able to return home left them in a place where they didn’t have food, water, sanitation, housing — none of that was present. That made them very vulnerable to crime,” said Leiner, who also is chief communications officer for GRM.

In the camp, “the luxury of being able to go home and lock your doors is a luxury no one lived with,” Leiner said.

Trauma like that, Leiner said, does not easily go away.

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro is co-director of the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers which provides free education for migrant children on the Mexican border. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“Everyone thinks asylum-seekers cross and that’s it. That is not it by far. They’re just beginning. The only thing they get is to wait for their U.S. trials in this country. They are starting from the bottom to the top and they are having a very difficult time, especially if you don’t have any support,” said Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, co-director of the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, a nonprofit that provided free schooling for children living the Matamoros camp.

“In the Matamoros camp, you had a lot of NGOs bringing food every day, clothing, shoes and you also had Americans crossing bringing a lot of things for the asylum-seekers,” Rangel-Samponaro said.

But, once they are released into the interior, they have to go hunting for resources or know where to look. Many families, like Carolina’s, become overwhelmed and sometimes lost.

Emily would cry when her father left for jobs, sometimes gone for months.

She consoled herself by looking at photos of her former tent home in Matamoros, or by lining up all her toys in a row on the floor. Her favorite toy is a doll she brought from that camp that has pen marks on its face.

Carolina Carranza is seen on Feb. 27, 2020, inside her Houston apartment. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

This sparse apartment is where Carolina’s family at first lived in Houston and where Emily played with her few toys is seen on Feb. 27, 2020. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

Remembering Matamoros

Emily was among hundreds of children who lived in the Matamoros migrant camp, which eventually swelled to around 4,000 migrants before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Babies were born in the camp. Some people died in the camp after trying to swim across the river. Some children were even sent alone by their parents across the Gateway International Bridge to claim asylum in Brownsville, knowing federal officials would not turn away unaccompanied kids.

Sister Norma Pimentel is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“We must have a more humane, more respectful policy to human life than MPP,” Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told Border Report on Aug. 25, the day after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a lower court’s injunction ordering MPP be restarted.

Although President Joe Biden halted MPP when he took office, the administration was forced by the courts to reinstate the policy after Texas and Missouri brought a federal lawsuit ordering that the policy be resumed.

The April lawsuit brought by Texas and Missouri calls MPP vital to weeding out meritless asylum claims and preventing a flow of migrants from illegally crossing the Southwest border.

“This migrant surge has inflicted serious costs on Texas as organized crime and drug cartels prey on migrant communities and children through human trafficking, violence, extortion, sexual assault, and exploitation. These crimes directly affect Texas and its border communities, especially given Texas’s strong focus on combating human trafficking both at the border and throughout the State. The additional costs of housing, educating, and providing healthcare and other social services for trafficking victims or illegal aliens further burden Texas and its taxpayers,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Amarillo.

A migrant family in their tent in Matamoros, Mexico, on Jan. 28, 2020. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Pimentel’s organization helped oversee the nonprofits that helped the migrants in Matamoros and organized the safe passage — from Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, into South Texas — for over a thousand migrants when the Biden administration first ended MPP, which allowed hundreds of families to be legally paroled into the United States starting in February.

Now Pimentel and other migrant aid workers hope that the asylum-seekers who are sent back to Mexico under the MPP reboot will be more safely housed in shelters, and not in open-air camps.

Volunteers with the nonprofit Team Brownsville take supplies to migrants in Matamoros, Mexico, on Jan. 6, 2020, from Brownsville, Texas, over the Gateway International Bridge. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

“I’m concerned for families. I’m concerned for people who will be sent back to wait in Mexico for their asylum hearings as it was previously. It is wrong,” Pimentel told Border Report last week. “To avoid people being returned to an unsafe space, which is the border towns like Reynosa and Matamoros.”

“MPP was really difficult for many reasons. Having people stuck in these cities on the border, on the Mexican side, you’re exposing them to cartels,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “Besides the dangers of the cartels, a lot of people didn’t have work permits. So they were stuck in these encampments, living outside in the woods where you are exposed to the elements 24 hours a day.”

“We saw people sleeping on the ground. Women and children being raped, extorted by the cartel, by the same government that they were in. Not being fed. It was just very inhumane,” said Cindy Candia, a volunteer with the group Angry Tias & Abuelas, based in Harlingen, Texas.

MPP restarted with some changes

In Texas, DHS officials plan to hold tent courts in Laredo and Brownsville for migrants put in MPP. These are the same facilities that were used during the Trump administration. Additional courts will be operated in San Diego and El Paso, Texas.

