Twenty-year-old Jaren Rodriguez Orellana is fleeing a country with the highest crime rate in the world, and hoping to return to the place where he grew up and calls home: Northern California.
Later today, he'll be with a group of about 150 immigrants who say they want to return home to the United States, but are barred from re-entering because of their immigration status. The group, organized by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), plans to cross the southern border, turn themselves in to immigration authorities, and ask for asylum from the violence of the countries where they were born.
About one third of the crossers identify as Dreamers – people brought to the United States as children by their parents, but without legal immigration status. Many say that while they felt safe in the U.S., the drug war is at the heart of the violence that they now fear on a daily basis.
Orellana was brought to the Bay Area from Honduras by his father at age four. After living in the United States for 14 years, he feels very American. He wears Nike Air Jordans that he bought at a mall in Santa Clara and swears that In-N-Out makes the best burger in the world.
But he hasn’t seen his family for a year and a half, because at age 18, he left home for Honduras, a country he could hardly remember, after his older sister was deported. Orellana says his immigration attorney told him he’d be able to “fix his status” by returning to his Central American birthplace before he turned 18 and a half. But he has been unable to obtain legal status, and says he fears for his life every day.
“I didn’t know what real fear was until I left for Honduras,” Orellana said.
In August of last year, his fear proved justified. Orellana was stabbed by a local gang member and bullets were fired into his bedroom when he failed to pay the gang a monthly “protection fee."
“The guys came up to me, one in front of me, one behind me. Then one of them stabbed me. He was only like 14 or 15 years old,” he said. “I got stabbed at 10 a.m., and I didn¹t get medical attention until 9 p.m.”
Orellana, along with other members of the group, will enter the United States the Otay Mesa Port of Entry near San Diego. There, they will tell border agents that they fear for their lives if they are forced to return to the countries of origin. The 150-plus migrants expect to be temporarily held in San Diego detention centers. They hope to be released on parole into the U.S. to fight their asylum cases in front of judges.
One of the group¹s organizers, Dulce Guerrero, says there at least 45 minors, under the age of 18 who are set to cross with their parents. Many young adults who will cross say they were removed from the country just months prior to the passage of President Obama’s deferred action program, which would have allowed them to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
Undocumented sisters Ana and Genesis Gastelum went back to Mexico from their small town of Gilbert, Arizona, just one month before the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was announced. Because Arizona doesn’t offer in-state tuition for Dreamers, the sisters couldn’t afford college in the U.S. and instead decided to return to Mexico to enroll for university there.
The sisters say they would have qualified for the program and wouldn’t be in the situation they are now — seeking asylum from a country they call home. When the sisters returned to Mexico, they quickly realized their lives were in danger in Sinaloa, the home to Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel.
“At night we don’t go out, because we’re worried that a drug dealer will choose us as a girlfriend,” Ana Gastelum said. “Here it’s very common. If a drug dealer wants to be with you, you don’t have much of a choice. He might kill you if you say no.”
Approximately nine out of every 10 deportees are from either Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras. Asylum requests from these four countries have increased dramatically in the last six years, according to data obtained by Fusion from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
The United Nations attributes the increase in part to violence related to the drug trade and gangs. Forty-one of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities are now in Latin America, according a study published by Citizens' Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, a Mexican NGO.
But very few citizens from these countries are actually awarded asylum. The U.S. government granted only 126 Mexican citizens asylum in 2012, despite receiving over 9,000 requests that year. In contrast, almost half of Chinese citizens and two thirds of Cameroonian citizens who applied were granted asylum 2012. Less than eight percent of asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras successfully received asylum in the same period.
Still, Orellana and crossers like him say there’s hope their plan will work out, because the NIYA has attempted crossings like this one before. Last summer, nine immigration activists, who called themselves the DREAM 9, successfully made the same trip, and in late September another group of 34 attempted the same crossing. The vast majority of these individuals were approved for the first step of the asylum process, and are fighting their cases in the U.S. Six were deported back to their country of birth, however. And many waited in detention centers for days and weeks until they were released.
The Gastelum sisters say that for them, it’s a risk they’re willing to take.
“We’re mostly scared about being deported, not being detained,” Ana said. “We wouldn’t mind being detained for years as long we don’t have to come back here.”
While March’s crossing event will be the biggest of its type to date, organizer Dulce Guerrero says it’s a relatively small number of people, compared to those who would like to make the journey.
“During the last couple years, we’ve had two million people deported, we’re only trying to help 150 or so people here,” she said. “It’s actually relatively very few.”
Orellana says the question of asylum is one of life and death for him if he’s deported back to his Honduran birthplace, San Pedro Sulas.
“Everyone is afraid, everyone lives in fear, there's no respect for authority, there's no respect for humanity,” he said of the city. “I just wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I did.”
A Ford Foundation grant supports Fusion’s investigative journalism.
Cristina is an Emmy-nominated reporter and producer. She recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for her documentary Death by Fentanyl. She attended Yale University and has reported for the New Haven Independent, ABC News, Univision, The Huffington Post, and Fusion.
Jorge Rivas is the national affairs correspondent at Fusion. He follows the national conversation through the lens of racial, sexual, and political identity.