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Migrant ‘Protection’ Protocols Survivor Stories #4: Enrique
His resilience, leadership and loyalty make him an asset to any nation, yet all Trump & Co could see was Brown
By Sarah Towle Posted in Guatemala, Migration Americas on April 8, 2021
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The brothers were ambushed on the Ides of March 2019. It happened as they walked toward their childhood home in Quetzaltenango.

Guatemala’s second-largest city, boasting a rich Mayan heritage and a dramatic natural backdrop, Xela (as it’s known to locals) is where I went to buy presents for my host family when I lived in Huehuetenango in 1990, and my jumping off point to Lake Atitlán.

In those days, it was wise to side-step Guatemala’s military goons, especially if you hailed from one of the country’s 22 indigenous communities. These days, everyone is at risk in this “red zone” of gang violence. Young men, especially, are targeted for recruitment as assassins and drug-runners. When Enrique and Melvin turned down the job offer, the outcome was sadly predictable, for the gangs rarely take “no” for an answer.

When the first shot rang out, Enrique took flight. Melvin took six bullets — to the knee, shoulder, thorax, and chest. The gang left him for dead. But he wasn’t. Not quite.

“It’s a miracle of God that he survived,” says Enrique. But Melvin and his devoted older brother did more than survive. Their story of resilience, dedication, fortitude, and smarts should have augured their welcome into the United States.

What unfolded was anything but…

For 15 days, Enrique prayed over his brother as he lay unconscious in a hospital bed, a tube sucking fluid from a collapsed left lung. Once sprung, as Melvin learned to walk again, Enrique grew too anxious to eat.

“The gangs never leave a job undone,” he told me. But Cartel rule does not respect international boundaries. Their only hope, he knew, was to get to their father in El Norte.

They set off, finally, in mid-July, Enrique so skinny from worry his eyes swum inside bony sockets. He promised to carry Melvin on his back if he had to. And at times, he did. The journey was difficult and slow. But they made it, arriving at the US southern border on August 12th, a month after leaving Xela.

Too scared to stay in Cartel-controlled territory any longer, they took their chances with the river, crossing into Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. “That’s when our journey really began,” says Enrique. Rather than reuniting with their father in Maryland, a whole new trauma awaited them.

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US Border Patrol agents apprehended the boys before their clothes had a chance to dry. They promptly locked them up inside an infamous cage in an infamous “Ice Box.” For two days, the brothers huddled together for warmth.

They asked for asylum, the evidence of their persecution still visible all over Melvin’s bullet-riddled body. But no one offered them a credible fear interview. Instead, on August 14th, Border Patrol agents tossed the boys back over the border into Mexico. They were among the first Central American asylum seekers to be trapped by Trump & Co’s Migrant “Protection” Protocols (MPP), which had gone into effect in Matamoros just weeks before.

The brothers pitched a tent in the burgeoning tent city on the town plaza and only came out to get a meal from Team Brownsville volunteers — and only when hunger got the best of them. They stayed hidden away together until their assigned hearing in the Big Top Tent Trump & Co had erected on the US side of the border. This is where the boys would meet their immigration judge on October 23, 2019. They were hopeful that on that day a new life of safety would begin. They were certain a judge from the Land of Immigrants and Land of Laws would understand that their human rights had been violated and allow them to join their father, who was waiting for them with a home and jobs.

But back in June 2018, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions yanked gang violence as an acceptable credible fear, thus axing the boys’ chances of obtaining asylum in Trump’s cruel America. Seventy-thousand souls with similar stories would eventually be forced to wait in Mexico, like the boys, only to undergo sham hearings in border courts where beamed-in judges “heard” unrepresented asylum cases over TV screens 50 at a time.

The system was created to fail everyone. It certainly failed the boys.

But they weren’t denied asylum that October day. That visit to the Big Top was merely to set a date for their “real” initial hearing. They would now have to wait until March 2020 to be heard.

