The night after their immigration court hearing, Francisco Sical held his young daughter in his arms in a freezing border patrol cell. She begged him to open the door.
“Have you ever experienced a moment when you see your child crying and you can’t do anything?” he said about the night he confronted one of the hardest decisions of his life. “It breaks your soul.”
Melissa Sical – second-youngest of his seven children, with long brown hair and a shy smile – had glimpsed El Paso from the government van and wanted to see more of the houses with yards beyond the highways. Now she was trembling with cold, and Sical couldn’t bear to tell her that they were detained. That they had come 2,000 miles from Guatemala to wait two months in a makeshift shelter in Juárez only to find that their case under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols was hopeless.
“I told her, ‘Don’t cry. Be strong,” Sical said. “Tomorrow we’ll leave here.”
“No, papá,” she said. “Let’s go now. Open the door!”
That summer of 2019, tens of thousands of Central American migrant families found themselves faced with the choices that Sical had before him: stay in Mexico and attend the program’s court hearings, in which barely 1% of applicants win relief; return to face his children’s hunger and the crushing bank debt that funded his trip north; or risk crossing illegally.
They were two of the more than 68,000 people caught in the net of the Migrant Protection Protocols and returned to Mexican border cities. Many, like Sical, were well-meaning parents who sought refuge from gang violence, the ravages of climate change and economic distress in Central America but who were unlikely to qualify for asylum under US law, especially without the help of an attorney.
Thousands went home, defeated, to face greater desperation than before. Hundreds remain in limbo in Juárez, in rented rooms or relief shelters run by non-profit and religious organizations.
As the administration of President-elect Joe Biden prepares to overhaul the nation’s border and immigration policies, experts say the process of unwinding Trump-era restrictions is fraught with the peril of stoking a new humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border.
“If you don’t start fixing the way the border operates on day one, they’ll face a humanitarian crisis when they’re not ready for it,” said Andrew Selee, president of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute, based in Washington DC, which conducts research on North American migration patterns.
During Sical’s night in detention with his daughter, ideas came to him that hurt to remember.
He thought seriously about sending his 10-year-old home with a coyote, a smuggler.
“I could see the wall” from Juárez, he said. “There it was, and I would stare at it. And I said to myself, ‘There is the United States. I can jump the wall and I’ll be there …’”
He regretted bringing her to the border, exposing her to so much danger on the journey and in Juárez, notorious for its violence. But send her back, alone?
“Abandoning her would mean making the biggest mistake of my life,” he said. “I couldn’t leave her. The debt didn’t matter any more. My daughter meant more to me.
“And that’s why I am here.”
He spoke sitting outside his two-room home near San Miguel Chicaj, in the high plains of Baja Verapaz, Guatemala. It was March, before the pandemic swept the country, before two hurricanes wreaked their havoc and real, belly-burning hunger set in. The debt he owed tied his stomach in knots. The bank held the title to the only thing of value he possessed: his family home.
Hens clucked at his feet and gray pigs snorted in their pen. One of his six daughters swept up leaves and garbage from the dirt patio. The fields that cornered his home lay fallow and dry, no way to plant them without the rain they had depended on years ago.
His two-year-old granddaughter wailed a toddler’s drama.
“I have always been a person who dreams big. I don’t like to remain where I am,” he said. “The door is closed. For me, the American dream is dead.”
It seemed so at the time. But embers burn under the ashes of fires.
A false promise
While Sical talked, his wife, María Elvira Ramos, lit a fire in the great comal in her outdoor kitchen awaiting the corn masa with which she would pat out thick, yellow tortillas in her palms. Their second-eldest daughter, Delmy, set out on a rutted dirt road with two tubs of golden kernels of maíz balanced on her head, to be ground at the mill.
The unpaid labors of home bridged dawn and dusk, every day. But the days and weeks and months without steady paying work wore worry lines into his face.
