EL PASO, Texas — The border between Mexico and the U.S. stands between Hugo and life without fear. Hugo told KENS 5, he left Ecuador to be safe from political persecution, live as a gay man who doesn’t have to hide.
Since Hugo’s still not safe, on the other side of the border from El Paso, KENS 5 is not using his last name and not showing his face in the video version of this story.
“It was discovered that I had a relationship with another man. My family and friends rejected me,” he said, “[and] the church that I would go to. [I] Made the decision [to leave] after so much rejection and humiliation.”
Hugo said he was well off in Ecuador, owned a business. Still has family there, including kids.
But in the fall of 2019, Hugo said he traveled to the Texas border with Mexico and asked U.S. for asylum.
“I didn’t imagine everything that would happen to me here,” Hugo said. “I never heard about MPP. When I talked to the immigration official, I didn’t tell him much because I was afraid, especially saying I belong to the LGBT community. I was afraid and I didn’t know anybody.”
The U.S. government had Hugo wait for his American court date in Mexico. He was enrolled in the Remain in Mexico program President Donald Trump put in place, also known as the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP).
Nearly 70,000 people were placed in MPP under President Trump.
“I’ve been humiliated, I’ve been tortured, I’ve been beaten, I’ve been punched,” Hugo described his time in Mexico. “The police have taken my money.”
Non-profit Human Rights First has published a number of reports documenting cases of migrant abuse that Hugo described.
In Mexico Hugo said he was also kidnapped. He and his immigration attorney shared a photo with KENS 5.
“They would beat us up and take photos of us,” Hugo described. “They would throw hard bread on the floor and we would have to fight for it or share. Very difficult. They took our shoes, so we wouldn’t be able to run away.”
Hugo said he spent 23 days in confinement, until one day he was able to break through the soft sheet rock and make a run for it. But he still missed his U.S. court date.
When that happened, the court would order no-shows like Hugo removed in their absence, without having a chance to present their case in court.
If you didn’t show, explained Nico Palazzo, Hugo’s immigration attorney, a HIAS Border Fellow, working a lot of asylum cases at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, there is an order of deportation on your record, making a person ineligible to seek asylum for 10 years. A situation virtually impossible to resolve without a lawyer.
“Someone without an attorney in Mexico with very limited resources,” Palazzo said, “who does not speak English, who does not have access to an international courier service where they could mail paperwork, there's just simply no way someone in that situation would possibly be able to file a motion to reopen. So practically speaking, they are left with essentially no resources.”
“We’re providing a court date for someone, and they couldn't come to court because they were kidnapped, I mean, it just throws the whole idea of due process completely out the window,” Palazzo added. “Speaks very poorly of the way that we've been treating asylum seekers during the last several years.”
Experts estimate there are thousands like Hugo, who through no fault of their own, missed their court dates and have been stuck in Mexico for now going on years.
Some were able to be processed into the U.S. when President Joe Biden’s administration briefly suspended MPP, until a court order forced its restart.
The Border Patrol union has criticized the MPP program under President Biden, saying it’s not returning enough people to Mexico to wait for their court date.
Brandon Judd, President of the National Border Patrol Council, speaking recently at a border security event held in Weslaco by Governor Greg Abbott, told reporters that under the Biden Administration’s version of MPP, the government was only enrolling 8.9 people in MPP per day on average, while agents were apprehending between 5,000 to 7,000 migrants every single day.
“That is rewarding people for crossing our borders illegally,” Judd said. “What that's doing is that's allowing the cartels to use illegal immigrants to distract law enforcement from the dangerous products that are coming across the border."
Even with Palazzo's help, Hugo's future is uncertain.
“I continue to wait here,” Hugo told KENS 5, “hoping for God to help me cross to the other side.”
“It is somewhat a faith in the American system,” Palazzo said. “I think it’s just a testament really to the strength of their spirit, but also to the strength of their asylum claim and, and the credibility of their fear of returning to their countries.”