SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The trip across Mexico is notoriously dangerous for Central American migrants seeking asylum. Extortion, violence, immigration raids are common. If they make it to the U.S. border, they can spend weeks, months and even years in detention.
Reporter Jesse Hardman recently met up with a caravan of Central Americans who are trying a strength-in-numbers approach to fleeing the troubles back home.
JESSE HARDMAN, BYLINE: Around a hundred migrants, soaked by a morning rain, pack on to the third floor of a cafe in Tijuana, Mexico.
HARDMAN: They're practicing what they'll say a few hours from now when they walk en masse to the United States border.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).
HARDMAN: "I'm afraid to return to my country. I have the right to an asylum interview," they shout.
GABRIELA CORTEZ LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) They're coming because they're threatened by organized crime and political oppression.
HARDMAN: Gabriela Cortez Lopez is part of a migrant rights coalition called the Refugee Caravan. The group's been helping these asylum-seekers, who range in age from a few months to 70, make their way across Mexico on foot, by train and in vans.
CORTEZ LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
HARDMAN: "It's a forced migration," Cortez Lopez says. The Refugee Caravan organizers provided food, transit and protection along the way. They also shared legal advice, like making sure people have evidence to back up their asylum claims.
Forty-four-year-old Honduran Iris Amador traveled thousands of miles clutching her documents.
IRIS AMADOR: (Through interpreter) I have the death certificates for my husband and my son that show that they were violently assassinated.
HARDMAN: Amador fled with her 6 and 8-year-old daughters in tow. The trio holds hands as they walk with the rest of their migrant group the last 20 minutes to the border.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).
HARDMAN: As darkness falls, the asylum-seekers slowly disappear into the U.S. border office.
MELANIE GLEASON: Under this administration, with this many people - to my knowledge this is first time this has been attempted.
HARDMAN: Melanie Gleason is a Tucson-based immigration rights attorney. She helped caravan members organize their cases. Gleason says she wishes these asylum claims could reference the fact the U.S. has historically supported the very things these people are fleeing - civil wars, economic meddling and...
GLEASON: The CIA-led coup in Guatemala.
HARDMAN: That's the country Miguel Castillo, Wendy Kobash (ph) and their 4-year-old son Angel just fled.
Castillo witnessed a robbery at his work. Shortly after, armed men began shooting at his house and his family, he says.
MIGUEL CASTILLO: (Through interpreter) We can't go back because they'll kill us.
CASTILLO: After making their way to the Guatemala-Mexico border, Castillo and his son Angel were recruited to join the Refugee Caravan.
ROBERT LAW: You question the authenticity or the legitimacy of these claims.
HARDMAN: Robert Law is a D.C.-based lawyer and government relations director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Law says he's sympathetic to struggles in Central America, but many people fleeing those countries don't meet U.S. asylum standards.
LAW: It's more of a generalized fear of violence and lack of opportunities that's causing someone to come to the United States.
HARDMAN: Miguel Castillo's request for an asylum hearing was granted. He credits the Refugee Caravan for preparing him to deal with weeks in detention and the tough questions he got from immigration officials. Now he and his son are staying with family on the West Coast.
CASTILLO: (Through interpreter) I can't walk around totally free yet, but I'm more relaxed at least.
HARDMAN: Castillo wears an ankle monitoring bracelet as he waits for his formal asylum hearing. No dates have been set yet. Castillo's already survived substantial hurdles to get to this point. He knows there will be more. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman in Los Angeles.
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