A Family Braves Floods, Rats, and Hunger in Tijuana as They Wait for a Chance to Ask for Asylum

“We want to cross the bridge and we want them to hear our claims,” said a Honduran man who joined others from the refugee caravans in a hunger strike.

Eric and Julian rest on a bed after months of sleeping in tents at the Hotel Belen, on December 9, 2018.
Eric and Julian rest on a bed at the Hotel Belen on Dec. 9, 2018, after months of sleeping in tents. Photo: Tracie Williams for The Intercept

Eric and his wife, Oneida, took turns pushing a stroller and carrying or walking next to their two sons for nearly 2,500 miles, from southern Mexico to Tijuana. The Honduran couple and their boys, 9-year-old Kelvin and 18-month-old Julian, arrived in mid-November, shortly before winter rainstorms soaked the camps of thousands of people who have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of refugee caravans in the last few months.

After sewage-infested flooding left an earlier camp uninhabitable, Eric and his family roughed it for 10 days in a small cluster of tents under a damp concrete overpass between two busy streets, a spot that also occasionally flooded. I found them just a couple hundred yards from the El Chaparral port of entry, one of the cross-border bridges that leads to the United States. Safety and a new chance at life seemed tantalizingly close, even as despondency and the damp Tijuana winter seeped into their tent.

Throughout the city, there are now an estimated 28 shelters housing approximately 4,000 members of the caravans, who are enduring hunger, unsanitary conditions, and anxiety about their fates as the Trump administration slashes options for asylum-seekers. Without easy access to bathrooms, water bottles filled with urine are stashed against walls and behind tents. Islands of trash swirl in puddles; sopping blankets and water-pulped cardboard pile up in corners. The refugees work to sweep up and clean, but struggle against the constant flux, the rains, and the cold. One day as I spoke with Eric, a driver passed by and yelled, “Go back to your country, faggots!” The insult was typical. A strip club sat about a dozen yards from the family’s tent, and on nights when it was open, the patrons sometimes mocked and cursed at them.

Each day around 7 a.m., a couple hundred people idle near the bridge, awaiting the morning call of the now infamous “notebook” — a makeshift response to U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s practice of “metering,” in which they let only a few dozen people each day into the U.S. port of entry to request asylum. A committee of refugees manages the list, overseen by Mexican immigration officials who are informed each morning by CBP how many asylum-seekers may present their claims. Eric’s number was in the 1,500s, and he estimated that he’d have to wait at least another month before his number might be called. On November 29, a group of mothers began a hunger strike, demanding that CBP permit at least 300 people a day to stake their claims. Eric and Oneida joined the strikers two days later (to protect their security and privacy, The Intercept is using pseudonyms for the family.)

As we sat at a folding table set up in the street, which served as the hunger strikers’ headquarters, I asked Eric why he had left his home in Honduras, about his experience with the caravan, and why he’d joined the strike.

Eric, silhouetted from the harsh mid-morning light, reads a passage from a abridged bible that was donated to the camp on December 8, 2018.

Eric, silhouetted from the harsh, mid-morning light, reads a passage from a donated Bible on Dec. 8, 2018.

Photo: Tracie Williams for The Intercept

“I worked in Danlí selling fruit, bags of strawberries, grapes, watermelon,” Eric began. “I cut it up and sold it. I had a cart and I would walk from neighborhood to neighborhood. But because of the crime, the gangs, I had to leave my business. They wanted taxes. If you enter into a neighborhood, you have to pay. I had to pay 25 lempiras [about a dollar] to enter into a neighborhood, but in some neighborhoods, there were three different competing gangs, and I had to pay 75 lempiras. I’d make about 200 lempiras a day, so almost half went to them.

