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Mother’s Journey Shows Some Asylum-Seekers Are Reaching The US

Karen Perez and her children sit at Imperial Beach, Feb. 16, 2018.

Photo by Andi Dukleth

Above: Karen Perez and her children sit at Imperial Beach, Feb. 16, 2018.

A GPS-monitoring device clasped around her ankle, Karen Perez saw the ocean in the U.S. for the first time in her life with her four children as she awaited her day in court to make her asylum case.

"It's very pretty here," the 32-year-old Nicaraguan woman said in Spanish, as she strolled along Imperial Beach. "In my country, there are beaches too ... it reminds me of home."

Perez is a single mother with a propensity for laughter, even in uncertain times. She cracks up while adjusting an oversize jacket on her three-year-old daughter.

"I've always fought to get ahead with my kids," she said. "My plan is to put my kids in school, look for a job and make sure they get ahead ... if I can study, I might study and learn English."

While focusing on the future, Perez's thoughts often slip to the past — the threats from gangs and the domestic violence she endured at the hands of "machistas," or male chauvinists, back in Nicaragua. But she derives a sense of pride from rejecting that life.

"In Nicaragua, there's lots of machistas ... Maybe it's because I'm a woman and I've been beat up by life, but if I were a man, I wouldn't be doing that to women," she said.

Perez's family was among thousands of Central Americans who traveled with a migrant caravan that captured the attention of President Trump in November. Trump continues to characterize a surge of people at the border as an invasion.

“We have an invasion of drugs, an invasion of gangs, an invasion of people," he said during a press conference about his national emergency declaration for border wall funding.

But Perez is representative of that surge — she entered legally, through a port of entry. She told KPBS that she joined the caravan for the safety of traveling in numbers.

Only about 4,400 families crossed illegally last year through San Diego, up 50 percent from the year before, according to Customs and Border Protection. However, nearly 16,000 families presented themselves at ports of entry in San Diego, up 123 percent from the year before.

Nationally, about 53,901 families presented themselves at ports of entry last year, up nearly 60 percent from the year before.

Perez’s case shows what many asylum-seekers go through to get to the U.S.

The family waited weeks on a makeshift wait list handled by asylum-seekers in Tijuana. Perez and the kids were called to the San Ysidro Port of Entry last month. They passed a credible fear interview and were released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Jan. 29. They have a notice to appear in US immigration court for their asylum case in April.

Like an increasing number of asylum-seeking families, Perez and her children were released from the port of entry without resources and little guidance. One of her sons had 300 Mexican pesos that they exchanged for $15 and they took at trolley to downtown San Diego, where a stranger told them they could find a homeless shelter. But once they arrived, they were told the shelter was full.

They slept on the street their first night in the U.S. Perez said she and the kids were scared, sleeping outside in a strange country. The next day, another stranger took them to a migrant shelter run by the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition of human rights and legal advocacy groups that have been helping asylum-seekers once they arrive in the U.S.

The shelter was a place to sleep and eat for a few days until she got in touch with a relative who lives in Miami and offered to help her.

"I'm very grateful," Perez said, although she remembers being scared when staff there told her the shelter was meant to be temporary.

Etleva Bejko, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Rapid Response Network, said most asylum-seekers have relatives in the U.S. who can help them, typically within 48 hours of their arrival. Perez was a rare exception; it took her a couple of weeks to find someone.

Bejko said the quick turnover is important because the shelter only has a capacity for about 100 people, and the shelter often receives dozens of new people a day. The network will soon be moving to a new shelter with more space.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 12 voted to sue the Trump administration for the way it began releasing asylum-seeking families onto the street without resources and little guidance last fall. Previously, officials helped asylum-seekers connect with relatives or other sponsors before releasing them, but the administration has changed tact to deal with the surge of families.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, all releases of these families "occur during daylight at safe locations."

KPBS first met Perez in Tijuana at a migrant shelter called Barretal. She’d put her name on the asylum waitlist and had no idea if she was ever going to get into the U.S.

Perez was anxious because American left-wing activists were coming and telling her to jump the fence. She didn’t want to put her children’s lives at risk or break any laws.

“Sometimes I get hopeless, thinking I’ll say yes to the people telling me to jump --- but no. What am I, crazy? I’m not crazy. I’m going to wait.”

The wait paid off. She said she hopes the U.S. gives her family a chance to stay — because she says she doesn’t feel safe going back to Nicaragua.

"I suffered a lot bringing my kids from Nicaragua ... but I know that if I'm here, it's for a really good purpose that God has for us," she said.

As the Trump administration continues to push for funding for a border wall to address an ‘invasion’ of people, asylum-seeking families continue to trickle through legally.

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