Almost exactly a year before, Sical and Melissa had set out for el norte, with hopes of crossing the border at El Paso and reaching Virginia, where they had close family. News had trickled to their indigenous Mayan community that the US was giving families a pass. Details didn’t arrive about who qualified for refuge or under what circumstances; just the headline.
A permiso for the children. A chance for the parents to work.
Sical remembered speaking to his wife in their native Achi, the language they used among family. He thought this could be a chance to work legally in the US. He was thinking about taking Melissa.
“‘No, no, no. My daughter doesn’t go. God save my daughter. You can go but not her,’” he remembered Ramos telling him.
“I told her, ‘Listen, lately the US government is giving children priority,” reminding his wife that her own brother had reached the US with a son a few months before. “Immigration visits him twice a week. But they let him work in peace!”
Years before, from 2003 to 2008, Sical had worked in Anaheim, California; Tampa, Florida; Washington DC and many places in between, laying tile and driving trucks for $12 an hour as part of a vast undocumented labor force that fueled the US economic expansion of the mid-2000s.
Sical’s two eldest daughters, Olga and Delmy, at the time 24 and 21 years old, already had partners and children of their own. A son, 18-year-old German, lived in Guatemala City. Sandy, then 17, was at the end of her schooling while 13-year-old Ilse had earned a scholarship that let her study at a religious boarding school in the capital.
Six-year-old Daniela, the youngest, precocious and outgoing, suffered from asthma. It was too much to risk taking her on an arduous, unpredictable journey, he thought.
As shy as she was, Melissa was curious about the world. He could show her Mexico and the US, the places he loved. And she was still young enough to learn English and benefit from an education in the US. At great pains, he persuaded his wife.
Few job options in Guatemala
“The people of Guatemala are very rooted in their families, their culture, their land,” said Ursula Roldán, director of the Institute for Research and Projection on Global Dynamics at the Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala City.
“But the conditions of the countries [in Central America] get worse by the day,” she said. “Access to earnings, to work, even to education for children – the options aren’t there.”
According to a recent World Bank report, the percentage of the population in Guatemala considered poor increased from 43% to 49% between 2006 and 2014, the latest year for which data was available. Although the country’s GDP expanded slightly during those years, 1.3% on average, it wasn’t enough to lift up the majority. The country’s middle class shrank to 15% of the population from 21%, and the poor became poorer.
That was true before the Covid-19 pandemic decimated the global economy.
The pressures that have driven Guatemalan families, workers and unaccompanied youth to the US border in recent years were likely to intensify with the pandemic, said Selee, of the Migration Policy Institute. The Biden administration needed to be prepared, he said.
“The best way of dealing with irregular migration is not building walls but creating labor opportunities for people to work for periods of time in the United States,” he said.
“Because if we don’t create them, they are going to keep coming in through illegal routes. There are sectors of the US economy where we need foreign-born workers because Americans don’t want those jobs. And we want to know who they are, and we want them to be paid regular wages so they aren’t undercutting Americans.”
The year that Sical and his daughter traveled to the US border, fiscal 2019, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported apprehending more than 264,000 Guatemalans, including more than 185,000 people in “family units” – a parent or legal guardian traveling with a child – and more than 30,000 unaccompanied children.
The vast majority did not break the law. They turned themselves in to customs officers at ports of entry or to border patrol agents, seeking protection.
It’s what Sical and his daughter did at the El Paso border.
The Trump administration said most wouldn’t qualify for asylum and were gaming the system. Of all the obstacles the administration set up to block undocumented immigration at the border, the Migrant Protection Protocols were, by the administration’s standards, among the most successful. To immigrant advocates, the protocols were among the most cruel.
“By any measure, MPP has been hugely successful, including by reducing burdens on United States communities and easing the humanitarian crisis on the Southern border,” the administration said in a statement in February, in response to a lawsuit.
Immigrant advocates said the program was inhumane and illegal, forcing vulnerable families to wait for protection in some of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, such as Juárez, Mexicali, Matamoros and Tijuana, without access to legal counsel.