It’s pretty dangerous, you can’t avoid paying. All you can do is stop negotiating and stop working. But if you stop working, you can’t eat, and you can’t raise your kids. And with the 200, maybe 300 [lempiras], I had to take care of my family. I had to buy shoes for my kid. My son was going to school. So maybe I could eat, but how am I going to buy clothes, buy shoes for my sons? My kids need medicine. If one of them gets sick …”

The family decided to move, selling much of what they owned — the fruit cart, some furniture, their pig — and relocating to a neighboring state, where Eric found work clearing land for coffee growers. Oneida sold French fries at local fairs. One night, Oneida was kidnapped as she was leaving work, taken to the home of a local narco, and raped. When she didn’t come home, Eric called the police, suspecting the worst. The next morning, the police located Oneida (her kidnapper had been harassing her and was the first person Eric had suspected) and she was able to escape. “It changes you forever,” Oneida said. “There are scars you have inside. You try to live with it and try not to remember, so you can be at peace.” After her testimony led to a conviction, gang members began hounding the family, pressuring Oneida to retract her statement. It got bad enough that they soon had to flee again, this time to the capital, Tegucigalpa. But that didn’t prove far enough, Eric said.

“We never felt good in Mexico where we were. We never felt safe. So I told my wife, the caravan is coming, it’s time to go.”

“They found us. They started calling again to get us to retract the charges. They were going to give us 60,000 lempiras. They started talking to us, and then they started calling my dad, who was living with us in Tegucigalpa. My dad told them, ‘You can’t buy someone’s dignity with money. It’s with respect.’ And that’s when they said, ‘OK, this is when we stop playing nice, and we start playing mean.’ That’s when they started threatening us, telling us they had found us. They knew where our family lived. And where we were from. And if they didn’t get us, they were going to get our brothers and sisters, our parents. So we decided to flee to Mexico. We moved to Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas. The situation there is pretty difficult because the Guatemalan gangs are there, and so are the narcos.”

Kelvin and Oneida watch news on television about the Central American Exodus while Eric and Julian play in the background in their room at Hotel Belen, on December 9, 2018.

Kelvin and Oneida watch news on television about the Central American exodus, while Eric and Julian play in their room at Hotel Belen on Dec. 9, 2018.

Photo: Tracie Williams for The Intercept

The narcos who had been harassing them back in Honduras originally showed up at Eric’s mother-in-law’s house: “They came in a truck, the same ones who kidnapped her [Oneida]. They have contacts everywhere. They were asking where we were. And they were asking our neighbors, wanting to pay them off. And so, this is like six months ago. … I was working in an egg warehouse, where you inspect and sell eggs wholesale. So we thought to move again, maybe outside the city. So we moved to La Libertad, another part of Ciudad Hidalgo. And then we saw that the caravan was coming, and I said to my wife, ‘Look, we have an opportunity now to go further north where they can’t find us.’ And it’s safer to go with the caravan, because we all know that in Mexico, it’s hard for Central Americans to go further north than Tapachula [in Chiapas]. We never felt good in Mexico where we were. We never felt safe. So I told my wife, the caravan is coming, it’s time to go.”

Traveling with the caravan, Eric said, “some people were generous and offered us rides. I’d say we walked about halfway and rode halfway. Some days, we walked all day. Some men came by themselves, without kids or wives, and when a car would stop, they would get on and there wouldn’t be enough space for me and my kids. There were times when they left everyone but us. We wanted to follow the caravan, but sometimes they left us behind. They’d jump on the trucks, and there wasn’t room for us, and we would be by ourselves. Night would come on and we’d look for a spot in the woods where nobody could find us, because there are always bad people. There were some really long walks, and so we’d hide in the mountains, by ourselves. Because we couldn’t keep walking at night, we were scared we’d get kidnapped. We didn’t have a tent or anything, just some blankets.”

Eric, Oneida and Kelvin walk back to the Hunger Striker camp after they receive news that they can move to a church the next day, on December 9, 2018.

The family walks back to the hunger strikers’ camp after they receive news that they can move to a church the next day.

Photo: Tracie Williams for The Intercept

Eric had first heard about the caravan on TV while the family was in Chiapas.

