Asking is strength and giving is will

At the border they told him, "We don't want you here" because he is in a wheelchair. In Honduras they told him, "We will kill you one by one."

He is 31 and in the United States now after a few months spent wheeling his wheelchair across two continents to make it here. I met him at a shelter in Juárez, where he was separated from the other migrants because he had an infection, and the 100 or so people sleeping, eating and living on the floor of a basketball court next to his small room could have made him more sick with their combined humanity. A day after we met, volunteers came to the shelter and took him to Paso Del Norte, the main bridge spanning Juárez and El Paso where migrants are beginning to pile up as the Trump administration continues to restrict people from claiming asylum as much as possible.

He came to America because the gangs in his hometown in Honduras threatened to kill him and his family. Also, in America he may be able to make enough of a living to afford the medication that keeps the infection away, the infection that required him to have two surgeries in recent weeks in an American hospital that can properly deal with such things. In America, he may be able to get a job even though he can’t walk. Where he is from, there are no jobs for people who are in wheelchairs.

His lifelong best friend was with him on this journey, but now he is gone because he tried to get food for him, and when he came back the Mexican immigration authorities had deported him. He name is Rubén (1) and he is a Godly man who believes with his whole heart in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Even though his life has been hard, his faith sustains him. He has witnessed much violence and lived in fear for most of his life in Honduras; many people in this country think that’s not enough of a reason to be allowed to live here. President Trump himself says people like Rubén shouldn’t be believed.

His supporters cheer this because they don’t listen to stories like the one I am about to tell you.

***

Rubén is one of six boys and was born in a town in Honduras not far from the border with Guatemala. In the mid-2000s he came to the United States and ended up in the panhandle of Texas, working as a roofer and eventually marrying an American woman. One day he was riding in a car with a friend when they struck another car by accident in a gas station parking lot. When the police arrived they found out Rubén was undocumented so they arrested him, and he was eventually deported.

There, he worked whatever odd labor jobs he could find. Then, he wrecked a motorcycle he was riding, paralyzing him from the mid-chest down. It’s possible his injuries wouldn’t have been as severe had he been in America when the accident occurred — medical care in Honduras is nothing like it is here. “If you go to a hospital, you might be damaged more,” he says. That’s what happened to his younger brother, who died in the hospital after going there with a minor illness. “They did not take care of him,” Rubén says. Rubén’s father was more lucky. He survived after being shot four times in the stomach and lives with plastic intestines inside of him.

The crime is bad in Rubén’s hometown but not as bad as elsewhere in Honduras. Still, Rubén says the narcos and criminals basically run his town, killing with impunity. After his accident Rubén thought often about coming back to America  but the journey seemed impossible — 2,000 miles of open country, sometimes inhospitable towns, dangerous crossing routes patrolled by gangs who would take you for everything you had and then take you for ransom when you had nothing left.

Then, two years ago the violence came directly to Rubén, forcing him to make a drastic decision.

His brother and step brother were sleeping on the front porch when the bullets came. His step brother never woke up because of the two bullets that went into his chest and the one that entered his head. The shots woke Rubén’s brother and he started running, so he lived.

But neither the brother nor the step brother were the intended targets, Rubén says. The gangbangers got the wrong house. Rubén’s father started telling people in the neighborhood that he knew who did the shooting. So the gangbangers came to Rubén and his father and told them that if they kept talking, they would also be killed.

“We will kill you one by one,” the gangbangers said.

At that point, Rubén’s life consisted of sitting around the house and watching a lot of TV, almost all news. Some days he’d go to the store and get the money his relatives in America were sending back to him so he could buy the food and medicine he needed to survive. But the rest of the time was spent mostly at home, watching the news — and the news was constantly talking about the caravans.

The news mentioned the logistics of the caravans, and how a new one planned to form in Guatemala after smaller groups from elsewhere in Central America trekked there. But the news came with a warning: it was hard to make it and it was not going to be easy. For all the talk of liberal groups helping, encouraging and even funding caravans — remember the brief and ridiculous spat about Beto O’Rourke supposedly paying to transport Honduran migrants to the border? — Rubén says the news was trying to dissuade people like him from making the trip.

But he was determined, so, with his best friend who is his cousin and maybe 500 others from the town, he joined up. Whoever had food and water on any given day shared it. People in towns along the way sometimes gave the migrants in the caravan sustenance. They walked dozens of miles each day. With his cousin’s help, Rubén made it to Piedras Negras, on the border with Texas, in a few weeks.

That’s where we first saw evidence that the Mexican government was doing Trump’s dirty work by preventing migrants from even reaching the border to apply for asylum. It’s where Rubén spent a few weeks before the buses came and the migrants were shipped all across Mexico, because the government needed to do something after all the bad news about Piedras Negras and what was happening there.

A bus took him to Juárez, and to the little room in the back of a gymnasium where he lay by himself to avoid getting sicker. We met him there on a Tuesday afternoon.

***

It is a very difficult thing to watch someone cry. It is more difficult when they are crying because you have just asked them a question that brings up something painful. But this is the job and it must be done, which means it was not an easy thing to watch Rubén cry as he recounted the story of his cousin being deported back to Honduras because he’d been mistaken for one of the migrants who had protested conditions at Piedras Negras.

“He is more like a brother to me,” Rubén said that day in the room you see above, and the tears came quickly.

The next day, Rubén’s fortunes changed. A migrant advocacy organization called Grupos Beta came to the shelter and, without any prior notice, put Rubén in an ambulance and took him to the border. The paramedics said nothing on the way there. Along with a few other migrants whose number had reached the top of the list of those waiting at shelters in Juárez to apply for asylum, members of Grupos Beta wheeled Rubén up the steep incline of the Paso Del Norte bridge and toward the apex, where an invisible line separates worlds. He told the border agents there that he wanted to apply for political asylum.

