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Science & Medicine

'Post Reports' Documents The Journey Of 1 Asylum-Seeking Migrant From El Salvador To U.S.

A migrant walks through a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Eric Gay/AP)
A migrant walks through a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Eric Gay/AP)

As COVID-19 cases surge, the Biden administration is reconsidering its plan to lift pandemic restrictions that have prevented hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking asylum from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a two-part episode of “The Post Reports,” Washington Post reporter Arelis R. Hernández shows listeners what the current immigration process looks like through the story of one migrant named Nancy. The widow fled El Salvador with her two children in a quest for asylum and spent more than a year in a migrant camp.

Nancy stayed in Matamoros, a large Mexican border city across from Brownsville, Texas. The camp Nancy and her kids lived in emerged as a result of asylum policy changes during the Trump administration, Hernández says.

“What started as a few tents turned into hundreds of tents that had been donated by aid groups,” Hernández says. “When you first walk in, you can smell mesquite burning on earthen stoves, see children playing and just tons and tons of people waiting to be let into the United States to make their cases for asylum.”

Interview Highlights

On how she first met Nancy

“I had been [at the migrant camp] for about two hours. It was on my first trip. At one point, I just got tired and sat down on this tree stump without realizing that I was essentially in someone’s living room. And it turned out to be Nancy’s living room. She sort of emerged from her tent and realizing my mistake, I asked her, ‘Is it OK if I sit here?’ And we decided to stay in touch from that point on.”

On why Nancy left El Salvador with her two children, David and Andrea

“Her husband was murdered years earlier in El Salvador as a result of some of the extortion and attacks that were happening on folks who were business owners. But it wasn’t just his murder that had pushed her to flee El Salvador. But years later, as the family was fighting for local prosecutors to convict someone for this crime, they finally did. They reopened the case and in 2018, someone was convicted.

“That’s when Nancy’s problems became more acute because the gang members tried to kidnap Nancy’s daughter Andrea. David was being pestered on his way home from school. It got to the point where Nancy wasn’t letting them leave the home at all. And in fact, the day after she left El Salvador, per her telling, neighbors sent her WhatsApp messages mentioning that the gang members had come to her house looking for her that very afternoon.”

On Nancy’s experience with making an asylum claim to the U.S. in 2019

“Individuals who crossed the river, and at this point, were surrendering to Border Patrol and claiming fear, were being taken into custody, put into the Border Patrol stations, the hieleras [ice boxes], as they call them. Then they’re processed into the system, but instead of being released into the country, which had happened in years prior, they were given a slip of paper with a notice to appear, which is like a court date. Then [they were] put on the bridge from Brownsville and told to walk across to Matamoros.

“This is not at all what she was expecting. This is August of 2019, at a time when President Trump himself was sort of dealing with a large influx of people, particularly from Central America who [were] doing the same thing that Nancy was doing, although he tended to be of the opinion that asylum was just way too easy and most of these claims were illegitimate. Therefore, he wanted to make it much more difficult for people to go through this process.”

On what happened after Nancy’s government-appointed attorney did not show up in March 2020

“This individual didn’t show up for whatever reason. It’s not clear to me what the actual reason was. But what was happening in the background is we as the United States are starting to get our first cases of the coronavirus and it’s starting to spread very, very quickly. So while Nancy was not aware that this was happening across the country, immediately after that is when the courts shut down for good. And they thought it wasn’t real, that this was just another excuse that the U.S. government was using not to give them due process and a chance to make their claims. Remarkably, the camp itself did not record many cases of coronavirus, but nevertheless, it was the reason why they were kept out for as long as they were.”

How living at the migrant camp for about 18 months weighed on Nancy and her children

“It really brought her down. I could hear her deteriorating on the phone and her emotional and mental health [too]. It wasn’t just the fact that they were living outdoors and they had suffered a hurricane. It was the persistent threat of violence and insecurity that surrounded them. This is an area that is absolutely dominated and controlled by criminal organizations who run the human trafficking, human smuggling, drug smuggling industry in that particular part of the border. And so there had been reports of children being raped, of women being assaulted. So all of this weighed on her tremendously, particularly out of concern for her children. Her daughter had turned 18 in the camp and she was really scared for her.”

On how Nancy felt on Feb. 27, 2021, the day she could cross the border and leave the migrant camp

“She still didn’t want to believe it completely until she actually was across. But she called me that morning and had to undergo a COVID test. They would be placed on a bus, crossed over and sent into the shelter system of Catholic Charities for a little bit. [And then they] were processed and released to their various destinations. I met her the day after at a hotel that she was renting as she waited to buy her plane tickets [to Los Angeles].”

On what life was like for Nancy and her children after leaving to California

“All of it was just surreal, just pure, unadulterated joy. But I did notice that for Nancy, it’s still really difficult for her to be in the moment without her fear darting all over her.

“… They became different children once they were in the United States. They were much happier. I saw them smile for the first time, but their experience is one that they loathe to talk about.”

On what Hernández took away from reporting on Nancy and her family’s story

“For most Americans, I think they weren’t aware that this was happening. And the fact that Nancy’s story is a window into the costs and the real-life consequences of a [migrant protection] policy like this. My takeaway from it all is that we, as a country, probably need to take a moment to recognize what happened here and what the policy did to people.”

On the status of Nancy’s case right now

“Her case is supposed to be transferred to an immigration court in California. Her next court date is October 2022. Again, [this] speaks to the backlog that exists in the immigration system. But all of that is tenuous. So she’s still very much at a new beginning of a long process.”


More from WBUR


Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyXcaret Nuñez adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.