“I would work from six in the morning until 10 or 11 at night. They paid me 1,000 pesos a week [a little under $50] to work seven days a week. So at night, I’d watch this secondhand TV we had. We didn’t have cable, but we had a little antenna and watched Guatemalan TV, and I said, ‘Look, the Honduran caravan is coming, it’s time to get out of here. Time to go.’ We left because of our kids, we really love them. I don’t want something to happen to me and for our kids to be abandoned. So let’s go, I said. So the caravan passed through Tecún Uman [on the border between Guatemala and Chiapas] and that’s where we joined. We sometimes put both our kids in that stroller or my wife would carry the littlest one, and that’s how we did it. It was pretty difficult because we didn’t have any money.

I went to my boss, before we left, who was the municipal president, and I said, ‘Boss, honestly …,’ OK, I lied to her, I said that I was sick, because otherwise she wasn’t going to pay me. So she paid me just for the days that I worked that week. She gave me 492 pesos. I bought a bag of dried milk that cost 72 pesos, and we bought some diapers for 30 pesos, and we packed the milk and some sugar, and we had about 200 pesos left.

In the morning, we’d get up and start walking again. I remember when we got to Juchitán [in Oaxaca], we started asking for money, with my wife and kids, and we got about 400 pesos. The Mexicans were nice to us. Then a truck trailer passed and offered us a ride for 500 pesos each, and I said, OK, but I don’t have it. I told him we had 452 pesos. And finally he did take us, he gave us a ride to Puebla, outside of Mexico City, and then we got to Mexico City at like 11 at night, and it was so cold. … It was freezing, we were sleeping outside in the city. I couldn’t sleep at night, because of my wife and kids with me. I was always looking over them, but during the day, sometimes I could sleep a little. It was a lot of suffering, but sometimes we laughed.”

Oneida embraces her head in her hands while she talks on the phone in front of the Hunger Striker camp on December 9, 2018.

Oneida holds her head in her hands while talking on the phone in front of the hunger strikers’ camp on Dec. 9, 2018.

Photo: Tracie Williams for The Intercept

When Eric joined the hunger strike, there were about 25 people involved. The strike, he said, was “to pressure the U.S. to start hearing asylum claims more quickly.”

“We need asylum,” he continued. “We don’t want to be sent back to our country. We need it. We don’t want them to kill us. In Honduras, you never forget. Revenge is revenge. They’d just disappear us. That’s what happens if you have an enemy. We’re just working people. I’ve sold bread, I’ve cleared land, I’ve taken care of animals, and sometimes I wonder, why did this happen to us? If I’m in Honduras, if I can earn enough for my eggs, my tortilla, my rice, I’m happy. But why did this happen to us? Sometimes I ask my wife, Why us? I’m happy living in a small hut, selling fruit. But like they say, out of the frying pan and into the fire. Horrible things happen — it’s the law of life.

“We’re not criminals, we’re not gangsters or thieves. No, we want to cross the bridge and we want them to hear our claims.”

It’s bad luck. I think we’ve had bad luck. Because like I say, poverty doesn’t exist for me. As long as you can earn your rice and beans, you can be happy. But then the injustice, the danger, people want to kill you — that’s bad luck. Maybe we’ll never even see our family again. My aunts and uncles, my grandmother is very old and you know. My brothers. My mother, my father, we’ve all been affected.

We’re not criminals, we’re not gangsters or thieves. No, we want to cross the bridge and we want them to hear our claims. If I were a criminal, if my wife was a criminal, if we were all criminals here, we’d be trying to do something else, but we just want them to listen to us. We want to come in legally, so they can hear our claims. I think it’s possible. With the help of God, I think it’s possible.”

When we spoke, Eric had already been fasting for three days. “Just electrolytes and water. I feel bad. I get tired. The hunger is … you have to bear it. You get used to it. Some people haven’t eaten in five days.”

