Credible Fear: The Odds Facing Those Seeking Asylum in the US
There is a crisis in the Central American country of Honduras that is having a direct impact on Arizona’s southern border.
In 2017, the United Nations named Honduras as one of the top five most violent countries in the world and reports that it is rapidly becoming one of the most dangerous places for women and members of the LGBT community.
Last summer, Arizona Public Media’s Nancy Montoya traveled to Honduras on a fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation and found the stories of LGBT sexual assaults and women being murdered were the highest of any country in the world not in a declared war. That reality often reaches Arizona’s border.
This is the story of an asylum seeker. She sits in a women’s shelter right across the Arizona border in Nogales, Sonora. Nicol is in her early 20s. She identifies as a woman, but she was born in Honduras as Dago Alberto Garcia, a male. Nicol is transgender and says to be a woman or a transgender person in Honduras is to expect sexual assaults that often end in death.
“I left running, and as I was running, there was blood running down my legs.”
She says she was raped several times in Honduras.
It took Nicol weeks to make the journey from Honduras, through Guatemala, on board “la Bestia” (the Beast), a freight train that serves as illegal transportation for those desperate to head north. The Mexican government has estimated that more than 2,000 people have died in the past five years attempting to ride the Beast. They fall off or are victimized by drug cartels.
Nicol traveled by train, bus and on foot through Mexico to the U.S. border. Exhausted, out of money and nearly out of hope, she made it to a women’s shelter in Nogales, Sonora, where she was able to sleep and refuel for her ultimate goal of gaining asylum in the U.S. This was to be her third attempt.
The day we met her, she was ready to take those final steps out of Mexico and into what would await her on the U.S. side.
It is important to understand what women in Honduras and their transgender sisters are fighting for and why so many of them, like Nicol, have fled their country, many with their children in tow.
Nicol rests at a women shelter in Nogales, Sonora, after making a six-week trip to get to the U.S.-Mexico border. She plans to seek asylum. (PHOTO: AZPM)
Sweva Martinez is the head of the National Women’s Coalition in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. One day in 2017, she and other women activists protested at the presidential palace.
“We are one, we are all!” they shouted.
Baring their bodies, they turned towards the presidential palace to show their defiance of a government that they say allows the victimization and murder of women.
Amnesty International warned in a 2016 report that the murder of women in Honduras has become a culturally accepted occurrence, where 95 percent of sexual violence attacks against women and LGBT individuals are never investigated.
During other protests, the women tell me, they were dragged off by the military and beaten.
But today, there are international journalists watching. The women had a message for the rest of the world.
“From all of us, we are calling out to the international community so that the eyes of the world can be turned once again to Honduras. … They are killing us here because we are women. It is the most dangerous place to be a woman,” said Martinez .
According to the University Institute on Democracy, Peace and Security in Honduras,”Over the past decade, this nation of just over 8 million people has witnessed a sharp increase in domestic and sexual violence and gender-based murder, a phenomenon known as femicide.”
Today, in Honduras groups of women are taking to the streets to draw attention to what has become a cultural norm. But some who are gay or transgender, like Nicol, live in hiding.
After she learned of three transgender women she knew in Honduras who were raped and murdered, she decided she had to leave her country.
“I want nothing more than to be safe,” she says.
Nicol is hoping the U.S. will grant her asylum. U.S. immigration officials have turned her away two other times. Each time, she was deported back to Honduras, where she says she was beaten, raped and, once, left for dead.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that only around 5 percent of those who seek asylum ever get to the point of even filling out an official application.
Tucson Immigration Attorney Jesse Evans-Schroeder says asylum seekers like Nicol have a nearly impossible road ahead of them.
“Of that percentage, 60 percent are denied, and those are the people who actually made it to a full application,” said Schroeder. “What should happen is that she should be screened. She should be questioned about whether she has a fear of returning to her home country – in your case, Honduras. And obviously this woman you have been following should be referred to for an asylum interview, what is called a credible fear interview.”
Evans-Schroeder says even getting that far is monumental. Most people cannot prove “credible fear.”
This time, Nicol says she is prepared. She compiled police reports, hospital reports, eye-witness accounts and even newspaper articles about what she has lived through, hoping this time someone will listen and she can get to the next step.
We left Nicol as she walked to the U.S. side of the port of entry in Nogales. She will try again, this time with documentation.
And this time, there is a team from the Kino Border Initiative following her case. Volunteer Bob Kee and staff member Marla Conrad have been trying to find Nicol within the complicated immigration system after she stepped into the port of entry.
An online immigrant locator said she was at the Eloy Detention Center. Conrad says Immigration often randomly moves individuals around. Kee and Conrad have since learned that Nicol was moved to El Paso, and is now in New Mexico.
Arizona Public Media plans to follow Nicol’s case. Asylum is her goal – but for now, there is only uncertainty.
Reporting conducted in Honduras for this story was made possible by a fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.