NEW YORK (AP) — Manuel Marcelino Tzaj spends every Thursday looking at the ceiling of the small Brooklyn room he shares with his daughter. He says that if he leaves the building on that day, the electronic ankle monitor he has worn for more than two years will alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
“I am thinking about going back home to Guatemala. I can't go on like this anymore, with this thing on my leg,” the 33-year-old immigrant said wearily.
It's been more than two years since Tzaj was separated from his daughter at the southern border of the U.S. during an unprecedented surge of asylum-seeking families from Central America. The separation of the two lasted two months and was one of the more than 5,000 separations that sparked an international outcry.
Today, the majority of those Central Americans who arrived in the U.S. in 2018 and 2019 are spread throughout the country without asylum, waiting for hearings that take months and even years in immigration courts that in some states are still closed due to the pandemic. And once a judge finally sees their cases, asylum is denied for the majority of these applicants.
In the meantime, many work under the table: they lack work permits or, like Tzaj, wear ankle monitors that limit their freedom of movement.
“There is so much uncertainty around everything, so they are just living in this limbo, waiting to make decisions about basically every aspect of their lives”, said Julie Schwietert Collazo, co-founder of Immigrant Families Together, a group that bonded about 120 Central American immigrants out of detention and still helps dozens of families.
Pushed by poverty and violence, more than 223,000 Central Americans crossed the border without authorization and were apprehended in the fiscal year 2018, according to federal data.
That number represented a 36% increase in the arrival of Central Americans, compared to the previous year. In the fiscal year 2019, however, it skyrocketed to more than 607,000 Central Americans arriving without authorization.
In immigration court, many of their cases are still pending: there are more than 703,000 for Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Asylum denial rates are also very high for them: 86% for Guatemalans, 82% for Salvadorans and 87% for Hondurans. Only about 1.3% of these groups are given in absentia removal orders for not showing up for court.
Tzaj is a day laborer who makes $17 per hour doing construction work and does not even know if an attorney who helped him in 2018 applied for asylum for him. He found out recently that the attorney died, he said.
The Guatemalan immigrant, who left his hometown with his 11-year-old daughter fleeing poverty and violence, does not have a more permanent job because he says he can't leave his room on Thursdays.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said that an electronic ankle monitor was placed on Tzaj “after ICE determined his eligibility to remain in a non-detained setting while awaiting his immigration proceedings.”
The agency’s Alternatives to Detention program includes reporting requirements like monthly home visits or check-ins at the local ICE office instead of detention. Immigrants must be present during these visits, the agency said. The ICE official also said Tzaj had been deported in 2014.
His daughter, now 13, attends a Brooklyn public school.
“She wants to go back to Guatemala because she misses her mom, who is there,” the immigrant said.
President Donald Trump’s administration launched a “zero tolerance” policy in the spring of 2018 to criminally prosecute every adult who entered the country illegally from Mexico, sparking a backlash when parents couldn’t find their children. Trump later retreated on family separation.
Federal data shows that the percentage of asylum request denials has been increasing since about 2015. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions limited in 2018 the grounds on which immigration judges could grant it.
Buena Ventura Martín Godínez has a long wait before knowing if she will get asylum. Due to the pandemic, the next hearing on immigration court for the Guatemalan immigrant will be in 2022.
“We are always fearful. We don’t feel safe in this country because we don’t have (immigration) papers,” said Godínez, who lives with her family in Homestead, Florida. “What I would like is to win my asylum case so I can be here legally.”
The 30-year-old Guatemalan immigrant crossed the border with her 10-month-old son in June 2018. Her husband, Pedro Godínez, did the same two weeks later with their 7-year-old daughter but they were separated. He was deported back to Guatemala and the girl sent to Michigan. Mother and daughter were reunited nearly two months later.
Now, Pedro is back in the U.S. —after spending 10 months in Guatemala — because a judge said his deportation was unlawful. He hasn't, however, applied for asylum during his first year in the U.S, which reduces his chances of obtaining it. He said he has called a non-profit numerous times to help him with immigration matters but has received no reply. He can't afford a private immigration attorney.
“I am worried. What is going to happen to me?" said the 37-year-old man. “I don't want to be separated from my family again.”
New York-based immigration attorney Jose Xavier Orochena said that of the 36 or so Central American mothers he helped reunite with their children only one has won asylum.
“Many have orders of removal because asylum was denied and they are appealing. Others have never even received a court appearance notice,” he said. The attorney said that in April he flew to Oregon to help one of these mothers remove the electronic monitor.
“Her ankle was discolored. She had worn it for more than two years,” he said.
After the surge of 2018 and 2019, the Trump administration made asylum-seekers at the southern border wait in Mexico for U.S. court hearings. U.S. officials say Trump’s policies are designed to confront surges of Central Americans seeking asylum and reduce claims that lack merit. The number of Central Americans apprehended this fiscal year are much lower: about 103,000, according to Customs and Border Patrol.
Delmi Funez, a 29-year-old Honduran immigrant, said she left her country in 2018 because she was raped there and threatened. She crossed the border in December of that year with her then one-year-old daughter. She now has a son born in the United States but does not know when she needs to be in immigration court and says she has no money for an immigration attorney.
“I ask God to make the miracle of allowing me to stay in this country and allowing my family to move on,” she said.
Salomon reported from Miami.