Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series documenting the two-year journey of one of the first families sent back across the border to wait in Mexico for their immigration proceedings under the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP program, known as “Wait in Mexico.” Read Part 2 of the “Life After Remain in Mexico” series: A family’s struggles in America ahead of immigration court hearings.
HOUSTON (Border Report) — Carolina Carranza Silva’s journey to the United States began nearly 30 months ago when she left her home in southern Honduras with her common-law husband, Jose Escobar, and her 2-year-old daughter Emily.
The journey that began in July of 2019 would entail unfathomable hardship, including being kidnapped twice, running out of money and living in a muddy, snake-infested encampment on the Mexican shores of the Rio Grande. The journey also coincided with one of the most controversial and consequential periods of U.S. immigration policies in recent history.
Once they finally made it to the Texas border and tried to claim asylum, they were among the first families deported back to Mexico from South Texas under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols program, or MPP.
It is a controversial policy that was restarted again this week under the Biden administration.
“There were many reasons we had to leave,” Carolina, 24, a political activist in Honduras, told Border Report in Spanish. “People were disappearing. If they got arrested, they would just disappear. They would throw you in jail if you protested.”
For over three months, the family was homeless in the migrant encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande in the dangerous Mexican border town of Matamoros, alongside hundreds of others from Central America and Mexico. All were remanded south of the border to wait out their U.S. immigration court proceedings.
It was in this Matamoros encampment — the largest refugee camp along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border — that Border Report first met the family just days after they arrived in August 2019.
They were living at the base of the Gateway International Bridge that leads to Brownsville, Texas: scared, penniless and confused, living in one foreign culture a stone’s throw away from another foreign land they longed to enter.
For the past two years, they allowed Border Report to chronicle their travails, including their eventual release north of the border.
While we could not independently verify exactly what has happened to the family, this is what they have shared. They said they hope their story will warn other migrants of the dangers, and to let the American public know what they suffered under MPP.
They also want the Biden administration to find a way to permanently end the program, which was restarted on Monday in El Paso after the Supreme Court ruled it must be reimplemented. The program had been halted by Homeland Security officials when President Joe Biden took office, but a lawsuit by the states of Texas and Missouri forced the reboot.
MPP is expected to begin again in South Texas in the coming days.
From Choluteca to South Texas
The family’s hometown of Choluteca, on the southern border of Honduras, is 1,700 miles from South Texas, but their journey north was even longer because they took circuitous bus routes to avoid checkpoints in Mexico.
The family traveled easily through Guatemala without a permit, they said. But once they entered Mexico, they were forced to walk or hitchhike most of the way to the border with the United States.
Jose carried little Emily on his shoulders so she didn’t get cactus spikes on her arms and legs. They stopped at gas stations and hitchhiked rides. They bought fruit and water daily as they moved closer to their destination.
It was an uneventful but tiring journey until they got near the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, where they said they were kidnapped twice.
At a gas station in San Fernando, Mexico, a young woman offered them a ride and then took them to a two-story house in the mountains where they were held for seven days on the top floor and only fed bread.
They said seven other migrants also were held hostage at the house.
They were forced to call their families in Honduras for ransom. Jose’s mother paid $1,000 for their release. But they remained captive until the Gulf Cartel stormed the house a week into their captivity — looking for the other migrants — and took them, as well, they said.
Eventually, they made it to the border near Reynosa, Mexico, south of McAllen, Texas, but they said they were held for six days in the woods — outside the violent city that is controlled by warring drug cartels — until a coyote, or human smuggler, allowed them to cross the Rio Grande one night in early August 2019.
That night, they boarded a raft and crossed the mighty river, which Mexicans and many of the locals call the Rio Bravo because of its fierce undertow, and they entered South Texas near the town of Hidalgo.
They climbed the muddy banks and walked until they found a group of 250 migrants. They all walked together to find a Border Patrol agent to claim asylum.
“We knew that if we came as a family, we’d be safe,” Carolina said in Spanish. “We were just all walking and the kids were with us.”
Donald Trump was president at the time. And, what they didn’t know was his administration had just begun a drastic new immigration policy of returning asylum-seekers back to Mexico under MPP.
MPP started in January 2019 in El Paso and was brought to South Texas in mid-July without warning. Suddenly, migrant advocates reported seeing fewer migrants being released to U.S. shelters.
When Carolina’s family encountered the Border Patrol, they had no idea about this new immigration policy. They thought they would be released and allowed to travel within the United States once processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities in South Texas.
But that didn’t happen.
They were held for three days in a CBP processing center that is reportedly kept so cold that migrants have collectively nicknamed it the “hielera” or icebox. Carolina thought this would be the worst they would have to endure. She prayed they would be released and she could join relatives in Houston.
“It was awful. We didn’t know whether it was night or day,” she said. “We were in a large room with women and children sleeping on the floor.”
Carolina waited for the day when she would be asked to explain her fear of returning to Honduras. She said she practiced what she would say during her credible fear interview, a part of the U.S. asylum process where federal officials ask each asylum seeker to explain why they fear returning to their home country. Political persecution is a valid reason for migrants to stay in the United States until an immigration judge decides whether they can be classified as refugees and stay in this country.
She said she was prepared to explain how she had been involved in local politics. How she backed the opposing presidential candidate. How she had won a seat on the city council in 2017, only to have the ruling party refuse to step down so she never assumed the role. And, she was prepared to explain how, after the daughter of another political activist was murdered, they decided to migrate north, fearful Emily would be next.
