When Estrella arrived at the KBI shelter with her 4-year-old daughter, Blanca, in June, she had already endured death threats, a harrowing journey from her native El Salvador, and separation from two younger siblings. Now, she had to wait in Mexico for the duration of her asylum case. Her story illustrates the harmful and traumatic consequences of the Remain in Mexico policy.
In 2017, Estrella (23) was living with her three younger siblings (ages 9, 12, and 17), her mother, and her two-year-old daughter, Blanca, in the small Salvadoran city where she grew up when the local cartel murdered her mother. Though both Estrella and her mom worked to support the family, they could no longer afford to pay the quota demanded, and the cartel exacted the harshest retaliation. (All names have been changed for privacy and protection.)
Devastated and fearful of further threats, Estrella was nevertheless committed to staying in El Salvador and raising her daughter and younger siblings. She took on multiple jobs over the next two years to keep the family together, and continued to pay the monthly quota. Even so, it eventually became too dangerous to leave the house, and she turned to making pupusas for the families in the community, selling them from her house and barely earning enough to get by.
Despite the challenges and danger, Estrella found ways to persevere. That changed earlier this year when the gangs deemed her younger brother, Sergio (now 14), old enough to recruit. Still grieving his mother’s death and unwilling to work for the very group that killed her, Sergio refused to join, and became a target. Estrella decided to flee with Blanca (now 4), Sergio, and her younger sister, Marta (now 10) to seek asylum and protection in the U.S. (Her oldest sibling, Gabriela, at 19, stayed behind, able to live with relatives, in relatively less danger of recruitment or threat.)
In May, the family presented themselves for asylum at the Tijuana port of entry. Estrella recalls subsequent events as an unimaginable nightmare. Upon arrival in the U.S., the family was detained and separated—Estrella and Blanca were held in one location while Sergio and Marta were separated from them. After five days, sleeping under aluminum blankets and given food that made Blanca sick, the four were briefly reunited, only to learn that they would be separated again because Estrella was not considered a “close enough” relative to Sergio and Marta to keep them together. Nor did she have documentation to prove to skeptical U.S. officials that they were in her custody.
Estrella’s brother and sister would now be designated as unaccompanied minors, and sent to special facilities in the U.S.; under Remain in Mexico, she and Blanca would be sent back to Tijuana to fight their asylum claims from there. As they parted, Estrella assured Sergio and Marta that she loved them, would never abandon them, and would do everything in her power to make sure they were all together again. It would be over a month before she could speak with them again, after Sergio was sent to a facility in Tucson and Marta to a children’s home in Michigan.
In Tijuana, Estrella was promptly extorted and assaulted. With nowhere to go and fearful of future assaults, she borrowed money from family in El Salvador to get bus tickets to Nogales. There, she presented at the port of entry to explain her situation to the agent on duty, share details of the life-threatening violence they’d escaped, and convey the urgency of reuniting with her siblings in the U.S. He was unsympathetic, responding, “Why should any of that matter to me?”
Once again, Estrella and Blanca were taken into detention, this time in a facility even more physically uncomfortable than before, and once again, Blanca became ill with stomachaches that led to vomiting and fever. Though Estrella continually requested medical attention, Blanca never received it and, several months later, still has not gained back the weight she lost while in detention.
A week later, Estrella was returned to Nogales, Sonora to await her court date, scheduled for September 3 in San Diego. As she lingered near the port of entry to figure out next steps—fearful, lost, with no money and nowhere to go, a stuffed bag at her feet and a sick child on her hip—Estrella heard someone ask if she needed help. The KBI’s Sister Alicia was running errands, glimpsed the mother and child, and upon hearing their story, took them to Casa Nazareth.
Now living at the KBI shelter, Estrella and Blanca are surrounded by support and friends, though their future is uncertain. Thanks to advocacy efforts, Sergio and Marta have been reunited in Michigan, where they live in a shelter with other minors, attend school daily, and unable to receive phone calls, call Estrella from school whenever they can. With no resources to get back to Tijuana, Estrella hopes to move her court proceedings to Southern Arizona, and Estrella’s aunt, who lives in Texas and will sponsor the family, is doing everything she can have the children released to her care. So far, neither of them has been successful, but with Sergio’s fifteenth birthday on the horizon, Estrella is determined to give him the gift of a safe and reunited family before he turns sixteen.