Alex Guevara weeps as he describes the five-month odyssey that brought his family from Venezuela to a diner just metres from the United States border – and the uncertainty and danger that lie ahead.
It was June when Guevara and his family fled on foot into Colombia, carrying nothing but a Bible and a worthless Venezuelan coin to remind them of their homeland.
“It was life or death – either we left or we left,” Guevara’s wife, Andrea, said of the persecution they had suffered because of ties to the opposition movement trying to force Nicolás Maduro from power.
From Medellín, the couple flew to Cancún with their two young children before traveling overland to one of the most dangerous stretches of the US-Mexico border and crossing the Rio Grande in a rubber dinghy.
When border guards detained them on US soil, the Guevaras thought their ordeal was nearly over.
But, rather than being allowed to stay in the US while they sought asylum, they were separated and spent a fortnight in detention before being released into one of Mexico’s most notorious border towns in the dead of night.
“Wow, that was a low blow,” said Andrea. “After all the trauma and everything we had been through in our country … we found ourselves in the mouth of another wolf.”
The Guevaras – who asked for their real names not to be used – are among more than 57,000 people who have been forced back into Mexico this year by an innocuously named immigration policy that activists consider one of the cruellest and most ruthlessly efficient strands of Donald Trump’s anti-migration crusade.
Unveiled in January, the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) project, or Remain in Mexico as it is better known, stipulates that asylum seekers must wait for their court hearings in Mexican border towns – several of which count among the most violent places on Earth.
Even when they do reach court after months of waiting, only a tiny proportion of applicants succeed. Research by academics at Syracuse University found that only 11 out of nearly 10,000 asylum requests were granted in the first nine months of this year.
“It’s just a chicken-shit administrative way of not letting people legally seek asylum,” said Kelly Overton, whose NGO, Border Kindness, helps the policy’s victims in Mexicali, one of six border cities involved in the scheme alongside Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Piedras Negras, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros.
“The majority of people are fleeing something – whether that’s an immediate threat of violence, [or] a guaranteed life of poverty and despair for their children. They are doing this for a reason,” Overton said.