After a 10-month odyssey from a Honduran slum to a North Texas suburb, 17-year-old Marvin Joel Zelaya takes a sip from his first vanilla Frappuccino and marvels at his new surroundings.
"There's order, there's security," he says. "There's not so much poverty and delinquency."
Zelaya is living with a relative in the antiseptic suburbs that extend from Dallas to Fort Worth. He is going to high school and waiting for his first asylum hearing in June.
This is the Promised Land compared to the destitute, gang-infested colonia that he and his father fled in the hills of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, last spring. The catch is Marvin Jr. is here without his father. They separated at the Texas-Mexico border in November, so that the young man could gain entry to the United States. His father, Marvin Sr., languishes in a makeshift refugee camp in Mexico.
According to federal policy, only underage asylum-seekers who are unaccompanied are immediately allowed in. Adults and families must often wait in Mexico for their court dates.
In the past six months, hundreds of parents have repeated this anguished farewell, some sending children as young as five-years-old with an older sibling to cross the international bridge in hopes of a better, safer life in America.
The youngsters surrender to U.S. immigration agents at the midpoint of the bridge, not knowing if they'll ever see their parents again. They are often part of an exodus of people fleeing Central America's epidemic of crime. But the odds are long on gaining protection in the U.S. Presently, only about one in five applicants receives asylum.
Immigration judges typically want to see proof of persecution. Yet many migrants, like the Zelaya family, never report gang threats to the police, believing the cops are in cahoots with the thugs.
"He certainly has a very frightening story which is entirely credible," says Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist who specializes in immigrant trauma and is familiar with Marvin Jr.'s case. "Nonetheless, he doesn't have scars or wounds or a police report to back up his story."
Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, an immigration attorney in Austin with experience in Central American asylum cases, adds: "These sort of generalized gang violence cases are tricky. They're hard to win."
When agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection took Marvin Jr. into custody, he says they mocked him.
"They asked me lots of questions and laughed at me. They said I had the same story as everybody else and it was pure lies," he says.
Marvin Jr. spent the next three months in a government-run shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, where he says they treated him well.
In February, he was released into the care of his uncle in North Texas, to await his fate in U.S. immigration court. They are living in an austere house with a group of Asian immigrants, all of whom work at a nearby sushi restaurant.
All this has produced a whirlpool of emotions for Marvin Jr., a tall, gangly and handsome teen with a bowl haircut and a crucifix around his neck.
"I'm happy because I left the child shelter. I'm sad because I can't see my family," he says. "And I'm anxious because I don't know what the judge is going to say the day I go to court."
Marvin Jr.'s asylum case is based on his claim that a gang of toughs, who control his neighborhood and secondary school back in Honduras, approached him one day last April and gave him three choices.
"They said I could work for them, or get out of there, or they would kill me," he says. "If I worked for them I would be a look-out to tell them when the police were coming, or sell drugs in my school, or kill people for them.
"So my father and I decided to leave."
They made their way to the Texas border where, to their surprise, the rules had changed. No longer was CBP releasing parent-and-child asylum seekers into the United States to wait for their hearings. Under the Trump administration policy intended to end "catch and release," they would have to remain in Mexico while their cases are pending.
Marvin Zelaya Sr. and Marvin Jr. ended up in a primitive displaced persons camp in Matamoros, just across from Brownsville, Texas.
"It was bad," the son says. "There were times when we didn't have a tent and it rained. We would sleep on the ground and when it started raining, we'd stand up until it stopped."
Marvin Jr. got sick. They stayed filthy. When cold fronts blew in they shivered in their thin, donated sweaters.
The camp was dangerous, too.
Marvin Jr. says hoodlums menaced him anytime he left to go to the store. Worse, extortion gangs were sweeping up migrants all over town and holding them for ransom.
"It's hard to be a teenager here," his father said in an interview in November. "All around here gangsters are recruiting youngsters. We fled Honduras for the same reason, to escape the gangs. And the same thing is happening here."
Once again, father and son had a difficult choice to make — stay or go. So Marvin Sr. hugged his son, told him to trust in God, and sent him across the Gateway International Bridge.
Now Marvin Jr. has a chance.
His father, a husky 43-year-old former security guard, may not. He sat despondently in the Matamoros camp one afternoon in early February, as a compatriot fried eggs on a homemade grill.
That morning, Marvin Sr. put on his best set of donated clothes — white sneakers, jeans and a gray hoodie — and filed into a portable courtroom set up on the Texas side of the bridge to plead for asylum.
"The judge denied me everything," he says flatly. "He said my proof was not overwhelming."
"He said it's my son who is in danger, not me."
Marvin Sr. continues to live in a camping tent in the makeshift refugee camp, surrounded by clothes lines, cooking fires and desperation. He has no good choices left.
He can appeal his asylum denial, but he's not optimistic about a different outcome.
He can try to sneak across the Rio Grande and enter the U.S. illegally, but the Border Patrol is everywhere.
Or he can go back to Tegucigalpa where his wife, Maritza, works in a factory making clothes for $40 a week, and cares for their daughter, 10-year-old Judith. But he borrowed $2,500 to pay for the trip north, and he says if he doesn't pay it back he'll have to give up his collateral — their house.
"I have lots of debts in Honduras," he says. "I need to go to the U.S. to make some money."
The one bright spot is Marvin Jr.
"I miss not having him close. We've never been apart before," the father says, blinking back tears, "but I know that he's safe."
To date, some 60,000 asylum seekers like Marvin Zelaya Sr. are waiting in dangerous Mexican border cities while their cases play out. On Feb. 28, a federal appeals court in California blocked the administration policy known as Remain in Mexico, but later stayed that order. The case is expected to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
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