No sooner had they stepped back into Mexico, despondent and destitute, when the boys felt the cool ring of gunmetal pressing into their backs. “Stay quiet” and “don’t move,” they were told as they were forced into a van at gunpoint. Then, they were driven around, blindfolded and cuffed, for hours and moved from van to van to van.

They ended up in what Enrique could only describe as “a wooden box” with several other people. It was very cold. When the violence started, Enrique begged the kidnappers to hit him, not Melvin. But smelling vulnerability, they focused their blows on the younger brother until Enrique gave up the information they sought: their father’s phone number.

It’s a common Cartel trick: to extort the family members of asylum seekers already in the US by torturing their loved ones over the phone. They wrangled the promise of $3000 out of the boys’ dad. But until the money could be raised and received, Melvin and Enrique would remain captive. They were held against their will in the cold wooden box, without food, water, or a shower, for six days.

“We ran to be free of violence,” says Enrique. “In Mexico, violence found us again.”

Their kidnappers released them, hungry, without resources, and paralyzed with fear at the Matamoros bus station. They managed to sweet talk their way onto a bus heading toward the town plaza, where the now sprawling tent city was reaching its peak of 3,000 refugees. They found their tent and zipped themselves inside again, coming out only for food or to recharge their shared cell phone, and only ever together.

One afternoon in January 2020, they were at the camp’s phone-charging station, located just beside a flight of cement steps that connected the town plaza with the river levee above. A public park in the before-MPP-times — when not flooded by the unpredictable Rio Bravo — it was by this time covered with tents.

While the boys sat, waiting for their phone to charge, an elderly woman carrying a sketch pad and a handful of colored markers sat down on the steps beside them. On a fresh piece of paper, she drew an outline of her hand, tore it from her pad, and offered it to Enrique — a non-verbal wave “hello.” Enrique picked up a marker and added smiley faces to each finger, waving back.

Then he asked, with gestures and broken English, “Can I draw a picture of you?”

The former psychiatric nurse from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, had come to Matamoros, like me, to bear witness to the humanitarian crisis caused by the Trump administration. She had no way of knowing that both brothers had pursued degrees in design; or that Melvin had been making art since he was a child. She had no way of knowing that this small gesture of humanity — a paper wave — was the perfect way to “break through” to two boys so traumatized they refused to engage with anyone. She did not yet know it but on that day, she helped steer the boys onto a path toward healing.

A bond was forged and as the three sat quietly drawing together, Fran Schindler decided that, like her historic namesake, she would stop at nothing to save these two young lives.

“We felt her love and compassion right away,” says Enrique. Since that fateful day, when the boys believed that all was lost, they have spoken or texted with Fran nearly every day. They call her abuela. She calls them her nietos.

Enrique, Melvin, and Fran Schindler: left, on the day they met in Matamoros, Mexico, Jan 2020. (photos courtesy of Fran Schindler)

That’s not the only thing Fran fell in love with that January. She also became a benefactor of the Sidewalk School for Child Asylum Seekers. Its founders, Felicia Rangel-Samponaro and Victor Cavazos, hired exclusively from within the camp population with three goals in mind: 1) to keep kids learning, even while in refuge; 2) to provide already trained teachers with a salary; and 3) to develop in their teaching assistants skills and capacities that would benefit them once stateside. Fran introduced her nietos to Felicia and Victor and although the boys were afraid of everyone, she says, “the school drew them out.”

Felicia offered to hire them as teaching assistants if Fran agreed to pay their salaries. Enrique threw himself into the role. He went from hiding in his tent, a stranger to the camp, to knowing — or being known — by everyone, especially the kids.

Melvin played a quieter role, but one that would eventually put him on the map with US art collectors. When the staff decided to raise money for the school with a student art auction, Melvin contributed a painting. It caused a bidding war that climbed to $1000. Cards and prints of that and other works by Melvin continue to raise money for the Sidewalk School on Etsy today.

The Sidewalk School has now migrated into eight cities, all coordinated by Enrique, who turns out to be an IT whiz-kid as well. Says Felicia, “These two would be an asset to America.”