LEFT: Contractors on Oct. 18, 2021, begin rebuilding a soft-sided immigration court facility in Laredo, Texas, to be used for MPP migrants. RIGHT: The facility in Brownsville, Texas, is to be used for MPP court hearings again. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Migrants are to be sent back to Mexico via seven ports of entry, including San Diego and Calexico in California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville and Eagle Pass, Texas.

Before MPP was reimplemented, however, Mexico voiced several concerns. And U.S. officials had to promise that migrants sent back to Mexico would have shorter wait times, and access to legal counsel.

Mexican officials are especially concerned with the 1.45 million backlogged U.S. immigration cases and have said migrants’ cases must be resolved within six months otherwise they cannot stay south of the U.S. border.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization from Syracuse University that tracks all U.S. immigration court cases, reports that 71,000 migrants were placed into MPP from January 2019 until January 2021.

Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University tracks U.S. immigration cases. (TRAC Graphic)

“The Migrant Protection Protocols have been controversial from the beginning because they raise significant questions about the security of migrants along the U.S. Mexico border, as well as the United States’ legal obligations to asylum-seekers under national and international law,” said Austin Kocher, a TRAC researcher.

Further adding to the backlog in cases is the coronavirus pandemic, which brought to a halt all in-court proceedings and put many cases, like Carolina’s family’s case, on hold for months.

“With the pandemic, many immigration courts ended or paused in-person hearings,” Kocher told Border Report. “Tens of thousands of hearings were canceled very quickly and those hearings eventually have to be rescheduled. So all those cases are being rescheduled in immigration courts across the country.”

Coping with the pandemic

Carolina’s family’s first court hearing since their release had been set for April 2020 in Houston, but it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They returned to court on March 3, 2021, for a makeup session but that also was canceled. Their next hearing is now set for Feb. 16, 2022, in Houston.

As courts begin to resume hearings, the family, like thousands of other migrants, are now faced with new court obligations, challenges and fears. When we last visited them in September, Carolina was fretting over whether they will show up for their court date next year.

It’s unclear whether they have even properly filed the asylum paperwork because they don’t have a lawyer.

“Individuals who arrive at our border and seek asylum oftentimes think falsely that is applying for asylum — going up to a Border Patrol agent and asking to seek asylum. But under U.S. law, you still have to fill out a form in English and submit it to an immigration judge,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy council at the American Immigration Council. ”So for many people after arriving in the United States there is a long process of finding a lawyer and getting the application filed and then waiting for the judge to actually hear the application and make a decision.”

The family says they can’t afford an immigration lawyer. For months they were convinced if they showed up with their new 1-year-old American-born daughter, Isabella, they would be granted permanent parole on the path to U.S. citizenship.

Carolina Carranza holds her 1-year-old daughter Isabella on Sept. 2, 2021, in their Houston apartment. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Immigration experts say the process is complicated. While their applications are pending, migrants also must comply with restrictive laws forbidding them from working for at least 150 days before they can apply for a work permit.

“For many people, this means they have to rely on the kindness of strangers or the support of friends and family. Some individuals are forced to work under the table because they have no other way to feed themselves and their families,” Reichlin-Melnick told Border Report recently.

Jose has worked as a roofer and is now working as a cleaner without a U.S. work permit, Carolina said.

If caught, he could be deported, migrant advocates told Border Report.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas promised the Biden administration will hold the line on new arrivals and they will not allow those without proper cause to enter the United States.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo who is vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, says the bar for proving the need to be allowed into the United States during immigration proceedings is exceedingly high. He says the great majority will be rejected and our immigration policy going forward needs to address that.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, on Oct. 18, 2021, shows where new construction has begun on soft-sided immigration court facilities in Laredo, Texas, for asylum seekers referred to MPP. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“Keep this in mind, that if you have 100 people, 88% to 90% will be rejected. So why are we letting in 100% when we should only be allowing 10-12% at the max to come? This is our country. This is our sovereignty. We need to do what we need to do to provide security,” Cuellar said in October as he gave Border Report a tour of the new MPP immigration courts that were being built in Laredo near two international bridges that connect to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

The tent court facilities in Laredo and Brownsville cost $14.1 million to rebuild and will cost $10.5 million per month to operate, according to the Oct. 14 court declaration by Blas Nuñez-Neto, DHS acting assistant secretary for border and immigration policy.

Court date approaching

Now, as Carolina’s next court date approaches, she has new fears.