Although the Mexican government eventually set up a shelter in Juárez, it couldn’t cater to the thousands returned to that city. Churches and non-profit shelters, accustomed to providing a few nights’ food and shelter for travelers, found themselves supporting entire families for months at a time. Mexico’s foreign affairs ministry didn’t return the El Paso Times’ repeated requests for comment on the future of the Migrant Protection Protocols.
“This very cruel policy put many in harm’s way, including children and families as a whole,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of the Las Americas Immigrant Rights Center in El Paso.
Two legal challenges to the policy are headed for the supreme court.
“People use the instruments at their disposal,” Selee said. “And the asylum system was the only available instrument to get into the United States legally. We need to create real protections for people who really need them and other avenues for people who want a job.”
The Migrant Protection Protocols remain in effect, although the program has been little used during the pandemic.
In March, the Trump administration began returning anyone who crossed the US border without authorization to either Mexico or their home country – including unaccompanied children – using an arcane public health law to justify the policy.
The new rules all but ended asylum at the US-Mexico border.
‘We won’t all have the same luck’
When Sical and his daughter reached the El Paso border on 31 May 2019, after a 20-day journey north and five days detained by CBP, their fate was spelled out in English on paperwork handed them by a border agent:
“You are an immigrant not in possession of a valid unexpired immigrant visa, reentry permit, border crossing card or other valid entry document required by the Immigration and Nationality Act.” The papers assigned father and daughter an “alien” number, used by the US government to track immigrants, and listed an appointment to appear before a US immigration judge at 8.30am on 23 July 2019, at the courthouse in Downtown El Paso.
They were dropped back at the Downtown international bridge and told to wait in Juárez.
The bridge empties on to the Strip, a seedy street lined with bars and pharmacies catering to US tourists.
Sical had experience with failed border crossings but nothing like this.
After the stint working in the US and his return home during the Great Recession, he attempted to cross the US border without permission in 2013. He was caught and returned to Guatemala. He tried again in 2018 but was apprehended and charged with felony re-entry – a border enforcement practice that began under the Obama administration and continued under Trump.
He served 30 days in jail and was deported again.
He had taken risks and assumed responsibility. But now he had his daughter to protect. The first time they were sent back to Juárez, she was in pain, suffering from an earache.
He approached people on the street for help. A woman offered to buy his daughter medicine and told Sical she had a modest, unfinished house where they could stay.
“I didn’t have a peso,” he said. “I was walking aimlessly. I didn’t know anyone. But I met a señora. I told her, ‘Buenas tardes, I’m sorry but I’m not from here. I’m from Guatemala.’ Thanks to God she told me, ‘I can’t offer you much but I can give you a place to sleep.’”
A month later, Sical sat on a row of tires embedded in a trash-strewn Juárez hillside to keep the woman’s unfinished house and others above it from washing away. He and his daughter and a dozen other people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were sharing a concrete floor covered with dirty mattresses.
At 8am, the desert sun was heating like an oven to temperature. He went inside to make instant coffee on an electric hot plate that stood for a kitchen.
“It wasn’t what we expected. We were hoping for a response in our favor,” Sical said.
“We don’t have any concrete information” about the Migrant Protection Protocols, he said. “That is the fear. All our cases are different, and we won’t all have the same luck.”
He and the others knew only rumors about what the program entailed, how long they would have to wait or what their chances of success would be. Their conversation centered on the same dilemma that Sical faced: whether to stay, return home or cross illegally.
Melissa snuggled under a blanket, just waking up. A sour stench of garbage and sewage breezed through a barred window.
“It’s been so hard for her,” he said, “leaving behind her school, leaving behind the family. What am I going to do here in Juárez?”
A Salvadoran family of four who slept on the next mattress over had crossed the border illegally that morning and made it to El Paso. Within a few days they would make it to their destination, Boston.
