REYNOSA, Mexico- Two families are seeking safety in the United States; one from Honduras and the other from El Salvador.
Each family has six members. Both left home the same week of May 2016 due to death threats from local gangs. They made their way across Central America and Mexico to reach the international bridge that separates Mexico from Hidalgo, Texas. They'll seek asylum in the United States.
Both families have tried twice and, in each case, were sent back to the Mexican side. They say Border Patrol agents did not listen to them or even bother to check their documents; agents ignored their stories of threats, disappearances, rapes and deaths of close relatives.
Each time, the agents said the same thing: "I can't take anyone except Cubans."
A wave of Cuban immigrants has intensified in the past year. At the bridge, dozens of Cubans wait each day to be seen at the Border Patrol office. By law, Cuban citizens can go to any port of entry to the United States, pass a background inspection and be allowed to enter the country. After three months they can work, and after a year they can apply for permanent residency.
For Central Americans who are victims of violence and corruption in their countries, asylum is their only hope to stay in the United States. But few applicants are let in.
In recent weeks, the detention of Central Americans has increased due to higher numbers of illegal border crossings. As a result, the government has had to mobilize resources. However, the number of Central Americans trying to enter legally has also increased, according to Manuel Padilla, chief of the Border Patrol in Rio Grande Valley.
Central Americans hope to receive a temporary permit to enter the country until a judge can hear their case in a U.S. immigration court.
The Border Patrol, which is in charge of all entry points to the country, told Univision that it is not in charge of granting asylum or determining the validity of fears. That is the responsibility of an immigration agent. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website explains that asylum is granted when people come to the country after suffering or fearing persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.
Cubans are eligible for a unique process under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. In the first 11 months of 2016, 50,000 Cubans entered the United States through various ports of entry, according to official figures.
A dead son, a disappeared grandson
Documents were not enough for Juan, 62, who was rejected by Border Patrol agents. Those documented a report of his grandson’s disappearance and the death certificate of his son Alberto.
For the last three years, the shadow of gangs hung over life in Honduras. His family was forced to move homes multiple times.
The Salvatrucha gang repeatedly demanded money from one of his daughters - a so-called “rent” - and, when she couldn't pay, they tried to recruit her. Frightened, Melania, 24, left for the United States on her own, where she’s been living illegally since 2014.
“They tried to get another member of the family,” said Juan. They recruited his grandson, a teenager who lived in a violent city neighborhood.
In May 2015, Juan saw his nephew Alberto for the last time.
They searched for him in hospitals, police offices, and rehabilitation centers. The child's mother, terrified, left to Europe. Now the family only carries the report of Alberto's disappearance.
Months later, three teens approached Alberto: “Stop looking for your nephew,” he recalled them saying. It was now Alberto's turn to work for the gang, they told him.
Alberto decided to escape north and find his sister in the United States. He managed to cross the bridge over the Rio Grande, but was promptly apprehended. According to his immigration documents, he spent a few months in Pearsall, Texas, before he was deported in December 2015.
His father recalled knowing with certainty: “If they send my son to Honduras, he’s a dead man, because of the problems with the gangs.”
Sure enough: he arrived in Honduras on December 22, 2015, spent Christmas with his family and then planned a second attempt to cross the U.S. border. He was murdered on the street February 29, 2016.
The forensic analysis said he was found with three shots: in the neck, collarbone and head.
The family said another 18-year-old relative was recuited, and their house was under the watch of the gang.
“One night we had to leave suddenly. We left chickens, dogs, cats and our house with everything inside,” one relative said. The property was taken by the gang, the family said.
They crossed Mexico in stages, working construction jobs, begging for food, and managing to hitchhike north until they reached Reynosa, one of the most violent drug cartel hotspots. They are waiting to make a third attempt to cross the international bridge.
In all, they are a father, a mother, two children and two grandchildren. They don’t want to try illegally crossing the Rio Grande with the help of the coyotes. “They charge $800 per person and we’re six. Imagine, that’s not money we have,” said one of the sons.
“You have one night to flee the country”
The Salvadoran family doesn’t want to cross the Rio Grande either. “It’s too dangerous for minors,” said Araceli, the mother, 42. They want the Border Patrol to hear their case for a legal entry.
On May 16, 2016, the family fled El Salvador. “Two men with guns came to our house and told us they were going to kill us. Since we were evangelicals, they told us they would give us a few hours to flee the country," one of them explained. "Don’t dare to be here tomorrow morning," they were told.
The family took clothes and the children's birth certificates, and left everything else behind. They took the first bus north.
It was revenge, said the mother: “They wanted to recruit our kids into the gang," she said, pointing to her 15 year-old daughter who she said was raped by a gang member for refusing to join.
The mother broke down in tears as her daughter watched and listened, hiding her own emotions. The husband, Alberto, 57, described the dangerous journey across Guatemala and Mexico: a gang member followed the family from El Salvador and found them in Tapachula, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, close to the Guatemalan border.
“He came and pointed at me, he had a gun in his hand. He was arrested there,” recalled the father.
The Mexican authorities gave the family a travel document to allow them to continue their journey north. They made their way across Mexico, from shelter to shelter, working in fields to earn money, until they reached Reynosa.
During their first attempt to cross the international bridge, Mexican migration officers rejected them. They "treated us like dogs,” one of the family members said.
They said they will try again.