A friend from Honduras who showed up for his case in September was deported, leaving the wife in the United States with two small children, she said. That has made them very concerned over whether they should show up for their hearing.

“Now I’m afraid because they could take my husband and then I’d be alone here with my two daughters,” she said. “I am afraid this will happen to me.”

“The truth is nobody understands what is happening totally,” she said in Spanish. “I don’t have a lawyer and I’m afraid.”

Carolina Carranza’s 1-year-old daughter, Isabella, plays with toys on Sept. 2, 2021, in their new Houston apartment which is near her older daughter Emily’s preschool where they pick her up each day. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

Her friend had paid a lawyer $2,000 for each family member, Carolina said.

“We don’t have that money,” she said. “I’m afraid for my court date and that they will deport my husband.”

If they don’t appear in court, they all face the possibility that they could be ordered deported.

“If individuals do not show up for their hearing immigration judges can, and often do, enter an in-absentia removal order, which means that the individual has been ordered deported even though they aren’t physically in the courtroom and that deportation order will essentially hang over that person’s head until they resolve it,” said Kocher, the TRAC researcher.

Dr. Austin Kocher is a researcher with TRAC. (Kocher Photo)

That could mean if a migrant is stopped for a speeding ticket, or a business they are working in gets raided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, then they could be picked up and deported immediately.

“This is a very personal and very scary experience for a lot of people to go through and people are forced into a situation where they feel they have to make really consequential and very difficult decisions,” Kocher said.

He added that a 2015 UCLA study of immigration cases found “having an immigration attorney is one of the best, if not the best, predictor in terms of case outcomes.”

Immigration lawyers help migrants weave pertinent legal details about their cases, and the TRAC study shows help them have a greater chance of winning permanent parole.

“It’s very difficult to make that case in court if one doesn’t have an attorney because immigration law is incredibly complicated. It’s very nuanced,” Kocher said.

TRAC also found migrants who are allowed to wait in the United States were over seven times more likely to find a lawyer to represent them than asylum-seekers forced to remain in Mexico.

Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer with the nonprofit organization Lawyers for Good Government, has worked with asylum-seekers in northern Mexico since 2019 and tried to help pair Carolina with a pro-bono lawyer when they arrived in Houston. Her organization enlists a network of immigration lawyers throughout the country who offer their services for free to help asylum-seekers.

Charlene D’Cruz, a lawyer with the nonprofit Lawyer for Good Government, is seen assisting migrants in the Matamoros tent encampment in Mexico on Dec. 22, 2019. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

But even with D’Cruz’s help, Carolina said she didn’t understand the questions the lawyers asked her, and she isn’t sure what is required of her. Furthermore, she has been required to submit all court documents translated into English by certified translators and multiple copies, which she says is expensive and difficult, especially as she tries to get paperwork from police in Honduras.

Carolina, who was involved in politics in Honduras, says she has statements from the police in Honduras but says that paperwork hasn’t been accepted by U.S. immigration courts. She says the paperwork shows the threat her family would be in if they return.

She worries that without that supporting paperwork that her case won’t hold up and she and Emily and Jose could be deported.

“What would then happen to Isabella?” she asks.

To show up for court, or not?

The last time Border Report visited Carolina and her family on Sept. 2, she appeared much happier and better adjusted to life in America.

They have moved and are now in their own two-bedroom apartment. They have a kitchen table, king-sized bed, dresser, nightstand, walk-in closet and several kitchen amenities.

Top: Emily, now 4, plays with toys and her baby sister, Isabella. Above: The girls’ mother, Carolina Carranza, checks her notes from school on Sept. 2, 2021, at their Houston apartment. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

Emily, now 4, is much taller, always smiling and can count, somewhat, in English. She attends a nearby preschool that Carolina walks her to every morning and picks her up from every afternoon with baby Isabella in tow.

All children in the United States are entitled to an education, regardless of their immigration status.

Carolina also receives food stamps for Isabella, their U.S.-born daughter.

Carolina says she is no longer afraid to venture out. She walks to the supermarket and the park with her daughters. And enjoys cooking in their larger apartment.

“We are very happy and thanks to God,” she said in Spanish.

Her father died in June in Honduras and she was unable to return for the funeral. She still misses her mother and brother in Honduras. But, she is beginning to assimilate into American society and has made some friends.

Carolina Carranza talks on the cellphone with her mother who still lives in Honduras, on Sept. 2, 2021, while her baby, Isabella naps at their Houston apartment. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

As to whether they will attend court — it is a decision she has yet to make.

“It is a decision that is very difficult,” she said, adding “we will see.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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