Eric, Oneida, Kelvin and Julian share the back seat of a taxi to the hospital on December 6, 2018.
In the foreground, Eric holds open the palm of his son’s hand, revealing four bite marks from a rat found in the tent shared with his wife Oneida, eldest son Julian and a friend the night before on December 6, 2018. La Negra, a dog adopted by one of the fellow Hunger Strikers while on the caravan, sleeps in the background.

Left/Top: Eric, Oneida, Kelvin, and Julian share the back seat of a taxi to the hospital. Right/Bottom: Eric holds open the palm of his son’s hand, revealing four bite marks from a rat found in the family's tent. Photos: Tracie Williams for The Intercept

It started raining again during the strike. Outside of one camp, an old baseball stadium called Benito Juárez, men and women dashed to scavenge for whatever scraps of plastic or waterproof material they could find. Parents hugged their children, trying to shelter them from the pounding rain and rising puddles. UNICEF came to deliver supplies, but their truck was full of toys and hula-hoops.

After five days, Eric decided to eat. He wasn’t feeling well and was worried about losing strength for his family. Oneida had stopped the strike the night before. Others continued, and the strikers planned to go forward in shifts of five days without food. Conditions in the camp were rough — the night that Eric broke his fast, a rat bit his youngest son’s hand as the family slept in their tent.

“We made a little lean-to, but it was freezing, and then the storm came and everything flooded, everything was wet, our clothes, we were so cold.”

“Before, we were in the Benito Juárez stadium. At first it was nice, but then the storms came, and the water, and everything flooded. We didn’t have a tent. Then some man came and gave us a tent. He saw us outside, we had wet blankets, and we made a little lean-to, but it was freezing, and then the storm came and everything flooded, everything was wet, our clothes, we were so cold. We didn’t have anything else to put on. The water was up to our knees, the camp was evacuated, and they wanted to take us to the Barretal [another refugee camp]. It’s further, but we heard about the strike, and we didn’t want to go farther away from the border.

So we’re here, we’ve been here 15 days, and I’ve been trying to get a work permit, but they’re not giving it to me. And, honestly, I’ve been looking for work anyway, but they ask for my papers. I heard that there was a job fair, and I went, and they said they were going to give out permits, and we kept going and going, but we never got the permit, and I got tired of going for nothing. And at all the construction sites, they always ask for your papers. I say, ‘I’m looking for work, I need something to support my wife and kids, and I don’t want to be in the street, I want to rent a room.’ ‘Do you have papers?’ they ask me.”

Eric rest his arms on his head during his security shift on the Hunger Striker camp on December 8, 2018.

Eric rest his arms over his head during his security shift at the hunger strikers’ camp on Dec. 8, 2018.

Tracie Williams for The Intercept

After nearly two weeks, the hunger strikers’ situation seemed increasingly precarious. Rumors circulated that the police were going take down the strikers’ camp, and they began to realize that their demands were being wholly ignored. Eric and Oneida decided to stop, and the strike ended two days later, on December 11, with a march to the U.S. Consulate. The family lugged their belongings and pushed the stroller across the city to a small hotel; they had been gifted a room for two nights. About a week later, I got a call from Oneida. Like many others, the family had run out of patience and jumped the border fence to turn themselves in and ask for asylum. Oneida and the children were being held in detention in San Diego; Eric had been separated from them.

As nonprofit groups have mobilized on both sides of the wall to provide legal and other basic services to families like Eric’s, the sheer number of people and variety of needs seems overwhelming. Yet, when the clouds break, the mood in the camps is often cheerful: kids playing, folks kicking around soccer balls, people repairing their tents, and ubiquitous huddles of three, four, or five migrants in which rumors, plans, fears, and hopes run together like water.

At one point, while the family was still camped out under the bridge, Eric and Oneida’s 9-year-old son pointed to the buildings visible on the U.S. side of the border and said that he had never imagined he would be there, so close to the U.S. I asked him why he thought some people could cross and others couldn’t. “I think it’s bad,” he said, “because God made a world without borders and they put up bars.”

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