Their story—the one I was writing, and the one I had no power to write—had to have a happy ending. There was no other way. Juan Carlos Perla, a man of faith and a man of rules, insisted. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. His story, after all, is something of a parable about the crushing machinery of the Trump era’s immigration system. What’s more, we weren’t even at the ending.
It was early March, two days before he and his wife, Aracely, and their three young boys would finally be allowed to enter the United States. From the small room in a Tijuana church where the Salvadoran family had been living for the past nine months, Juan Carlos, 38 years old, was asking me what it feels like to fly.
“Now that I’m really nervous about. We’ve never been on an airplane before. Is it kind of like those rides at the county fair?” he asked. “You know, like the big ship one that rocks side to side? Because I can handle that.” His kids—Jeremías, 9; Carlos, 6; and Mateo, 3—were excited to get on a plane. His wife hadn’t said much about it. But as Juan Carlos admitted to me, he tends “to be a bit more of a nervous person than my wife, and right now I’m pretty nervous about all of this...I hope it all goes well. I know it will go well.”
There were other things to worry about first: All five of them had to test negative for covid-19. “Do they touch the back of your throat when they do the test? Does it hurt more when they put the stick up your nose?” Juan Carlos asked. They also had to isolate for a night in a Mexican government-run shelter, get processed by US Border Patrol, test negative again, and quarantine in a San Diego hotel. And then they could fly.
At that point, the Perlas, with just two suitcases in hand, would be allowed to stay, at least temporarily, in the United States and make their case for asylum. They’d spent the last two long, painful years trying to make that case remotely, to little effect, and moving from one limbo to the next. “It was two very heavy years,” Juan Carlos told me, “full of tears, persecution, pain, hunger, suffering, anguish, and racism against us from Mexico and the US.”
I had grown to expect this kind of openness from Juan Carlos when things were tough, and lighthearted jokes when he was feeling more optimistic. I met the Perlas in Tijuana in early 2019, the day before they first presented themselves for asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego. But instead of navigating the daunting and complicated US immigration system from inside the US, as the Perlas had expected when they left home, a Trump-era policy known as “Remain in Mexico” kept them south of the border while their asylum case moved through the courts north of it—a fate they shared with more than 70,000 people.
The Biden administration has since repealed the policy, and some people, like the Perlas—who were lucky enough to still have open and active cases—have been allowed into the US. But Remain in Mexico will nevertheless go down as one of the most significant policies of the Trump era. “We only know a fraction of the harm that the policy enacted on people because we only know the stories that were reported by journalists and that we were able to speak to,” said Robyn Barnard, the senior advocacy counsel with Human Rights First, which reported more than 800 cases of kidnapping, rape, assault, and torture of asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexican border cities in just the first year of the policy.
“We’re still in the thick of getting people out of harm’s way in Mexico,” Barnard added. “People who want us to create these barriers and walls to asylum seekers miss the point that people come here because they still see the United States as a beacon of hope and safety.”
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“We wanted everything to be done legally. We didn’t want to break any laws,” Juan Carlos told me. But, he said, “if I had known back then what I know now, we wouldn’t have waited to present ourselves at the port of entry. We would’ve just tried to cross illegally.”
“We thought we were doing the right thing,” he added.
Their saga began back in October 2018. Juan Carlos was reluctant to share too many details about how bad things were for them in his hometown because “you never know where these people are and I don’t know if they’ll read this in El Salvador.” He felt comfortable sharing only that he had been the victim of extortion in his bakery business and that his life and the lives of his family had been threatened.
“We left in the middle of the night with $500 in my pocket and scared,” Juan Carlos told me.
When they arrived at the Guatemala– Mexico border, they met a person who assured them he could help them navigate the river. But once it was time to cross, the smuggler “threatened me and told me to give him all my money,” Juan Carlos explained. “I didn’t have another option but to give it to him.”
They made it into Tapachula, the first Mexican city most migrants cross through on their way north, and met up with a large migrant caravan passing through. “It ended up being a blessing because we were able to get some support with food and milk and diapers for the kids,” Juan Carlos said. Mateo, the youngest, was then only 6 months old.
When the caravan left, Juan Carlos thought it’d be best for his family to do things by the book, to stay behind and wait for humanitarian visas from the Mexican government that would allow them to legally travel through the country.
The following two months were among the toughest stretches of their whole ordeal. At Trump’s request, Mexican government officials had increased enforcement efforts along the country’s southern border to try to deter those headed for the United States, which in turn created an environment of local resistance and discrimination toward migrants. Juan Carlos was able to work as a security guard for a few nights, hoping to make enough to feed his family for a week, but he stopped because he never got paid. They scrambled to get by, sometimes asking passersby for change. “People there called us names. They told my oldest kids that they would never give money to people like them and that they should go back to their country,” Juan Carlos told me. “My oldest son was so sad and after that he stopped begging for money.”
When the Mexican government finally issued their visas, the Perlas took buses, hitched rides, and walked until they made it to Tijuana in late January 2019.
Once at the border, Juan Carlos hoped he could quickly make his asylum case. But for about a year, US Customs and Border Protection officials had been telling asylum seekers that there wasn’t enough space at the ports of entry or enough agents to take them in for processing, so they had to wait south of the border. Trump, meanwhile, said the country was “full.”
Waitlists started informally at first, as nonprofits sought to give families a chance to leave the port of entry and go to a shelter for a warm meal and a shower without losing their place in line. But as the backlog grew, particularly in bigger cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, Mexican agencies took charge. And while US officials never assumed formal responsibility for these lists, they would call out how many people they’d admit every day: sometimes 10, sometimes 30, sometimes none at all.
After a few days in Tijuana, the Perlas were finally able to get on a waitlist. There were 2,000 numbers ahead of theirs. Juan Carlos was shocked; he’d known that requesting asylum wouldn’t be easy or simple, but he never anticipated he’d sit on a list, languishing for months before he could even speak with US officials.
While the Perlas were waiting for their turn in Tijuana, the Trump administration was launching an asylum deterrent program that would flip the whole system on its head. The Migrant Protection Protocols, the formal name for Remain in Mexico, was an unprecedented program whereby non-Mexican migrants seeking asylum in the United States were detained for a few days on the US side of the border only to be released back into Mexico with a piece of paper that had a date and time for a court appearance, condemning already vulnerable people to the streets of a foreign country with little to no support. Many people placed in mpp spoke only indigenous languages, putting them even more at risk of abuse in Mexican border cities.
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