Sical sighed. The wait felt excruciating but he was still eager to tell a judge why he and his daughter deserved a chance in the US.
“I’m going to wait for court,” he said.
‘Sadly, they didn’t let me in’
The morning after their court date, after the cold night in border patrol custody, Sical and his daughter crossed the international bridge to Juárez for the last time.
Waiting for them was an agent of Mexico’s Grupos Beta aid agency dangling a carrot: if they wanted to go back to Guatemala, funds were available to pay for the trip. The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration provided “departure assistance” for more than 1,500 people subject to the Migrant Protection Protocols, including 1,100 people in Juárez.
Sical was among those who took the offer.
Back in the home he had built a quarter mile from the one where he was raised, where his elderly parents still lived, Sical tried to make sense of his fate.
His failure at the US border had taken away any hope of changing his family’s circumstances.
Ramos had taken out a $3,000 micro-credit for “construction”. The couple spent it instead, as others in his community had at the time, on the journey north. They owed the bank $128 a month – an enormous sum without steady, paying work.
It was a debt he could have paid off in a matter of months with a job in the US.
In Guatemala, where the minimum wage is roughly $11 a day and work for him was scarce, he struggled to bring home even $220 a month.
They were surviving on corn. Some months, he and his wife went hungry to make sure the children ate.
“If the United States government had told me, ‘OK, Francisco, you can come in. But you are going to go to court. No hay problema. I will go to court. Whatever the government wants me to do, I will do, because I’m inside the government’s country.
“Sadly, they didn’t let me in,” he said. “They left me here, outside. And being outside is not the same as being inside.”
Melissa seemed happier at home with her mother and sisters. At ease. She knew her place in the community, her daily chores, and she was protected.
That week, between classes, she would sweep the family’s patio and wash her school uniform on the concrete washboard out back. She would chase the chickens out of the milpa garden and feed the gray pigs corn. She would dust and strip arm-length leaves called ojas de sal for her grandmother and aunties to wrap tamales for the ninth day of prayer over her ailing grandfather.
She wasn’t old enough yet to know the disappointment of her education being cut short or the financial worries borne by her parents and sisters, now mothers themselves.
Her father explained: “We are people with few resources. Here in Guatemala, the governments have dedicated themselves to corruption, and they have forgotten the people, all of us who live in the high plains of the country. This is why so many people make the trip. They immigrate because there is no work.
“Children don’t ask you if there is or isn’t food. Children say, ‘Mami, give me food’ whether you have it or not. So, as a father, as a mother, you do what you have to do to provide for your kids.”
The US is ‘always on my mind and in my heart’
Rain poured off the clay tejas roof covering Sical’s porch. He held his cellphone out to catch a signal and warned that the video call might cut off as Hurricane Iota crawled overland in late November.
He hadn’t worked much during the pandemic but the bank still had to be paid. Three months more, he said. Still, they were facing disaster on top of the debt.
“We don’t have work because of the pandemic,” he said. “Then, these hurricanes. Guatemala is going through a disaster that is too terrible. But we’re trying to get through it.”
Their journey together, father and daughter, seemed far off in the past now. A US judge had deported Sical and his daughter in absentia in August 2019, after they missed their second court hearing. Now 12 years old, Melissa had a record in the US immigration system.
He watched the US presidential election – Biden’s win and Trump’s refusal to concede – from afar, tracking developments on social media.
“The United States is always on my mind and in my heart,” he said wistfully.
But, he added, “You’re left with feelings of resentment. The families who have someone in the United States, every eight days they go to the bank for the remittance. And us just watching, because there is nothing else we can do.
“I don’t think the US will give me another chance,” he said.
A different day, he mused again about the future. As hopeless as things seemed, his old dream wasn’t completely extinguished.
“I would still love if one day …” He trailed off.
“If I could ever be invited, if I could have asylum, the American dream is still in my mind.”
Lauren Villagran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published in the El Paso Times, a daily newspaper in El Paso, Texas, that is part of the USA Today network