LOS ANGELES (CN) – Gang violence forced Alexander Antonio Burgos Mejia and his family to flee Honduras. Now seeking asylum 2,300 miles north of his home village, he lives alone in a church recreation room converted into an apartment in Long Beach, California.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church opened its doors to Mejia, 29, just before Christmas 2017, after he bonded out of a federal detention facility. Mejia says he was beaten by prison guards for staging a hunger strike with seven other men.
He’s grateful to have a home now despite what he went through.
“Asylum has looked like a second opportunity at life,” Mejia said in Spanish in an interview. “Even though the government seems to have closed its doors on me the church has opened its doors, so I can have an opportunity of a better life.”
Mejia and church members do not go into detail about a pending federal lawsuit over his treatment at the detention facility or the hearing in immigration court to determine if he can stay in the country. An email and multiple phone messages to his attorneys were not answered.
All Mejia would say of the beatings he received at for-profit prison manager GEO Group’s facility in Adelanto, California, is it’s odd someone fleeing violence would be met with violence.
“I see the injustice that if you’re escaping your own country out of violence to get a better life and then you’re going to be treated worse than a criminal – it’s just not right,” said Mejia. He added the guards ignored the medical needs of most of the men at the facility.
Federal authorities detained Mejia when he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2017 and requested asylum. The avenue through which refugees can receive asylum has narrowed under the Trump administration. In June, the Justice Department limited the definition for who can receive asylum and reasons of “personal crimes,” including domestic and gang violence, were removed.
Out of fear Mejia does not repeat the name of the gangs he fled because he does not want anything to happen to his family still in Honduras. The last time Mejia called home he learned his father was kicked off his property because the family was being forced to pay impuesto de guerra – war tax – to the gang.
Mejia said refugees who are sent back to Honduras are often killed by gangs.
“Not just killed,” Mejia said. “Tortured.”
Honduras has had one of the highest murder rates in the world for nearly a decade, according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council. That’s begun leveling off in the last year due to a crackdown by government officials against the drug trade. Still, many who witnessed crimes carried out by drug traffickers flee the country.
Mejia and his girlfriend broke up just before he crossed the border. He said she and their two children live in Charleston, South Carolina, with her relatives. He has family in New York but does not have contact with them.
He and seven other men sued the federal government, the GEO Group and the city of Adelanto in June 2017 on claims of civil rights violations. They say guards beat them when they staged a hunger strike to protest living conditions at the prison.
“GEO guards slammed Mr. [Omar Arnoldo] Rivera Martinez’s face against a wall and knocked out his dental crown and tooth, as well as a 14-tooth gold mouthpiece that lined his bottom row of teeth. The guards also broke Mr. Rivera Martinez’s nose,” the men recount in their complaint. “Five months after the attack, a doctor finally evaluated Mr. Rivera Martinez and concluded that he must undergo surgery for his severely fractured nose.”
They say they were issued underwear that was “dirty and unwashed, having previously been worn by other detainees” and complain of “foul, nearly inedible meals,” lack of “clean, safe drinking water” and interference when trying to contact their attorneys.
Additionally, they say guards pepper-sprayed them and placed them in solitary confinement for 10 days. During that time, they were forced into scalding showers which reactivated the pepper spray, according to their complaint.
In an answer to their lawsuit, the city of Adelanto denied the men’s accusations. A representative for the GEO Group called the men’s claims “completely baseless” and said the treatment they received was “reviewed by U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement which found that the officers acted in accordance with established protocol.”
But an August 2017 story by the Los Angeles Times reported multiple suicides and attempted suicides at the Adelanto facility, which can house nearly 2,000 men and women. Adelanto is about 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The faith-based group Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) reached out to the men during their hunger strike and collected donations for their bonds. Mejia’s bond had been set at $9,000.
Following his release, Mejia moved into St. Luke’s and is waiting for a hearing before an immigration judge who will determine if he can stay in the United States.
Mejia’s apartment in Long Beach looks out on a courtyard at the church, his room a converted recreation space with bed, kitchen and a desk. Rev. Nancy Frausto at St. Luke’s said the church is the only Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles currently housing an asylum-seeker.
Together, Frausto and Mejia walk to his apartment through a hallway that smells of soap. The church hosts a weekly service where homeless people can shower and receive other amenities; the bank of showers is adjacent to Mejia’s apartment.
“His place here has no conditions of him working, but Alex wants to and it helps us,” said Frausto.
Mejia volunteers with the church and takes classes to learn English at a local community college. Because of his status he’s not allowed to work, so church members donate time, food and clothing. He’s also invited out for dinner by congregants and says he just can’t sit still.
“I want to make myself useful. To work,” said Mejia. If he’s allowed to stay in the United States he wants to study medicine.
St. Luke’s congregant Ann Burdette helped secure Mejia’s release from federal custody. She said the situation was a struggle for her because while Mejia was fitted with a GPS ankle monitor, immigration bail company Libre by Nexus gave her the contract only in Spanish. Burdette said she wanted to read through the document at her leisure, because the terms of the $450 monthly rental fee for the monitor were not clear to her. A phone call to Libre by Nexus for comment was not returned.
“It was an arduous process, because someone like Alex could have been taken advantage of. You’d probably sign anything to get out of a prison if you could,” said Burdette in a phone interview.
She said Mejia has the support of a church community, people who want to see him succeed.
“Basically, what I want to do is make sure that the immigration judge sees that Alex has our support. And that he’s part of a community now, a real asset,” said Burdette.