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Security forces carry out an operation in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 2019. The nation has said it will combat gang activity in cities and rural areas across the country. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands have crossed the border or formally sought protective status in the US.
STR/AFP via Getty Images

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He fled his homeland for safety in the US. After his death, who was to blame?

Asylum seekers face competing miseries: violence at home, and a punitive detention system with a shard of hope for relief abroad.

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CATACAMAS, Honduras — In March 2012, after Ronal Rojas-Castro’s soccer team finished a game in a local tournament (which they lost), he and some teammates went to a pool hall for drinks. They were a few beers in when Ronal decided to go home. As he and a neighbor named El Chino made their way out, a local drug dealer known as Curamuerto (translated loosely to “the death priest”) showed up. He went up to El Chino and said, “Hey, little brother,” pulled out a gun, and shot him in the head. After El Chino fell to the ground, Curamuerto shot him nine more times.

According to a declaration Ronal made later to his attorney, Matthew Lamberti, which I was able to review, Curamuerto began laughing, looked up at Ronal, and said, “That’s how you kill a man.”

From where he stood, Ronal watched Curamuerto heft El Chino’s body into the back of his truck. (That moment — not the murder itself, but Curamuerto’s loading of El Chino’s body — would become a significant factor in Ronal’s own fate years later.) Then Curamuerto walked over to Ronal and warned him not to say anything. “You’re either with me or against me,” he said. Neither sounded good to Ronal.

He didn’t go home that night. He was too scared. He slept at his girlfriend’s house on the outskirts of town, where his daughter, Genesys, also lived. A few days later, at El Chino’s wake, another narco leader, Adela, who was close to El Chino, confronted Ronal, telling him she knew he had seen Chino’s murder and that he knew who had done it. Ronal insisted he didn’t know anything.

Nobody tells on Curamuerto, Ronal explained to his mom, Sobeyda. Curamuerto’s gang is so powerful, Sobe told me, that his bosses can walk into the local prisons and walk right back out. If you’re with them, prison is just a place to take a few days off. Not even the president, Ronal had said, can do anything to stop them — let alone the police.

Ver, Oír, Callar.

See, Hear, and Shut Up. The survivalist’s motto in Central America.

Or, as a Salvadoran migrant put it to me once: Don’t say a fucking word.

I didn’t see anything, Ronal told Adela. She didn’t believe him.

On maps, Catacamas, this small city in the Olancho department of Honduras, is the end of the road. There’s nothing beyond but varying shades of green — the Reserva Biologica Tawahka, the Reserva Biologica Río Plátano — all the way to the flat pastel blue of the Caribbean.

A map of Catacamas, in central Honduras. Christina Animashaun/Vox

The then-director of the Lutheran World Federation in Juticalpa, however, assured me — as we were rumbling in his truck toward Catacamas — that at least one narrow road does continue past the small city, to Dulce Nombre de Culmi, and from there, the road narrows still as it cuts through the nature preserves, and then bends east, all the way to Nicaragua.

The going is slow though, the pavement cracked and shadowed, sometimes covered by swollen rivers as it winds through the abundant and bursting green of the Central American jungle to isolated shack-clusters of villages or narco runways where planes carrying shipments of cocaine touch down and take back off in a quick, insect-like buzz. The director, who asked that his name not be used for safety reasons, called the region Central America’s Little Amazon.

On a sultry afternoon in 2018, he dropped me off at a narrow, two-story house just off Catacamas’s main drag, where I met Sobeyda, a bright-eyed, sad woman who wore a maroon-and-white polka-dot blouse, tight jean shorts, and blue flip-flops with shiny bows at the toes. Sobe talked to me for hours that day about Ronal’s death.

He had been killed 30 days before I met her. He was 27 years old. Most of that afternoon, Sobe and I spent sitting on low, wooden chairs in the long storage room off the kitchen, where it was supposedly a bit cooler, and where mosquitoes zeroed in on our shanks, thighs, arms, necks.

Every 15 minutes or so, Sobe would reach forward to readjust the swivel fan that, briefly during each of its palsied head-turns, blasted me with relief and blew away the mosquitoes. Behind Sobe, Ronal’s white dirt bike — which he had been sitting on when he was shot —leaned against its kickstand. A friend of the family had driven it back to the house and parked it inside the door, where it has been idle ever since.

After his run-in with the Catacamas gangs, Ronal had sought asylum protection from the US. He didn’t find it. After he was killed, Sobe and Ronal’s stepfather wanted to give his memory, and his things, a break. That’s why they left the dirt bike by the door, his hats hanging on the rack, his keys and wallet in the dish.