Yet on March 17, 2020, a full year after Melvin was shot six times and left for dead, the brothers were denied asylum in the US. Fran was there. She requested to be allowed to speak on the boys’ behalf. The judge gave her Fran five minutes, then said, “That’s enough,” and told her to sit down.

Days later, Trump closed the border and his kangaroo courts. Invoking a 1940s public health ordinance, Title 42, to hold back a pandemic he did not believe in, he let COVID-19 do what even MPP could not: halt asylum in the US for good.

Enrique and Melvin stayed in the Matamoros refugee camp then. Felicia invited them to move into an apartment she’d rented for Sidewalk School teachers, but they refused, preferring to remain in the refugee camp in solidarity with their students. Moved to discover others who’d experienced horrors as hair-raising as their own, they stayed bound to their newfound family through drenching rains and a driving hurricane; attempted forced removals and a venomous snake infestation; attacks of cockroach-sized mosquitoes and local maña recruiters; Cartel-style killings of camp residents and freezing temperatures — all from inside a tent meant for weekend camping.

But Enrique’s quietly burgeoning role as a camp leader would not shine forth until the Mexican government tried to expel the last of the camp’s refugees through intimidation, harassment, and denial of basic resources.

It was one week into the Biden administration’s rollback of MPP, which began in Matamoros on February 25, 2021. More than 600 members of the refugee encampment had crossed into Texas, and with them the world’s focus had shifted from Matamoros to Brownsville. There, the same grassroots humanitarians, who had sustained the tempest-tossed masses, physically, spiritually, and psychologically until the MPP Reign of Terror could be brought to an end, were busy welcoming the asylum seekers as they legally entered the US.

Enrique, Melvin, and Fran Schindler on the day of their reunion in Brownsville, TX, March 2021 (photos courtesy of Fran Schindler)

In a February Zoom meeting I was lucky to attend, Biden’s new Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, stated his personal belief that the first hours and days in a new homeland determine a migrant’s future trajectory. Under MPP, asylum seekers were greeted with the worst of America: no help, no resources, no welcome, no hope. He wanted to reverse that, putting them en route to future success. Under him, he declared, MPP victims would be met with dignity; provided a thorough understanding of their legal rights; given a healthy meal and a bed for the night, if required; and afforded a one-way ticket to their waiting loved ones.

Unfortunately, the Mexican authorities didn’t share Mayorkas’ outlook or agree with his vision. They couldn’t clear the camp fast enough.

On March 4th, though roughly 70 refugees remained, including small children and a couple of elderly, officers of the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) locked out of the camp the humanitarian NGOs that had pledged to remain in Matamoros until the last of the camp residents had crossed. This halted all access to food, drinking water, and medical care, while locking the migrants inside the razor wire-topped fortification INM erected with the rise of COVID-19.

INM then removed the camp’s port-a-potties and supply containers, still stocked with supplies of rice and beans and toilet paper.

INM threatened to destroy the camp’s $20,000 water filtration systems, which rendered the Rio Grande potable, if Global Response Management (GRM) didn’t take them without delay, according to GRM’s Mark McDonald.

INM ordered the city authority to cut the flow of wash water to the camp, then did the same with the camp’s meager electricity supply. When the migrants’ phone batteries died, so did their access to the outside world.

Finally, adding injury to insult, INM brought in a wrecking crew to topple the camp’s showers. Garbage trucks roared around the grounds, spewing noxious fumes and menacing children at play, as workers tossed the tents and tarps of those who’d already crossed.

The 70, or so, who remained felt abandoned forgotten. Their panic spiked when workmen told them: “You guys are the next trash to be hauled away.”

These were the camp’s most “complex asylum cases.” They included Enrique and Melvin, who’d been denied asylum in a court fraught with due-process violations based on hearings that were fundamentally unfair. They were not the only ones. Behind the scenes, in high-level, bi-national negotiations, lawyers Jodi Goodwin and Charlene D’Cruz, who’d been supporting the rights of Matamoros asylum seekers since family separation began in spring 2018, were working round the clock to have these cases reopened.

