By Lorne Matalon
In what is cited as evidence that a Trump administration policy targeting Central Americans asylum seekers is an effective deterrent, Natalia Medina said she will not make another attempt to enter the U.S. to gain asylum.
Medina was part of a crowd of people around a cell phone charging station at the Casa del Migrante, one of the few migrant shelters in Guatemala City. After a flight from Texas that had just landed before dawn in Guatemala City, the faces of people from El Salvador and Honduras were a tableau of confusion and anger having realized they were no longer inside the U.S.
Medina told me she now believes that the price of arrest, detention and being sent back to the region she fled is not a price she’s willing to pay again.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” said Medina referring to her removal, days after she had been arrested in Texas but before any formal hearing where she would have had the opportunity to detail her petition to stay.
Medina was still trying to find her bearings in Guatemala City. She is a highly educated high school English teacher from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. She had hoped to join close relatives in the U.S. That did not take place. She was arrested and then after nine days been taken from the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen the night before and put on a bus.
“We stayed right there, seated, sitting down, not moving, in handcuffs all the time,” she said of the time on the bus.
Medina said approximately four to five hours later, she and others from El Salvador and Honduras were on a flight to Guatemala. She remained in handcuffs until the plane arrived in Guatemala. As was the case with numerous others I spoke with, Medina believed she could still apply for asylum in the U.S. from Guatemala.
“They said, ‘You’re going to continue with that in Guatemala,’ Medina recounted. “I thought that it was going to be possible to have asylum here in Guatemala and then go back to the States. But it was, like, totally a lie.”
That is a heavy allegation. I asked Medina specifically, ‘ What exactly were you told before the flight,?’ She said it was made clear to her after speaking, in English, to Dep’t of Homeland Security personnel in McAllen before the flight that she could move forward with her U.S. asylum application from Guatemala.
The U.S. Dept of Homeland Security (DHS) rejects that description of what Medina said took place.
In an emailed response to questions for this story, a DHS spokesperson writes “At no point are migrants told they can wait in Guatemala for U.S. asylum.” Medina was disappointed upon hearing that. “I guess I misunderstood or maybe they didn’t explain it very well.”
Guatemalan human rights defender, Quelvin Jiménez, is also the attorney for the Xinca Parliament, which represents one of Guatemala’s four main ethnic groups. Jiménez said the U.S. policy is short sighted, reasoning that it is not credible to believe people fleeing chaos in other parts of Central America will willingly remain in Guatemala.
“The United States is sending these people to Guatemala, a country that cannot protect its own citizens. This is a violent country so it’s not a good idea to send anyone here.”
Unlike the vast majority who stated they will definitely try to head to the U.S. again, Medina said that for her, that dream is over.
“I would think twice to go back because I don’t want to happen the situations that happened in jail,” she stated. “I don’t want to go back again.”
She alleged some DHS personnel in the migrant detention centers in Texas humiliated her and others as they ate or if they asked to have a shower. Medina said it was clear to her that DHS agents did not know that she speaks fluent English. She stated that she clearly heard agents mocking the migrants, perhaps not realizing that an English speaker was overhearing the conversation. “I could perceive that they didn’t want us to be there. I have never felt depressed before. And I have been feeling depression just because I was in jail.”
She told me she was leaving Guatemala for Honduras in a few hours. “How they can send me to a place that is more dangerous than my country, Honduras. How is it possible?” she asked rhetorically.
While both countries are dangerous in some places, Honduras is actually statistically slightly more violent than Guatemala. However for people like Medina, that’s a distinction without a difference, a meaningless number. Both nations are plagued by criminal groups that, among other illicit criminal enterprises, target migrants for income through extortion and kidnapping.