A photo of Ronal Rojas-Castro is framed and draped with a cross at his home in Catacamas, Honduras. He was 27 when he died.
John Washington

Ronal had to disguise himself to escape this house back in 2012, a few weeks after witnessing Curamuerto kill El Chino. He fled north and spent nearly a year in the US immigration detention centers fighting for asylum. He lost his case, was deported, and then, five years later, and just a month before I met his mother, he was killed. His murder — committed, Sobe concluded, for having witnessed the killing of his friend — is another notch in the ongoing tally of asylum seekers refused protection in the US who are then deported back to their deaths.

In 2017, the New Yorker counted 60 such cases. In 2018, the World Politics Review counted, in just the last five years, in El Salvador alone, at least 70 such cases. But, as no official body keeps track of what happens to people after they are deported, neither of these counts is reliably accurate. More than one immigration attorney I spoke with as I was researching a book on asylum told me they were scared to look into it, scared to ask what happens to their clients after they lose their cases. Nobody, as far as I know, has included Ronal’s name in any count.

It’s possible the murder was unrelated to the earlier threats. It’s possible it was a random killing, or a mistake. Curamuerto had threatened Ronal five years earlier. When I pressed Sobe about the motivation, she couldn’t explain it. Why would anyone kill her son? It was a horrifying question to ask, even after his death. But Sobe couldn’t think of another explanation besides that it was related, that the gang hadn’t forgotten. One thing she is sure of, though, is that if the United States had granted him asylum, he would still be alive.

For more than half a century, the United States has been selectively accepting some asylum seekers and refugees, and sending others back to their peril. Since the modern asylum system was written into law, in 1980, and for decades before through the granting of parole to refugees, the United States has offered relief mostly to people fleeing political enemies.

At first, asylum and refugee protections were reserved for those escaping Communist nations, and then for those on the run from Communist countries in Latin America. The pattern continues: If you’re hounded by certain political foes, you’re much more likely to be granted asylum in the US. As of 2018, the grant rate for Venezuelans seeking asylum was about 50 percent. The rate for those fleeing China was even higher, at nearly 80 percent. Asylum seekers from the three countries in the northern triangle of Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — meanwhile, are only granted relief about 15 percent of the time.

Those numbers are not based on the actual needs or dangers faced by the asylum seeker, but by political calculation. That’s always been the case with asylum policies. The Roosevelt administration blocked thousands of Jews from escaping persecution thanks to arcane and racist determinations of who should be American. In one notorious example, more than 900 passengers on board the St. Louis were turned away in 1939 — 254 of them were later killed under the Nazi regime — because of a 1924 immigration law that limited the number of Germans allowed into the country. Just a year earlier, thousands of Austrians seeking to travel to the United States were turned away from the US Embassy in Austria shortly after Kristallnacht.

In the 1980s and 90s, Central American migrants faced a similar fate. As the asylum grant rate hovered around 2 percent, the consequences of being denied were deadly. In 1984, the American Civil Liberties Union submitted to the US House Subcommittee on Rules a list of 112 deportees who were either killed or suffered human rights abuses after their deportations.

While the Obama administration maintained the refugee and asylum policy status quo, they also amped up the arming of Mexico — funding the beefing up of its federal police and immigration agency, both of which had a track record of violence and corruption — sought to deter fleeing minors, and, in keeping with decades of practice, selectively denied hundreds of thousands of asylum claims. The Obama administration’s backing of a coup and a corrupt regime in Honduras, and its aid to police and military institutions rife with violence and impunity, all while only cracking the door open for refugees and asylum seekers, left many vulnerable.

Under the Trump administration, the situation has gotten significantly worse. Not only has the administration instituted a family separation policy, it has refused asylum seekers the ability to stake claims at ports of entry (through “metering” policies, which strictly limit the number of asylum seekers allowed to present and stake a claim at ports of entry on any given day) and pushed asylum seekers into de facto refugee camps just across the border in Mexico to wait while their case winds its way through the labyrinth of US immigration courts.

Officials have also taken numerous steps to limit who the relief can be extended to. For example, under a decision rewritten by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, women fleeing domestic violence — even when the local police cannot or refuses to protect them — are generally not eligible for asylum. Likewise, current Attorney General William Barr has made it much more difficult for those fleeing gang violence to be eligible.

At the same time, the Trump administration has begun foisting asylum responsibilities on El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and has dramatically dropped the refugee admission ceiling, to 18,000 in late September, the lowest since refugee laws were enacted in 1980. In the last year of the Obama administration, the ceiling was set at 85,000.

Given the trends, we can expect to hear more stories like Ronal’s — people whose lives are extinguished due to contemporary forms of tyranny or hate, the crush of the markets or the heating of the globe, people forced to flee and then denied refuge and, eventually, denied life itself. The Center for Constitutional Rights, in response to just one of Trump’s new policies, put it simply, “People will die.”

In some places in Central America, such as Catacamas, you can’t help seeing, can’t help hearing, and it doesn’t matter if you shut up or shout from the rooftops. In some places you can’t help bearing witness to crimes, assaults, extortions, or murders. And, instead of reporting them to the police, a rival gang, or even merely whispering what happened to your friend, to your spouse, to your mother, you keep quiet, you don’t say a fucking word, and still you are hounded.

Adela knew Ronal had witnessed the murder. And one of the few things worse than ratting on a gang member is getting thrust between rival gangs. Somehow, Adela got Ronal’s number.

She called him and said she would kill eight of his friends in eight days if he didn’t tell her what he’d seen. If that didn’t work, she would cut off his fingers, one by one.

A few days later, an SUV parked in front of the family’s house. Two men sat inside, watching. A friend called and warned Ronal that Adela’s boss had ordered a hit on him. And then, after murmurings that he’d talked to Adela started making the rounds, Ronal received a call from Curamuerto. He told Ronal that he knew that he’d talked.

After witnessing a killing, Ronal Rojas-Castro was caught between two gangs, both of which threatened his life. After his asylum request was rejected by a US judge, he was deported back to Honduras.
Courtesy of the family

Ronal insisted that he hadn’t said anything. After some pleading, Curamuerto offered him a deal. If Ronal told him when El Chino’s sister left her house (she lived two doors down from Ronal) he would let him live. Ronal could deliver El Chino’s sister over to a killer, rat on that killer to a rival gang, or he could run.

The family prepared for Ronal to leave the country. He didn’t step foot outside. At one point, a rumor started going around that Curamuerto had dug up El Chino’s body. The rumor, Sobe told me, was true.

Sometimes she could hear gunshots, Sobe said. ¡Tun! ¡Tun! ¡Tun! And then she’d see someone sprinting down the street. They were so scared, she said, that they couldn’t leave their house. The neighborhood was out of control. Competing narco groups were fighting for it.

Witnessing El Chino’s murder had ruined his life, Ronal later told Lamberti. He didn’t know it at the time, but it would do more than ruin his life. It would end it.

To understand why Ronal had to flee his country, you have to understand not only the cold-blooded terror of Curamuerto and Adela, or get to the bottom of whatever El Chino did to provoke Curamuerto’s wrath, but understand Honduras itself, and the ongoing US role in destabilizing the country.

The drugs that today are sniffed, popped, or injected in the United States spark a violent jockeying for drug trafficking routes that cartels use to rake in billions in profit. But it’s not just the ruthless trafficking organizations that have pushed the country to the edge of becoming a failed state.

After an extremely dubious election win in 2018, the widely reviled president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is directly implicated in profiting from drug trafficking — allegedly even taking a million dollars from incarcerated Mexican kingpin El Chapo Guzmán — and yet remains supported by the US, even while he openly and violently cracks down on his citizenry.

Kevin McAleenan, a former Trump administration acting Department of Homeland Security secretary, recently called Honduras, in a tweet, “a great partner.” Current acting Secretary Chad Wolf, less than two weeks into office, hailed a “productive meeting” with Honduran officials on Twitter. He called Honduras a “trusted and helpful partner as we work together to build asylum capacity.” As soon as January, the US could start sending asylum seekers to Honduras to be processed there, even if they are not from Honduras.

There’s also the corrupt and ineffectual police and criminal justice system, with a homicide conviction rate below 4 percent. In 2012, the vice president of the Honduran Congress at the time, Marvin Ponce, admitted that “up to 40 percent of the country’s police force was tied to organized crime.” According to researcher Amelia Frank Vitale, a former police commissioner acknowledged, “It’s scarier to meet up with five police officers on the streets than five gang members.”

So it’s not just Curamuerto and Adela, but a near-total lack of protection or functioning governance, which itself stems from more than a century of gross exploitation on behalf of banana and palm oil barons. The US-backed export economy has left the vulnerable or victimized in the country unprotected (and sometimes targeted) by the state. It’s not a new phenomenon in Honduras, which is the original “banana republic” — a term coined at the turn of the 20th century by American short story writer O. Henry after he visited the country.

For more than a century, Honduras was largely run by foreign businessmen, and when impoverished workers began organizing in earnest, in the 1960s, the CIA supported groups that violently suppressed their unionization efforts. The US government subsequently used the country as a base — sometimes referring to the nation as USS Honduras — to stage murderous Cold War statecrafting in neighboring countries of Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s and ’90s.

In recent decades, palm oil plantations and sweatshop textile factories have begun to replace the banana monocrop, but the pattern of an impoverishing export economy has continued. In the past 10 years, Honduras has suffered waves of violence and social breakdown, sending tens of thousands fleeing northward to Guatemala, Mexico, and, above all, to the United States.

In 2009, fewer than 450 Hondurans sought asylum in the US. By 2018, that number was 24,400, with thousands more entering the system or slipping across the border and hoping for some semblance of security in the shadows of US cities. Just in 2019, nearly 200,000 family groups from Honduras were apprehended or turned themselves in to Border Patrol; many are seeking or plan to seek some form of protective status, such as asylum.

Going to the cops to report a crime or ask for protection, in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America, would be, in anthropologist and writer Juan Martínez’s words, “unthinkable.” A 2019 InSight Crime report called Honduran police “one of the most criminally corroded and least trusted police forces in the region.” And so, no hope left for him in his country, Ronal fled. He headed to the US.

Sobe described the moment of Ronal’s escape, when, after weeks of hiding, the family snuck him out of the house. They covered him in a blanket, Sobe said, and had him hunched over, so if anybody saw they would think it was her, that she was sick. And then Javier, his stepfather, snuck out a bit later. And then she left after him, Sobe recalled, going in the opposite direction. They needed to borrow three cars to get him out. It was so painful for her to see him wearing his backpack, Sobe told me, tearing up. She didn’t know when, or if, she would see him again.

The family went $5,000 into debt, paying a coyote to take Ronal safely north. The trip wasn’t easy, but he wasn’t robbed or beaten along the way — a fate many migrants suffer. Once he crossed the border near McAllen, Texas — the coyote took his cellphone and led him and other migrants to a safehouse, where more than a hundred people were locked up and guarded over by dogs and men with rifles. They were being held for ransom money. They had made it into the United States, only to be kidnapped.

For the next five days, Ronal and the other migrants barely ate. Sobe showed me letters Ronal would later send her — from detention — describing his days. He was clever, she told me. He figured out a way to sneak half-rotting grapefruits, which had fallen from a nearby tree, over the fence. He shared them with a few friends he had made. Some of the women he was traveling with, he explained to his mom in another letter, were taken into another room, where they were raped.

Sobeyda Castro is Ronal’s mother. She can’t say for certain who killed her son. But she blamed Honduran police, and the US for its unwillingness to provide her son safety.
John Washington

On the sixth day, police and Border Patrol raided the house, and, in the confusion, Ronal and some of the other migrants took off running. Desperate, terrified, he climbed a fence. When he jumped to the other side, he landed hard and badly injured his right ankle. He tried to get back up and run, but couldn’t. When the Border Patrol found him, he was trying to crawl to safety.

In the aftermath — as dozens of agents, helicopters, and trucks rounded up migrants and coyotes — a fellow migrant saw Ronal getting carted away in an ambulance, and thought he was dead.

Sobe received a call that day from a family friend who informed her that their son had been killed. She told me, though, that she didn’t believe it. Something in her heart told her son he was still alive. The next time she would hear those words — that her son was dead — she had a different feeling.

Though there were more than a hundred people kidnapped in the McAllen house, Ronal was one of the few to cooperate with law enforcement. According to Lamberti, Ronal’s lawyer, Ronal clearly should have received a U visa, a type of visa created by Congress in 2000 for victims of crimes — including abduction, incest, indentured labor, torture, trafficking, and abusive sexual conduct — who assist US law enforcement as witnesses.

Ronal had been kidnapped. He had been starved, held against his will for ransom, abused, and injured when he tried to escape. He then helped US agents investigate federal crimes. He “provided invaluable help to the US authorities prosecuting the two Mexican citizen suspects,” Lamberti told me. “In fact, certain US government officials indicated that help in the form of immigration relief would be forthcoming if he provided information on his captors” — which he did. (Asked for comment on Ronal’s case, a USCIS official said the agency would not disclose information on any individual seeking benefits such as U nonimmigrant status.)

After leaving the hospital, Ronal was taken to detention and thrown in solitary confinement— a stint described in a New York Times article in 2013, which explained that he had been kept in isolation because he was still on crutches, and his crutches could have been used as a weapon.

“Mr. Rojas-Castro was kept in complete darkness for four days wearing only his underwear,” the article notes. That wasn’t Ronal’s only time in solitary: At one point, months later, he was sent to the hole 21 days after getting in an argument with a cook. Ronal had described the food, in another letter to his mother, as awful and insufficient.

Detention, Lamberti said, “is designed to and is very successful in killing all sorts of viable claims, and that has to do with people’s access to attorneys, with their willingness to sit and wait for an appeal, and their ability to pay bond. It’s just going to screw so many cases.”

Ronal’s case got screwed. After 11 months locked up in a York, Pennsylvania, detention center, Ronal came before immigration judge Walter Durling, who cited his concern over the “respondent’s veracity” and denied him asylum. Specifically, Durling noted inconsistencies as to whether Ronal claimed Curamuerto put El Chino’s body in his truck immediately after shooting him, or left him on the ground and then loaded him in a little bit later.

“Respondent’s testimony about how Chino’s body was moved was at best vague,” Durling wrote. Since 2005, an “immaterial inconsistency” — that is, a non-substantive piece of the asylum seeker’s narrative that fluctuates between, say, a written testimony presented to the judge and oral testimony in court — can be grounds to reject an asylum claim.

Meeth Soni, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, told me about one of her clients who was gang-raped, set on fire, and had burn marks on her face. During an asylum interview to determine whether she had a “credible fear” of returning to her country, she supposedly said she was attacked at a certain time of the day, and then during the hearing in front of the judge she said it happened at a different time. Because of that slip, the judge ruled her not credible, and denied her asylum.

“ICE’s theory of every trial I ever saw was, ‘You’re a liar and you’re a criminal,’” Lamberti said. “That’s the basis of their legal strategy. So human beings being human beings — they’re able to find inconsistencies to say that they’re not credible witnesses.”

It is exactly these moments of trauma — essential to asylum cases — that are the hardest to remember. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain, among other books about neuroscience and fear, told me that cortisol — a hormone released in response to stress — is toxic in high doses to the part of the brain where long-term memory is processed. “Stress,” he explained, “disrupts memory formation.” Or, as Cicero once put it, “Fear drove out all intelligence from my mind.”

Detention itself — the stints in solitary and 11 long months — was another hurdle. As Lamberti put it: “If Ronal hadn’t been detained, his proceedings would have stretched out in time, and he would have, no question, still been in the US when his U-visa certification was signed by ICE.”

After Durling’s denial, Ronal decided not to appeal. Lamberti pressed, gently, explaining that he had a good chance on appeal, but Ronal was done.

After he was deported, in 2013, his family — still worried about his safety — snuck him back into the house, just like they had snuck him out of it a year earlier. They were scared Curamuerto, or some of his goons, would come for him. They bought a pistol to defend themselves, and put Ronal to work in the carpenter’s workshop in the back of the house. Working at home, he never had to leave, and, for a while, he didn’t. But he soon sank into a depression, Sobe said. He had spent almost a year locked away, and now he was confined again. Even his old friends were scared to be seen with him.

It took him a while to gain the confidence to go outside, but, eventually, he did. He tried to keep a low profile, but wanted to live a regular life. He also wanted to make up for the lost time with his daughter. Little by little — after Adela had been killed, and after Curamuerto had moved to another city — his life regained some normalcy. And then, on a June afternoon in 2018 — on the heels of another soccer game — it ended.

Ronal had been playing on a field outside the city when he got a call telling him that a friend he had made in detention back in the US had sent him a bit of money. After the game, he headed downtown to the bank to receive it. At the bank, though, he realized he was missing a number in the confirmation code. Ronal threw a leg over the seat of his motorcycle, and was about to pull away when a friend, Miguel, saw him and called out. They chatted for a minute, and just as Miguel was leaving, another motorcycle, with two riders, stopped next to Ronal. A few seconds later, after he had just pulled away, Miguel heard the first gunshot.

That bullet entered Ronal’s upper chest, right where the wings of the clavicle meet, just below the throat. When we were sitting in her hot hallway, Sobe pressed her index finger into the base of her own throat, showing me right where the bullet went in, pressing deeply, into her own flesh. Ronal fell over, tumbling off his white motorcycle, and raised his hands to defend himself. The attacker pulled the trigger again, and again, and again, and again. After the first shot in the base of his neck, four more bullets hit Ronal in his forearms, right hand, and torso.

Not much more is known about the attack. Despite the dozens of witnesses, there was no police investigation. The police didn’t chase after the assailant, interview witnesses, or talk to the family. They did show up at the scene of the crime though: They happened to be close, and made their way over. They looked at Ronal on the ground, coughing, trying to breathe, bleeding.

After a few minutes, with the police still standing around, bystanders started urging them to help Ronal. The officers lifted him up and loaded him into the back of their pickup truck. Ronal was gasping for breath, choking down blood. According to witnesses, who would later describe the scene to Sobe, he seemed to be trying to speak, trying to breathe, lurching in pain. The police pulled away and drove him, bumping over Catacamas’s rough, pot-holed roads, about 15 minutes to the hospital.

Ronal’s stepfather, Javier, works as a driver for the Catacamas prosecutor’s office, collecting bodies and taking them to the morgue. His job is to drive prosecutors and police to murder scenes and then haul corpses to the cemetery or, if there’s an investigation, to the nearest morgue in Tegucigalpa, which is about three hours away. When Ronal was shot, Javier was busy picking up another body.

After I had talked with Sobe a few hours, Javier came home from work and we stood in the kitchen, where they told me more about Ronal’s life and death. At one point, barely able to get out the words, Javier explained the mistakes the police had made in transporting an injured patient, his son. I would have put him in the front seat, Javier said. He couldn’t breathe, and they threw him in the back of the truck like an animal. If Ronal needed someone to suck the blood out of his throat, Javier told me, his voice cracking, he would have sucked the blood out of his throat.

Sobe Castro shows a photo with her son.
John Washington

Later, Sobe showed me a video of her dancing with Ronal on Mother’s Day, a month or so before he was killed. They were both quite good, quickly stepping and whirling around each other to punta — a traditional Honduran dance. Mother and son, each holding a bottle of beer, dancing, their faces serious, concentrated, occasionally bursting into laughter. In those moments, they seemed weakened by their glee. Laughing, they reached out to each other, as if for support. She used to like to dance, Sobe told me, but she doesn’t think she’ll ever dance again. “My son had such a heart,” she said, “you have no idea.”

In the afternoon I spent with Sobe, her ire turned repeatedly back to the Honduran police, incapable of keeping them safe, as well as to the US, unwilling to provide safety. She seemed to take the violence itself for granted. You can’t escape it, Sobe said.

Years had passed between the deportation and Ronal’s death, but the consequences aren’t always so drawn out. In late September 2019, another Honduran, who had fled to the US and was deported, was shot and killed just hours after he left the airport. He was still wearing the cheap shoes ICE sometimes gives detainees.

The killing occurred just days before the US and Honduras signed an agreement to start sending people seeking asylum in the US to Honduras. It followed similar such agreements the US now has with El Salvador and Guatemala; thousands of asylum seekers flee the three countries every year. None have functioning asylum systems to weigh claims or offer protection.

It was “another move in a string of agreements that continue to make a grotesque mockery of the right to asylum,” Charanya Krishnaswami, the advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA, said in a press release. “We will say it again and again: people cannot be forced to seek safety in countries where they will not be safe.”

A family memento marks Ronal’s death. In the United States under the Obama administration, he was kept in detention for so long as he awaited an asylum decision that Ronal ultimately gave up his fight. Upon his return, he remained in hiding for years.
John Washington

In some respect, deaths such as Ronal’s are by design. The policies of mandatory detention and, now, pushing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, or forcing them to apply for asylum first in a country without a functioning asylum system and where they remain in danger, are meant to force asylum seekers to weigh two competing miseries: the present fear of death, or the long slog through a punitive immigration detention system with slim chances of relief.

The choice, for many asylum seekers, has become death or a form of administrative hell. After lingering for a while in the latter, some asylum seekers are risking death to get a breath of freedom again.

Sobe recalled that Ronal used to say he liked it when the power went out — a frequent occurrence in Catacamas — since nobody could use their phones, and all the family could do was sit around the table, in the dark, and talk to each other.

She paused, then added, “I feel like they buried my heart.”

John Washington is a translator and writer covering immigration and border politics, as well as criminal justice and literature. Ronal’s story is an adaptation from his first book, The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexico Border and Beyond, out in May 2020 from Verso Books.

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