SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) — By now, the young couple thought they'd be in the United States. Somewhere, anywhere, in the United States. They thought they'd have jobs — he'd work construction, maybe she'd be a waitress. They thought they'd be safe. They thought they'd have asylum.
Instead, a U.S. immigration judge swiftly denied their asylum requests. The Trump administration, in making asylum an increasingly remote possibility for everyone, had closed the door on them.
In early August, immigration officials escorted the couple onto a chartered airliner packed with deportees that flew them back to this industrial city in one of the world's most dangerous countries.
They were home, back in a two-room apartment in the dusty San Pedro Sula neighborhood of Rivera Hernandez.
There was nowhere more frightening.
"They own Rivera Hernandez. The gangs own it," said the wife, a driven, barely educated daughter of farmworkers who had promised herself as a little girl that she would escape the drudgery of itinerant field work. She, like most deportees living underground in Honduras, spoke on condition that her and her husband's names not be used, fearing retribution by gangs. "They own the whole place. They walk around freely."
MS-13. Mara 18. Los Vatos Locos — The Crazy Guys. The gangs’ shifting lines of control dodge and weave through Rivera Hernandez, a place where even the police are afraid. Here, nearly every business pays el impuesto de guerra — the war tax — extortion payouts that can range from a couple dollars a week for a sidewalk vendor to thousands of dollars a month for a large company.
Everyone knows what happens to people who don't pay. They know about the men shot in the back of the head in broad daylight, the kidnapped daughters of business owners raped and tortured before being killed. They know about the bloody bags found alongside San Pedro Sula’s roads, spilling out with corpses and body parts.
The gangs want people to know these stories. Fear is profitable.
Before they left for United States, the young couple had opened a tiny grocery store near a Rivera Hernandez intersection. After a few months, they were forced to start paying war tax to Mara 18. The amounts rose and rose until they couldn't pay anymore. Fearing for their lives, they fled to the United States, the safest place they could think of.
After being denied asylum, they were sent back.
Life as a Deportee
"Why did you leave?" a Mara 18 member demanded angrily after they returned. "Why did you leave your business? Why aren't you making any money for us anymore?"
Their pleas of poverty went unheard.
"I thought we would cross over" to the United States, she said. "Our plan was to work until we could come back and build a house, and a new business. But not in that neighborhood. In a different place where it might be less controlled by gangs and criminals."
Then she began to weep.
While asylum has always been a long shot for immigrants, with most claims denied, it has become even harder in the Trump administration, which has focused on making asylum increasingly difficult — some would say nearly impossible — to get.