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They came fearing for their lives. Now more are being denied asylum, lawyers say.

“I can’t go back because if I do he will carry out his threats," a Honduran woman who was denied asylum said of a man who raped and beat her.
Image: Undocumented immigrant families are released from detention at a bus depot in McAllen
A mother and daughter from Honduras are released from detention with other undocumented families at a bus depot in McAllen, Texas on July 27, 2018.Loren Elliott / Reuters

Yadira first noticed the man about a year ago, when she caught him staring at her from a police truck in her village in Honduras. A week later, the man made a pass at her and she rebuffed him. The next time she saw him, he threatened her with a gun, forced her into his car and took her to a motel, where he raped and beat her, she said.

Over the following months, the man continued to find Yadira and force her to the motel to physically and sexually assault her. When she said she would go to police, the man laughed and said things would only get worse for her if she did, according to Yadira, who asked that only her middle name be used out of concern for her safety. She believed the man was connected to the police, since she often saw him chatting with officers.

Yadira, 34, moved three hours away with her 10-year-old son in an attempt to escape, but one day in November 2017 the man showed up on her relative's doorstep to threaten Yadira and her son if they did not return to the village, she said.

“He’s a person that is involved with the police," Yadira said in Spanish. "I have no protection from the police. I have no protection from the government."

In desperation, Yadira and her son fled to the United States with the goal of seeking asylum, arriving in mid-June.

But her hopes soon dimmed. She was separated from her son under President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and in July she failed her "credible fear" interview, the crucial initial step in pleading an asylum case before an immigration court. She appealed, but a judge denied her claim.

“I can’t go back because if I do he will carry out his threats," Yadira said by phone this week from a family detention center in Dilley, Texas, where she has been reunited with her son but is on the verge of deportation. "He threatened me with death, he threatened to harm my son,” she said, her voice breaking.

Cases like Yadira’s are becoming more common under Attorney General Jeff Sessions' more restrictive immigration policies, which have resulted in a rising number of migrants failing their credible fear interviews, immigration advocates and lawyers said. In June, 1,314 migrants failed credible fear interviews, up from 821 in May and 719 in April, according to data released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The number of migrants claiming asylum increased over that period as well, and the percentage passing their interviews has remained from 70 to 80 percent, but advocates expect to see lower pass rates when the July numbers are released. Those numbers will be the first to reflect a full month's impact of Sessions' policy changes, which restrict who is eligible for asylum.

Kate Chaltain, Yadira’s lawyer, said that while volunteering to help separated families at detention centers in Dilley and Karnes, Texas, she and other lawyers noticed that all of the migrants they met had failed their credible fear interviews. She said Yadira, like many of the others, "absolutely would’ve passed her credible fear" before Sessions' policy changes.

Under U.S. and international law, a person may seek asylum based on persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

In June, Sessions ruled that migrants fleeing their home countries because of domestic abuse or gang violence did not have grounds for an asylum claim. "The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune," Sessions wrote in a legal opinion at the time. Sessions also said that migrants needed to prove that their home government was unwilling or unable to stop the persecution and that immigration officers should consider whether the migrants could move elsewhere within their home country before granting asylum.

Michael Bars, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the agency is receiving a near-record level of referrals for credible fear interviews, and not all of those asylum-seekers have legitimate claims.

“While there are a variety of push and pull factors that influence the decision to leave their home countries and travel to the United States, many petitioners understand how to exploit our system, enter the U.S., avoid removal, and remain in the country,” Bars said in a statement. “USCIS is committed to adjudicating all petitions fairly, efficiently and effectively on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet all standards required under the law."

After a credible fear claim is denied, an asylum-seeker can choose to have the case reviewed by an immigration judge, who must make a decision within seven days that cannot be appealed. From April through June, judges ruled that migrants' previously denied credible fear claims were legitimate about 15 percent of the time, about half the approval rate in the last six months of 2017, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which tracks such statistics.

In response to Sessions' asylum restrictions, Robyn Barnard, a staff attorney with the refugee representation program at the nonprofit Human Rights First, said she was working with other advocacy groups and lawyers to ensure legal representation for families at a detention center in Berks County, Pennsylvania, who are undergoing credible fear interviews.

“We’ve seen direct changes for our clients both at the credible fear stage as well as at the immigration court adjudication level — both very disturbing in how that’s going to impact our clients,” she said, noting that migrants who have what she considers strong asylum claims are being denied.

Juan, a Central American pastor, fled his home this spring after his 16-year-old son and family were threatened by gang members. Juan, 53, who asked that his real name and home country not be used out of concern for his safety, said he was targeted because he worked on anti-gang programs for children.

"They know that by threatening your child, you're going to get desperate," Juan said in Spanish by phone from the Berks County detention center, where he is being held with his son.

Juan said he feared for his family's life after a friend of his, a priest who also worked on anti-gang programs, was killed by gang members. Juan and his son arrived in the U.S. in early July and claimed asylum.

During his credible fear interview, Juan said he felt the asylum officer reacted negatively when he brought up religion, and he was afraid to discuss it further, as some Central American clergy have faced persecution and death. So he did not tell the officer that he was a pastor. He failed his interview.

Barnard requested a new interview for Juan and found out on Wednesday that it had been granted, she said.

Juan, speaking before he knew that he would get a second chance, said he hoped that his interviewer this time would recognize the persecution his family and other clergy have faced.

"He couldn't escape before and he died at the hands of the gangs," Juan said of the priest who was killed. "They killed him and his family had to leave, so I said, 'Before this happens to me I'm going to try and seek asylum.' You start to think, am I next?"