By Mauricio Casillas/ABC-7

CIUDAD JUÁREZ — All Isela can do is hope.

She’s one of dozens of migrants who have found temporary refuge at the Buen Samaritano shelter in Juárez.

She fled from her home in Peru six months ago. The pandemic shuttered her business, and that left her in debt — a debt, she says, gang members came to collect.

“They came to our home with guns,” Isela said in Spanish. “If my country were safe, and if there were work, I wouldn’t be here.”

Isela requested asylum in December, and she has yet to have her first hearing in immigration court. She has family in New York, and hopes she’ll be allowed to reunite with them as she navigates her asylum process.

“My biggest fear is being sent back,” she said.

At the same shelter, Manuel Tinto, a Honduran asylum seeker, weighs his options. He arrived in Juárez with his teenage son more than two years ago. He lost his case nearly six months ago.

“I started crying when I lost my case,” Tinto said. “I felt a strong pain in my chest, my heart. I came here with the idea that I could live a more secure life for my family.”

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Rather than showing up to his appeal hearing, he decided to stay in Juárez. He currently works in construction and is hopeful he could someday be granted asylum in the United States Returning to his home country is not an option. He said gangs tried to force his son to join.

“Proving that you may be killed or proving that you will likely be killed is actually not enough to win asylum,” said Linda Rivas, the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “Asylum is not meant to protect all who are in imminent danger.”

The government defines an asylee as someone who is “unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

There’s a key difference between asylees and refugees. The United States caps how many refugees it accepts each year. But since asylum seekers must set foot on U.S. soil to request protection, there is no cap.

So, asylum seekers must prove they are being persecuted, and that their government can’t protect them.

They often willingly turn themselves in to agents at the border, though the process has turned murky as the Department of Homeland Security is implementing a CDC directive called “Title 42,” an order that allows agents to expel migrants into Mexico immediately, citing health concerns related to the pandemic.

When the asylum process is triggered, a long, uphill battle begins for those seeking refuge in the U.S. Data shows only about 15% actually win their cases.

“They want a better situation. If they could keep themselves and their children safe, they would not come to the United States,” Rivas said.

That was the case for Julio Gonzalez and Enrique Henriquez. The Salvadoran couple made their way to the United States in 2017.

“Gangs realized that we lived together. They realized we’re gay,” Gonzalez said.

Enrique Henriquez, left, and Julio Gonzalez received asylum in the United States after fleeing El Salvador. (Photo courtesy of Julio Gonzalez)

They were extorted, and Gonzalez said when they went to the police, officers laughed in their faces.

After asking for asylum, Gonzalez and Henriquez were held at the El Paso Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility.

“It was a very difficult process. We were detained for practically one year,” Gonzalez said.

But they had Rivas as an attorney. Having legal representation greatly raises the chances of success.

According to data compiled by Syracuse University’s TRAC, only 7% of asylum seekers without an attorney have been able to win their cases in the last 20 years.

To complicate matters, asylum grant rates vary greatly depending on where a migrant’s case is being tried. El Paso has one of the lowest approval ratings in the country. Out of 223 cases heard in Fiscal Year 2020, only 29 were granted, or 13 percent. In Los Angeles, for example, the approval rate was 23 percent.

Several factors determine whether an asylum seeker is successful. Asylum rates vary greatly depending on who the immigration judge is. Denial rates range from 76.8% to 92.2% with El Paso immigration judges, according to data.

Some residents of Buen Samaratino shelter in Juárez have waited months or years for a chance to present their asylum claims in U.S. courts. (Jesus Rodriguez/ABC-7)

The final chance for Gonzalez and Henriquez came when they had to prove their case before the immigration judge. They had to get letters from friends and loved ones corroborating their story, and show pictures from their time in El Salvador to prove that they were in fact a couple.

“The same thing you told the customs agent, is the same thing that’s written in the asylum application, and it’s the same thing you’ve told me looking me in the eye,” Gonzalez said the immigration judge told him.

The couple are now lawful permanent residents living in Arkansas.

Gonzalez, once a teacher, and Henriquez, a dancer, now work at a cleaning company and as a cook at Sonic.

“We didn’t have an American dream. Our dream was to be together and happy,” Gonzalez said.

It’s tough for Gonzalez and Henriquez to accept they’re some of the lucky ones. Many of the people they met while they were detained have been deported.

“It’s sad to see. Unfortunately, they don’t meet the criteria,” Henriquez said. “We are truly blessed.”

“It feels really nice to be able to be ourselves,” he said.

Cover photo: Many asylum seekers have stayed at the Buen Samaratino shelter in Juárez while waiting for their cases to reach the U.S. court system. (Jesus Rodriguez/ABC-7)

This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a binational partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.