“Do you have fear?” was the first question they asked. He told them that, yes, he most certainly had fear.

Then they held him in a room with a dozen other migrants for three days.

“Why are you coming here? We don’t want you here. You cannot work.” an officer told Rubén, noting his disability. “Here, everything is money.”

The tears came again.

It was a Mexican-American officer who told him this. Her name is Belinda Ramos.

Ramos then tried to trick Rubén into admitting he’d been previously deported by officers in El Paso. This had never happened but Ramos knew if she tricked Rubén into saying it then it would be more difficult for him to obtain asylum.

“You’ve been deported before,” Ramos said, motioning to another Mexican-American officer. “He was the one who deported you,” she lied.

After Ramos left, the second officer, whose last name is Quintana, came and reminded Rubén that he is not worthy of being in America.

“We don’t want you here. You cannot work,” Quintana said.

“If I go to Honduras, nobody will give me anything,” he told Rubén. “I have to work.”

Quintana then quoted the Bible, or what he wrongly thinks is a quote from the Bible.

“Help but yourself and I will help you,” Quintana said, repeating a variation of “God helps those who help themselves,” which is not in the Bible and runs counter to Christ’s mission of giving comfort and aid to all, regardless of their abilities and talents.

This made Rubén cry, but he was not afraid anymore because he is a strong believer in Jesus Christ, and he knows that he is a Godly man.

“Pedir es fuerza y dar es voluntad,” he told Quintana.

“Asking is strength and giving is will.”

Then Quintana went away.

***

In the middle of a night after three days sleeping on a pad in a cold, cement block of a room, the officers took Rubén away. First, he went to a hospital, where he was treated for his infection and was able to finally reach his family. Soon, they had purchased him a bus ticket to a plains state, where he is staying with a family friend while he waits for his day in court.

He has been given an “order for expedited removal,” which means the government wants to deport him. Rubén hasn’t yet had his credible fear interview, the most important part of any asylum case. If he passes and is given what is called a “positive credible fear determination,” he’ll need to get a lawyer to have any chance at winning asylum and staying in America.

With a lawyer, Rubén’s chances of obtaining asylum are five times higher, according to the National Immigration Council, which notes that 90 percent of applicants without an attorney were denied asylum in 2017. Only about 37 percent of all immigrants — which includes asylum-seekers — are able to to gain access to a lawyer, according to a 2016 study.

Rubén is not automatically provided with a lawyer under the current make-up of the immigration court system. If he is able to obtain one, he’ll likely have to make what’s called a family-based particular social group (PSG) claim. This type of asylum claim means that Rubén — the asylee — is trying to convince the court that he has been targeted or threatened because of his membership in a particular social group, in this case his family. Other particular social groups include members of the LGBTQ community, police officers, political dissidents — and not the false ones that so many in this country believe they represent — and many others. Of course, since the immigration court system is not independent and is part of the Department of Justice, which itself an arm of the executive branch and therefore subject to a given president’s political whims, family-based PSG claims are being targeted by the Attorney General’s office for removal from acceptable asylum claims.

In this way, the category of acceptable asylum-seekers gets more and more narrow. Former Mexican police officers who were threatened by gangs don’t count, journalists threatened by gangs and police don’t count, and domestic violence victims shouldn’t count, the Justice Department maintains and a judge has disagreed with.  Only the “perfect victim,” an improbable category of asylum-seeker who has spoken out directly and publicly against the government or a political party, and was directly and with evidence threatened by that entity, qualify these days. Many others — 59,557 of the 92,828 whose cases have been decided since Trump took office — don’t quite count. (2)

Without a lawyer, Rubén will likely become a member of that first category and sent back to Honduras. There is just one immigration attorney in Tulsa who is currently accepting asylum cases. Rubén needs $100 for the initial consultation, which is already taken care of. But he’ll need more money than that if the lawyer takes his case. He will also need money to pay for some of his medical and living expenses, which may include large bills from two surgeries he has had in recent weeks to take care of the infection.  

The first thing he did when he got out of surgery was write a Facebook post that praised God for helping him. He hasn’t asked for any help in trying to get a lawyer or for anything else, despite his belief that there is strength in asking.

So I am asking for him. I’ve started a GoFundMe page with the initial goal of raising $1,000 to help Ruben. Please consider donating, and sharing this story so that others might as well.

***

P.S. The top photo in this post was taken by my friend and colleague, the photographer Zach Nelson, who collaborated with me on a story from El Paso and Juárez for VICE early this year. The second photo is mine, taken at a temporary migrant shelter in Juárez. On the right is Andrés, a Honduran migrant who introduced us to Rubén — and with whom we’ve sadly lost touch. On the left is Julián Cardona, a photographer, journalist and fixer in Juárez with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with many times. Along with Chuck Bowden, Julián published a book about migration in the city. It is called Éxodo and sits on my coffee table. You can read his words about Juárez here and view some of his work here. The third photo is of the room in which Julián, my editor at The Daily Beast, Justin Miller, and I first met Rubén.

I’m very hopeful that we can reach the fundraising goal I’ve set — the last time I did something like this was with the family of Juan Salgado, who you might remember from this post back in January. We exceeded the goal that Juan’s family set to fund a proper funeral in Mexico. Back then I had the help of Miller and The Beast, which ran Juan’s story. This time I’m trying to do it on my own — and with your help. Thanks as always for reading.

(1) Ruben is not his name. It has been changed to protect the identities of him and his family. He fears the gang will retaliate if he uses his real name and they see this story, so I have agreed to change it.

(2) This statistic was reached using Syracuse University’s TRACImmigration system, which allows you to manipulate immigration data obtained from the federal government in many, many ways.