President Trump wants to discourage asylum claims, as immigration courts deal with a backlog of more than 800,000 cases. Here are four of them.
They travelled thousands of kilometres and endured dangerous — and at times unimaginable — conditions on their journeys. They fled domestic violence, vengeful gangs, political opposition and laws that made their lives unbearable.
In droves, migrants have arrived at the United States' southern border claiming to have fled oppressive conditions in their home countries. Today, more than 800,000 await asylum proceedings that could put them on the path to American citizenship.
But in a memo this week intended to discourage migrants — most of whom began their treks in Central America — President Donald Trump ordered sweeping changes to the asylum process, an already byzantine system in which asylum-seekers often wait years for their cases to be adjudicated because of a bottleneck in the immigration courts.
Among the directives: Asylum-seekers would have to pay a fee to apply. And those who entered the country illegally would be barred from receiving work permits while their cases were adjudicated, which Trump said must happen within 180 days.
It could be months before the measures, which are likely to face legal challenges, take effect. Although only a small number of applicants ultimately win asylum, the orders could hurt those with legitimate claims, said critics of the directives.
We asked four people who are awaiting asylum hearings about their cases, and how they have fared in the United States.
"I cried of joy"
Name, age, country:
Wendy, 27, El Salvador
Asylum claim: Wendy said she and her son were sexually assaulted by gang members in retaliation for her brother's cooperation with law enforcement.
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Time in the United States: Three years
Work permit: Yes
In 2015, Wendy fled to the United States with her three children, including her 2-month-old daughter; she said she and her oldest child had been tied up and raped by gangs.
Wendy had to undergo reconstructive anal surgery, she said, and her son, who was 8 at the time, was severely traumatised. He continues to suffer from psychotic episodes and depression, which have led him to engage in acts of self-harm, she said. His hand bears scars from cutting himself with a plastic soda bottle.
In February, an immigration judge approved her asylum case, pending the completion of a biometric examination. Once her case is finalised, Wendy and her three children will be eligible for permanent legal residency in the United States.
"Oh my God, I cried of joy. I felt so happy. I felt grateful," said Wendy, who asked that neither her last name nor her son's name be published, for fear that her family could face retribution from MS-13 gang members. "We would die if we were forced to return to El Salvador. We had the need for protection from this country."
According to current immigration regulations, asylum-seekers are entitled to legally work in the United States once their asylum application has been pending for 180 days.
Wendy, who packs fruits and vegetables, said that working while her case was under review has meant feeding her family, paying rent and affording medication for her son.
Wendy's lawyer, Eileen Blessinger, said that many of her clients would have to rely on friends, family and charity if they were prohibited from working. Lack of income poses barriers to retaining a lawyer and obtaining a driver's license, and it compels people to work in the underground economy, she said.
"I am very distressed"
Name, age, country:
Mamadou, 41, Guinea
Asylum claim: Mamadou was a high-profile activist who was targeted by the opposition party in her country, and whose family endured violence as a result of his political opinions.
Time in the United States: Five years
Work permit: Yes
Government soldiers in Guinea who were determined to capture Mamadou poured scalding oil on his baby when they came searching for him in his family's home in 2015, he claimed. Mamadou was already in the United States, where he had applied for asylum.
If the activist, who lives in New York City, wins his case, his family can join him. But three years later, his case has not yet been reviewed by a judge.
"Every second, every day I fear for the safety of my child and wife," said Mamadou, who asked that his last name be withheld out of concern for his family. "I am very distressed. So much time has already passed, and the situation in my country is only getting worst."
His lawyer, Carmen Maria Rey, is confident that her client has a strong claim, if only it would be adjudicated.
"It became just a nightmare"
Name, age and country:
Denis Davydov, 32, Russia
Asylum claim: Davydov, who is gay and HIV-positive, left his country because LGBT individuals face increasingly harsh treatment there.
Time in the United States: 4 1/2 years
Work permit: Yes
Davydov, who is living in San Jose, California, has been waiting since the spring of 2015 for his asylum case to be heard. Two years ago, he was detained by customs agents who believed he had overstayed his visa. He was held in detention in Miami for 45 days before he was released. His next hearing is scheduled for July.
He said being an LGBT individual in Russia put him at risk of increasingly harsh treatment, from everyday discrimination on the street to threats and beatings. He said he had also struggled to receive adequate treatment for his illness.
"I was told in a clinic they could not give me any medication because they didn't have them. It was the last straw. It was devastating," he said. "As a teenager, I was always questioned and bullied for being gay. And I was beaten. But all these laws started coming in. Before you could hide, but now, everywhere, it is the most popular topic. It became just a nightmare."
Today, Davydov works as a certified sommelier.
"It makes me so happy," he said. "It is my dream."
"I would be going hungry"
Name, age, country:
Maria Meza, 40, Honduras
Asylum claim: Violence against her family.
Time in the United States: Four months
Work permit: No
Maria Meza was seeking a safe haven from gang violence in Honduras when she decided to journey north with a migrant caravan to Tijuana, Mexico, late last year.
In December, Meza and two of her daughters were among hundreds of asylum-seekers who were tear gassed by the Border Patrol as they approached the border. Officials said that the officers fired tear gas because the migrants were mounting an assault.
A photograph of Meza and her children fleeing plumes of tear gas went viral. Ultimately, she and her children were allowed to enter the United States through a port of entry at Otay Mesa, California, where they requested protection in the United States with the assistance of lawyers and members of Congress.
Immigration authorities fitted Meza with an ankle monitor to track her movements and issued her a notice to appear in court — on a date that has not been scheduled — so that she could formally request asylum.
She has been reporting every two weeks to Immigration and Customs Enforcement as required. However, until her case is filed with the court, she is not eligible for a work permit.
"I ask God to give me an opportunity for asylum," she said in an interview. While she waits, churches, synagogues and community organizations have provided her with financial assistance. "Without the support of all these people, I would be going hungry."
Written by: Miriam Jordan and Jose A. Del Real
Photographs by: Hannah Yoon and Callaghan O'Hare
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES