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Driven from Central America by gangs and finding refuge in Kentucky: One woman's story

Mirna Hernandez Mendez didn’t have much of a plan for what she would do once she got to the United States when she decided to make the treacherous journey to the southern border with Mexico last fall. She just knew she couldn’t stay in Honduras.          

Rampant gang violence and corruption had made life in her home state of Colon unlivable for Mirna, a mother of six whose own mom and teenage son were both murdered by members of MS-13. She tried moving away from La Ceiba, the coastal city where she’d spent her whole life, to a more rural part of the state, but violence and threats only followed.

In the spring of 2018, Mirna’s sister-in-law, Karla, traveled to the U.S. as part of a caravan of migrants. By the fall she was pursuing an asylum claim, under the sponsorship of a Kentucky woman who took her into her home. Karla encouraged her younger sisters and cousins to follow with their children and to bring her two daughters, who had stayed behind, assuring them that she would find them a place to stay if they could just make it to the United States.

The other women were in their early 20s, but Mirna, who will turn 50 next month, knew this was an opportunity she could not afford to pass up. She and her daughter, now 11, would leave with the group and once they were settled in the U.S., her husband and two sons, ages 12 and 17, would join them.

Their perilous journey, and promising but still-precarious future in the U.S., tells in microcosm the story of hundreds of thousands of Central American families seeking, as millions of refugees did before them, to escape oppression and violence in their home countries. And their welcome into the home of a stranger, a Kentucky woman who learned of their plight at her church, illustrates how America’s tradition of generosity and hospitality lives on, even in this age when powerful forces denounce immigrants as “invaders.”

By the time Mirna and the other women embarked on their journey north, the mass exodus of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador traveling through Mexico together by the thousands had become a political cause in the U.S., with President Trump warning of an “invasion” and vowing to send military troops to the southern border.

Mirna and the others did not set out from Honduras in a caravan. But they would eventually find they needed the safety in numbers such groups were meant to provide.

The women and children had made it through Guatemala and were staying in the Mexican city of Tapachula, near the southern border, where it became clear that they were being followed by associates of the gang members who had threatened them at home. When Mirna heard that one of the migrant caravans would soon be passing through Tapachula, she decided, “We’re going to join with the caravan because if we don’t, they’re going to kill the girls.”

They hid in a park until they could join the group, walking most of the way and occasionally hitching rides until they reached Tijuana after nearly two months where they put their names on a list — along with thousands of other migrants waiting to request asylum at the official port of entry to the U.S. After a trying month in migrant shelters, they decided to cross the border through a hole in the fence and turn themselves in to U.S. officials on the other side — a legitimate way to request asylum under U.S. and international law, despite the Trump administration’s attempts to ban it.

Yahoo News reported in December that their first attempt to cross the border was thwarted by U.S. Border Patrol agents who (in apparent defiance of the law) told them to go back to Mexico, wrongly warning that they would be ineligible for asylum if they refused.

Undeterred, they tried a second time. This time, Mirna says, the U.S. border agents they encountered took the group to a detention facility near San Diego, where they were held with many other women and children. Men, she says, were kept in a separate section.

Mirna describes the facility as constantly full, and the treatment she received there as “really bad.”

“We were frightened of them,” she says of the U.S. officials at the detention facility who, she says, yelled at the women and said “ugly things” to them.

After four days in detention, Mirna says they were taken to another, much larger facility where she and the other women had electronic monitoring bracelets affixed to their ankles. She says they spent about five hours at that second facility before they were finally released with “the shackle” and some paperwork and taken to a nearby migrant shelter. At the shelter, they were able to make a phone call and, for the first time, Mirna spoke with Vonnette Monteith, a complete stranger who’d agreed to let them all stay at her house in Louisville, Ky. Monteith had paid for their bus tickets and after three days on a Greyhound, they arrived in Kentucky.

“In the middle of the night, I got a phone call that said, ‘Your Hondurans are here,’” says Monteith, a retired Army officer, a lieutenant colonel with 29 years of service including about a decade overseas in Korea, Germany, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

After she retired in 2015, Monteith says she joined a variety of social outreach groups in Kentucky but had never been particularly committed to any one specific cause. Her knowledge of immigration issues was limited to what she picked up from the news. She had no personal connection to Latin America, nor could she speak Spanish.

And yet, Monteith says she didn’t think twice when a woman at her church announced that she’d been sponsoring an asylum seeker from Honduras whose relatives — including her two young children — would soon be arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and were in desperate need of volunteers to sponsor them as well. The woman was Karla, Mirna’s sister-in-law.

“Here they are, they’ve made this huge journey and unless someone stands up and says, ‘Sure, I’ll do it,’ they’re kind of stuck,” Monteith recalls thinking to herself. “I was just like, ‘Well that’s not going to be on my watch.’”

Living alone in her house, Monteith concluded that she had room for six people, or possibly seven. By December, Monteith would have eight houseguests: Mirna, her daughter, the three younger women and each of their children. Beyond providing them with a place to live, Monteith understood that by agreeing to take on the role of “sponsor,” it would be her responsibility to drive the women to their court hearings and [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] check-ins, get their kids enrolled in school and “kind of make sure they don’t get in trouble.”

She also took it upon herself to hire an immigration lawyer to represent them in court, set up appointments with doctors and dentists, and even solicit friends to donate Christmas presents for the children.

“I wanted them to have the same amount of Christmas that my kids had,” says Monteith.

However, the whole group did not stay under Monteith’s roof for long. By the new year, she says, the younger women and their kids moved into a separate house, with only Mirna and her daughter remaining. Meanwhile, back in Honduras, Mirna’s husband was growing increasingly anxious to leave with their two boys, who had already been approached and threatened by the gangs. Since the early departure of the other women had freed up space in the house, Monteith agreed to take in the rest of Mirna’s immediate family, who quickly fled town and made their way to Kentucky, also requesting asylum at the border.

The reunion happened sooner than they’d originally planned, but had they waited any longer, it might not have happened at all. In December, Department of Homeland Security officials announced plans to implement a new policy requiring that asylum seekers (with some exceptions) who present themselves at the southwest border wait in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in the United States. In February, the Trump administration actually began implementing the policy, known formally as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) in stages along the border. Unbeknownst to them, Mirna and her family were among the last wave of asylum seekers to reach the U.S.-Mexico border before this policy went into effect. Mirna’s older daughter and granddaughter, who arrived in Mexicali, Mexico, in April, were not as lucky.

Despite Monteith’s best efforts to get her case transferred to Kentucky, Mirna’s daughter remains in Mexico with her child, entering the U.S. only for hearings before an immigration judge in San Diego, where she does not have a lawyer.

Mirna, who feels positive about her own asylum case, is distraught about the situation faced by her daughter, whose husband was also murdered by gang members in 2015.

“She can no longer go back to Honduras because she is also ... being chased by the gangs,” Mirna says. She believes Mexico is not a safe alternative, as her daughter was beaten and robbed not long after she first arrived in Mexicali this spring.

“In Mexico, she was assaulted, and they took everything that she had,” she says. “They took the money that I sent her, they took her cellphone, everything. Her clothes, they left her naked.”

In June, after seven months with the “shackle,” Mirna and the other women got their ankle bracelets removed. While most of the others have found casual daywork in Louisville, Mirna says she’s waiting to get a work permit, which her lawyer has said could happen sometime in November. For now, Mirna says she spends a lot of time with her kids, who are home for the summer.

“Their family is very solid,” said Monteith. “Other than the fact that they don’t speak English, they are like a model American neighborhood family.”

Mirna says she likes it in Kentucky; she feels safe there. Yet Monteith says one of the things that has surprised her most about this experience is how afraid Mirna seems to be of pretty much everything.

“I was expecting them to come and learn the buses and want to get out and be independent, go to Spanish churches and make friends,” said Monteith. Instead, she says, Mirna rarely ventures out and when she does — even if it’s just to the grocery store or a lawyer’s appointment — she brings the whole family.

“They don’t go anywhere alone,” said Monteith, observing that Mirna’s fears seem firmly rooted in her desire to stay in the country. She relies on Monteith to fill out paperwork and to speak for her at the children’s school or doctors’ appointments, even when an interpreter is available. When President Trump recently announced that ICE would be rounding up and deporting families, Mirna panicked, Monteith says, despite her attempts to reassure her that she is legally permitted to be in the country.

“She is just so, so afraid of being sent back. She just doesn’t want to do anything wrong,” says Monteith.