Editor’s note: This is a follow up to our two-part series, “Life After Remain in Mexico,” documenting the two-year journey of one of the first families sent back across the border under the Migrant Protection Protocols program, Read Part 1: Honduran family’s harrowing journey to U.S., encampment in Mexico; and Part 2: A family’s struggles in America ahead of immigration court hearings.
HOUSTON (Border Report) — Carolina Carranza Silva sat wringing her hands on the front porch of her meager apartment. The 24-year-old who doesn’t speak English was scared and unsure what the future holds for her small and growing family after they skipped an immigration court proceeding recently.
They came to the United States in 2019 from Honduras. She and her common-law husband, Jose Escobar, and 5-year-old daughter Emily did not attend their required immigration court appearance on Feb. 15 before U.S. Immigration Judge Joshua Osborn in downtown Houston.
Carolina knew that in doing so, she and her family could face immediate deportation. But in a surprise ruling, the immigration judge terminated their case — meaning the federal government is dropping its deportation proceedings against them, at least for the time being.
Charges still could be refiled against them because they are non-citizens, and they could be deported in the future, but case terminations appear to be occurring more and more under the Biden administration.
Court data shows that the U.S. government issued more terminations last fiscal year than any year since 1998, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University, which tracks immigration cases.
In the Fiscal Year 2021, which ended on Sept 30, there were 37,567 immigration court case terminations — that’s an increase of 65% from the previous fiscal year, when Donald Trump was president, according to TRAC.
“Last year was the highest number of terminations that we have seen back to Fiscal 1998, according to the court records,” TRAC co-founder Susan Long told Border Report.
Carolina was heading to work when Border Report caught up with her and told her about the ruling.
She said she and her family couldn’t afford a lawyer and were afraid if they went before the judge that they’d be deported back to Honduras. She said she couldn’t risk being sent away from her 1-year-old daughter Isabela, a U.S. citizen who was born in Houston.
So, they made the decision not to attend the mandatory hearing.
Border Report has been following her family since they were one of the first sent back to Mexico from South Texas in the summer of 2019 as part of President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols program.
For nearly five months, they lived in a squalid migrant camp under a second-hand tattered blue tent pitched at the base of the Gateway International Bridge in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas. An immigration judge finally allowed them to cross into Brownsville in November 2019 after Carolina became pregnant. They were granted humanitarian parole and allowed to legally live in the United States as long as they comply with all laws, and show up for all immigration court hearings.
Carolina said they all went to their first scheduled court hearing in March 2020 in Houston, but it was canceled due to the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. Another hearing scheduled a year later also was canceled, she said.
Their first in-person hearing was on Feb. 15 of this year, but she said the family made a “hard decision” not to go after the husband of a friend was deported to Honduras after he went to an immigration hearing in Houston a few months ago.
Although their case has been terminated, that does not mean they can stay here indefinitely, and they still could be deported. That’s because as non-citizens, the federal government can refile charges against them at any time for illegally entering the United States.
The family came across the Rio Grande from Reynosa, Mexico in a raft one night in July 2019, and illegally entered South Texas near the town of Hidalgo. They surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol agetns but after a few days were turned back to Mexico under the MPP policy that had just started in South Texas.
When they were legally allowed to cross into Brownsville, Texas, after 150 days in the migrant camp, the Department of Homeland Security gave them a Notice to Appear document that they signed agreeing to attend all future U.S. immigration court hearings. The document was in response to the federal government having filed deportation orders against them for crossing illegally.
But when a case is terminated, the status of the immigrant is often uncertain, legal experts say.
The migrant is allowed to remain, for the time being, but a termination confers no status or other benefits on them. Essentially, it allows them to live in a shadow economy in the United States.
“A termination would be generally entered by the court if the government hasn’t shown that the person is deportable,” Long said. “The question comes, ‘Do they have a basis for getting some sort of legal status here so they can remain?’”
Carolina had originally tried to claim asylum based on political persecution. She says she was an outspoken political activist against former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.
Hernández was arrested in February and is facing extradition to the United States to stand trial on drug trafficking and weapons charges.
Carolina said her family trekked 1,700 miles north, walking much of it through Mexico, to escape the poverty and gangs that were rampant in Honduras under Hernández’s reign. On the journey, they were kidnapped twice and held for ransom before being sent back to Mexico under the Trump administration.
She blames much of her family’s suffering on both former presidents, and she said that just because Hernández is out of office does not mean the country will improve immediately. She said President Xiomara Castro, who took office in January, has much work to do.
“For eight years we had the president that was not right. This is why we left. Because we wanted the president who was right for the country,” she said in Spanish. “There were no opportunities to work. The education system was bad and because of the political situation we decided to come here.”
Carolina has not given DHS her address and is now working without a work permit — which is an offense that in itself could get her deported by the Department of Homeland Security.
She is uncertain whether she filed the proper asylum paperwork when she was first admitted into the United States.
Border Report reached out to officials with the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) to further explain the termination proceedings against the family, but no information was received.
Long, of TRAC, said her organization cannot make a correlation between migrant cases that are terminated and deportations because the nonprofit only receives monthly “data dumps” of information batches that detail the court dispositions, or rulings, but not individual case files. Due to privacy laws, they do not know the migrant’s alien registration number, called an A-number, so they cannot track individual cases. Therefore, they would not know if DHS filed additional charges on a migrant after a case is terminated, or whether the migrant is deported or whether the migrant is allowed to stay and what their status is.
“We’re essentially getting monthly dumps of the internal database the court keeps to keep track of its workload, but it’s not the documents,” Long said.
In Carolina’s case, she said the uncertainty of their future worries her constantly.
A call to the EOIR 1-800 hotline operated by DHS yields a message that says: “The system does not contain any information regarding a future hearing date on your case.”
Carolina’s family does not have health insurance and she and Jose earn little money. Only Isabella receives subsidized support because she was born in the United States, and Emily gets free meals at her school that is in a low-income area where all children receive free breakfasts and lunches.
She said she often sits on her front porch listening to children play and imagining Emily.
She said the family prays to God they won’t be forced to leave.
“We will ask God. God is the only one who knows what will happen to us at this moment. If God wants us to stay, we will be here. Otherwise, we will be gone,” she said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.