Instead, after three days, the family said they were given an ultimatum: Be deported back to Honduras, or go over the river to Mexico to wait during their asylum proceedings.
They chose Mexico, not knowing that at the time there were nearly 1 million backlogged U.S. immigration cases, or that each immigration case, on average, takes three years. They also didn’t know how many months they’d wait in Matamoros, living homeless with hundreds of other migrant families.
Snakes, cockroaches and bodies in the river
Border Report first met Carolina, Jose and Emily on Aug. 22, 2019. It was over 100 degrees and they were sitting on a spit of concrete in a city plaza with another family from Honduras. They had been there for 10 days and they hadn’t gotten a tent yet.
They had no money and the adults were given one bottle of water per day, which they shared with Emily. They were given seven diapers to last for two weeks.
Emily, then a toddler, was growing thin from lack of food and water. Her parents didn’t sleep at night, fearful that she would be kidnapped.
They initially bathed in the dirty Rio Grande. But they soon avoided those waters as they watched the carcasses of cows and horses, and even human bodies, float down the polluted river that separates the two countries.
At night, Jose and his new Honduran friend, Fernando Montoya, took turns guarding their families inside their two small, blue tents that were provided by U.S. charities. There were reports of women being sexually assaulted or forced into prostitution. Some mornings, families found children missing from tents.
Emily made friends with the other children. They played with old shoes and trash as if they were balls. The women washed clothes in the filthy river and hung them to dry on fences and in trees.
The camp soon grew to over 1,000 people, and city officials, led by the wife of the mayor of Matamoros, tried to dismantle it one day and force all the children on a bus headed south.
Jose and Carolina hid Emily that day and didn’t let her out of their tent. They trusted few people themselves, but Carolina still volunteered to welcome hundreds of new migrants who showed up at the camp each day.
On Oct. 7, 2019, then-Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro visited the camp. Carolina held Emily up high to get a glimpse of the former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration. She didn’t know who he was but told Border Report, “It’s good for him to come and to see us as a group because we don’t think people know what we’re going through here.”
After his hour-long tour of the camp, Castro called MPP “a disaster” and said he saw “people living in squalor.”
Most afternoons, the family napped on the banks of the international river under towering ash trees and gazed at the other shore, hoping that any day they would be called by the Department of Homeland Security and be allowed to claim asylum in the United States.
But, days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months.
The blazing sun, snakes and, later, a freeze and flood took their toll on them.
Finally, in late November 2019, just as they said they were about to give up, they were granted humanitarian parole because Carolina was now pregnant. They crossed into Brownsville two days before Thanksgiving and hopped on a bus to Houston.
They consider themselves among the lucky ones.
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization out of Syracuse University, says 71,000 migrants were placed into MPP during the Trump administration and sent back to northern Mexican border towns.
Only 3,000 were granted humanitarian parole, which allows them to legally reside in the United States and await their fate in backlogged immigration courts.
LEFT: Carolina Carranza is seen on Sept. 2, 2021, with daughters Emily, 4, and Isabella, 1, and (right) on Feb. 27. 2020 in their Houston apartment after being legally paroled into the United States and allowed to leave the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)
Today, they are safe in an apartment in Houston, but the psychological trauma of living on the streets has also taken its toll.
“Now I have a bed, a roof. I have television, telephone,” Carolina said. “We practically lived in the streets before. The sun, the rain, the wind was horrible.”
Despite their current comforts, they remain haunted by the memories of what they endured. Even their 1-year-old baby girl, Isabella, who was conceived in the Matamoros camp and born in Houston, reminds them of a past they say they cannot shake.
Sister Norma Pimentel, a globally-renowned Catholic nun who is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, helped oversee volunteer operations at the camp in Matamoros. She told Border Report recently that MPP is a policy that inflicted emotional and physical trauma on thousands of migrants, like Carolina’s family.
“My experience from MPP, all I saw was a lot of human suffering on the other side of the border. People were exposed to so much suffering. It’s not fair. It’s not correct. It’s not morally correct,” Pimentel said.
The federal lawsuit brought by the governors of Texas and Missouri to reinstate MPP claims the program reduced incentives for those with “weak” asylum cases from trying to cross into the United States.
“Prior to the MPP, individuals passing through Mexico could enter the United States, raise asylum claims, expect to be released into the United States in violation of statutory requirements mandating their detention, and stay in the U.S. for years pending the resolution of their claims—even though most were ultimately rejected in court. MPP changed the incentives for economic migrants with weak asylum claims, and therefore reduced the flow of aliens—including aliens who are victims of human trafficking—to the southern border,” according to the lawsuit that was filed in April.
In August, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a federal court ruling ordering the program to be restarted. And although Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Oct. 29 issued a memo promising to terminate MPP, the administration acquiesced, saying it must follow the court’s order.
“I was so grateful that this new administration lifted that and stopped it and I just feel terrible that we’re going back to that because I certainly hope that we don’t see again what we saw before — the conditions that families found themselves in Mexico waiting,” Pimentel told Border Report on Dec. 2 when the administration announced it was restarting the program. “Such terrible conditions we saw there with the families and what they had to endure.”
In Part II of Life After Remain in Mexico, we show you how Carolina’s family was able to escape the migrant camp and make their way to Houston: which organizations helped them, and what resources have been provided, or not, for them as they wait to appear in immigration court in the upcoming months. And, we talk with them as they confront their ultimate legal dilemma.
South Texas correspondent Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.