But the levers of justice turn slowly, while corrupt Mexican officials are rash. Wanting the camp gone “now,” they sought the help of celebrity nun, Sister Norma Pimentel. She tried to talk the camp residents into leaving with her. But they refused, and not without reason: She planned to escort them to Casa del Migrante, which they knew would allow them only three nights. After that, they’d be homeless, split up, and on their own. Also, it is affiliated with INM, which they rightfully did not trust. And just the day before, they witnessed the good sister deny camp access to Mark and other GRM medics who’d come to provide medical care for a very sick 10-year-old boy.

Then, there was the unfortunate social media traffic from the sister’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. On March 3rd, she claimed that all camp residents had crossed, which was clearly not the case. The refugees felt betrayed, even by the Pope’s “favorite nun.”

“We were forgotten, erased, like criminals in a cage,” says Enrique. “Parents were devastated for their kids. Everyone was crying all the time.”

Felicia and Fran came to the rescue, pushing sandwiches and bottles of water, flashlights and portable phone chargers, toilet paper and shovels for burying human excrement through the broken chinks in the fence. They begged the brothers to leave the camp at once and move into the apartment for Sidewalk School teachers. But Melvin and Enrique held firm.

“It felt wrong to go, like abandoning our family. Plus, we had more power together,” Enrique told me. “If the final group broke up, all would be lost. It was an honor and a purpose given to me by God to stay with them,” he said

The very next day, the asylum seekers’ prayers were answered. Local Pastor, Abraham Barberi, came with the offer of shelter at the Bible Institute attached to his Church. Like Jodi Goodwin, who joined him to escort the migrants to their new temporary “home,” Pastor Abraham had been with the Matamoros refugees from the beginning. He supplied them firewood for their cucinas under the trees. In the earliest days of the nascent tent city, he brought water daily and organized his congregation to provide a weekly meal. But the greatest sustenance Abraham provided the asylum seekers was spiritual.

For two years, Abraham prayed with them. When Hurricane Hannah and her subsequent floodwaters bore down on them, he pitched a tent and slept alongside them. He was called to do it, he said, not by a photo op or news crew or a congressional delegation, but because it was the right thing to do.

Abraham and Jodi came bearing bad news: if the migrants refused to leave camp, the US would close their asylum cases once and for all. But the refugees trusted them and appreciated their honesty. They agreed to pack their things.

On March 6th, the Matamoros refugee camp was left to the whims of INM wrecking crews.

Melvin and Enrique bid a tearful Buena Suerte to their refugee family then, and followed Felicia and Fran to the Sidewalk School apartment. I caught up with them there, once again holed up inside, too afraid to set foot outside. They still had no idea if they would ever get to safety in the US.

Finally, on March 12th, two weeks days after the MPP rollback began, one year after being denied asylum in Trump’s kangaroo court, and two years after Melvin was shot and left for dead, the brothers joined Felicia and Abuela Fran on the northern side of the border.

Melvin and Enrique finally get their chance to enter the United States of America as legal asylum seekers. We wish them luck as well as a long and happy life! (Photo courtesy of Enrique)

Two years of waiting and hiding are now over. They get to start over again, this time with talents previously unknown even to themselves. Indeed, Felicia and Victor have told them to count on continued employment with the Sidewalk School for Child Asylum Seekers.

There will be much work to do to confront and learn to live with the effects of their trauma. But their resilience betrays a mighty inner strength. Their faith provides them a powerful guide. Their humility and dedication to each other, as well as to justice, leave no doubt:

Melvin and Enrique will be “an asset to America.”

Special thanks to Rainer Rodríguez for helping to translate my communications with Enrique, and besos y abrazos for the last 70 souls who hung in there together. As of this writing, there are only six left in Matamoros. They are still safe and sound with Pastor Abraham.

This article and all the Migrant ‘Protection’ Protocols Survivor was originally posted on The First Solution and it’s republished with permission from the author.


INM migration Sidewalk School for Child Asylum Seekers

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