After a coup d’état in Honduras in 2009, Jose Murillo became a political activist, demanding that the government provide better education, healthcare, and jobs. His activism got him into so much trouble with local authorities that he had to leave town for a time. Then, during a protest in 2017, police kidnapped, tortured, and interrogated him. Undeterred, Jose took to the streets in protest again. But the police identified him and soon began harassing his family.
“They went to my house, and threatened my wife,” said Jose. “It traumatized my daughter. They were being followed every day.”
To protect his wife, Blanca, and one-year-old daughter, Zoe, Jose fled Honduras.
When Jose crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in early 2018, border patrol agents arrested him and tried to force him to sign a deportation order. “If I return to Honduras, they could assassinate or capture me…I don’t want to go back,” he told them.
Jose spent a few days in a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “hielera” or icebox. “They move you from one place to another and don’t tell you anything,” said Jose. Officials chose to place Jose in a screening process called “expedited removal” and transferred him to the Rio Grande Processing Center, a private prison contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In detention, he met many people who did not seem to belong there but had no way out: they had not committed crimes but did not have lawyers or money for bond.
After Jose passed a credible fear interview with an asylum officer, ICE released him on bond, and he moved to Austin, TX to live with his cousin. The immigration clinic at the University of Texas Law School learned about Jose’s case and agreed to represent him in immigration court.
Back in Honduras, Blanca gathered evidence needed for Jose’s case, leading officials to increase their threats and harassment. This forced her to flee the country with Zoe.
At the Brownsville port of entry to the United States, CBP put Blanca and Zoe in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). The policy, implemented by the Trump administration, forced 70,0000 asylum seekers to remain in Mexico in dangerous and precarious conditions. “That was really, really hard,” said Jose. “At first they slept on the streets. I couldn’t travel [to Matamoros] to be with them and find them a home.”
It is extremely difficult to win asylum in the United States’ Kafkaesque system. The grounds for eligibility are narrow, especially in Texas, and the Trump administration further narrowed asylum eligibility nationwide. Immigration judges also have discretion to deny claims.
But against these odds, a judge granted Jose asylum in November 2019. “I couldn’t believe it,” Jose said.
Since Jose and Blanca weren’t officially married, his protected status didn’t extend to her. Lawyers at the clinic and Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s office helped Jose to quickly get a travel document to allow him to visit Mexico. “We got married on the bridge by the border,” said Jose. “We tried to forget everything in that very moment. It was a beautiful moment.”
But Blanca and Zoe remained stuck in MPP, and Jose’s subsequent visits to the border were difficult. On the bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros, Jose saw CBP turn away people asking for protection. And when Jose attended his wife and daughter’s hearing at the irregular immigration court set up in a tent at the port of entry, officials would not even let him hug Zoe.
In March 2020, Blanca was allowed to enter the United States after being granted “withholding of removal.” This did not give Blanca any permanent status or authorization to work, so it was hard for the family to make ends meet. Blanca was granted this limited form of protection because of a new rule that made those who traveled to the United States via a third country ineligible for asylum. The family was fearful; Blanca’s status “could be revoked at any time,” Jose said. Blanca was finally granted asylum in August 2020 after federal courts invalidated this Trump-era rule.
When Jose reflected on his and his family’s efforts to seek asylum in the United States, he said, “I always had support from the immigration clinic. I always think about how lucky we were. We met good people, but what about everyone else? How’s it going for them?”
Jose is right to wonder. Most asylum seekers do not get even a basic legal explanation of the asylum system when in DHS custody after entering at the border. Asylum seekers also do not have a right to government-appointed counsel. Without an attorney, it is very difficult to win asylum, no matter how strong the claim. And only a tiny percentage of asylum seekers in MPP, like Blanca, had access to attorneys or a fair hearing in immigration court. The Biden administration and Congress should expand the legal services available to asylum seekers at the border and at their destinations across the country. The Biden administration should also re-open cases of people in MPP who were denied asylum.
People just like Jose and his family continue to be forced to flee Honduras to seek protection at the border. But the Biden administration has kept in place a blanket border-wide bar against asylum seekers that was imposed by the Trump administration, ostensibly because of the pandemic, but without a truly persuasive public health rationale. Newly arriving asylum seekers are being turned away every day. The Biden administration can and must do better.
When America rebuilds asylum, families like Jose’s will find safety and thrive. Over the past year, Jose and Zoe have been rebuilding their bond after being separated for so long and at such a formative time in Zoe’s life. The traumatic journey and experience in Matamoros impacted the four-year-old’s speech development. She has made great progress in Austin, and Jose sees a bright future for her. “I see the day when she has graduated, pursuing what she wants to be,” said Jose. “A doctor. A cop…Despite all she’s endured, she’s becoming happy and that brings us joy.”
#WeCanWelcome Asylum Seekers
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With smart and humane policies, the United States can welcome people seeking safety and treat them with dignity. Read more at wecanwelcome.org.
PHOTO CAPTION: Jose Murillo, a political activist from Honduras won asylum in the United States, and his wife Blanca and daughter, Zoe eventually joined him in Texas in the United States where they are pictured.