The Portillo Family Seek Asylum
By Aimee Ginsburg Bikel
“Different people have different tastes”, says Tomás Portillo, “but we had something for everyone”. At the Panadería de Los Ángeles (“Angels’ Bakery”), in a small town outside of San Salvador, the pastries were always fresh out of the oven; the peperachas- pink and (‘not too’) sweet, the semitas de leche’ (‘melt in your mouth’), the semitas de piña (crumbly soft pastry filled with homemade pineapple jam). The semitas de piña, sweet and tart, were Tomás’ personal favorite. But the most popular pastry, hands down, was the French roll. Crunchy on the outside, soft as a pillow on the inside, they were deceptively simple: “Addictive!” says Tomás. Back in the olden days- when Portillo was still a boy, helping his parents after school- the bakery was always packed. It seemed that no matter how many pans of French rolls made their way from the ovens to the front, their heavenly scent seducing the passersby on the busy main street, they always ran out too soon.
But by the time Tomás Portillo became the owner and manager of the bakery things had changed; people’s tastes had turned. Although there were those whose mouths still watered for a French roll or a perfect semita de piña, business was very slow. This made no difference to the gang that had taken control of the area, demanding a monthly “protection” fee. “Of course, there was no one we needed protection from”, says Portillo, “only from the gang itself”. For some years, Portillo was able to make the monthly $50 payments, trying new ways to bring back customers and increase his earnings. But by the fall of 2018 there was simply not enough money to make his payment. The response was quick and menacing: he was to pay $100 by month’s end and if he were even one day late, they would hurt his family (his wife Clarissa and their 3 small boys). Portillo knew that the threat was serious and that their lives were now in danger. “There was no point going to the police,” he says, “they promise they will look into it, but they just tip off the gang who come the same day and kill you and your whole family.” Portillo has lowered his voice; little ears are listening. “They even kill the children, even the babies, even your old parents.” He tells us of the times they heard families screaming in the night, and of finding out in the morning that they had disappeared. “They are all local”, he adds, “the police officers, the gang members, all people I grew up with, went to school with. We all know exactly where each other live, who our parents and siblings are, where our kids go to school. There is no place to hide”.
Tomás and Clarissa, high school sweethearts, whispered under their blankets, holding on to each other, every night for a week, frightened and in growing despair. They knew there was no way they could raise those extra one hundred dollars in time. Then, one evening, the police killed 2 young men right outside their home. “They were a little drunk, a little rowdy”, says Portillo, “there was no other reason.” It was then they knew what they had to do. They waited for darkness to fall, enveloping the city they were born in, raised in; where they knew every tree and every lane; where they had kissed for the very first time, had been married, baptized their children; where they had sweetened their neighbors’ lives, feeding them peperachas, barquillos, besos,semitas de piña for generations. And when the sky was black -only the streetlights casting their faint yellow light into the inky shadows- the couple lifted their three slumbering sons (one just a baby) out from their beds. Leaving everything they owned behind, they got on their old motorcycle, securing the children between their bodies. While Clarissa held onto the boys with all her might, Tomas drove like the wind, out from their street, out from their town, on to the main road, not looking back, 100 KM to the Guatemalan border. Then they crossed over, and continued 500 KM, through Guatemala and across the border into Mexico. By then, the motorcycle was finished. With no money for repairs, they had abandoned it in Guatemala. Exhausted, they came across the border by bus to the city of Tapachula. “We tried to keep each other happy”, says Clarissa, “but it was hard”. The family had to stay in Tapachula for 3 months, waiting for their Mexican Visa (on “Humanitarian Grounds”). Just when the visas came through, they happened upon “The Caravan”, headed up to Tijuana. With nothing more to lose, they decided to join in.
Families like the Portillos are at the center of the raging debate over immigration and caravans, a debate that is certain to flare again as the election approaches. But unlike the picture often drawn by opponents of immigration through the southern border, the Portillos' plight shows how these families try desperately to enter the U.S. legally, and how unresponsive the system is. Many Americans reacted with visceral horror to the stories of family separations and to the images of children locked in warehouses, in appalling conditions, subjected to all kinds of abuse, even rape. Indeed, there have been many deaths. But in the current political atmosphere, there have been so many issues to follow, with so many intense emotions evoked, that the outrage over any particular ‘issue’ does not necessarily last long enough to lead to real changes. Despite many lawsuits by civil rights and immigrant rights organizations- and a recent ruling by a CA judge ordering all children released from detention facilities, these families and their personal tragedies are mostly anonymous and unbeknownst to the weary American public. But the conditions of intolerable violence, broken political systems and poverty in Central America, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries- often created or worsened by US intervention in the past and in the present- as well as the growing climate crises and lopsided global wealth distribution, guarantee that there will be asylum seekers knocking at our door for many years to come. The Portillos’ story is only one example of countless identical stories happening right now at our southern border.
The drive out to the Portillos’ current home- not much more than a shack in a row of other such shacks in a small and dusty town southeast of Tijuana- had been bumpy and long. Lulu, my guide, driver, and interpreter, told me about the family on the way; she has a special place for them in her heart. An ex-nun and a social worker, a wisp of a woman with snow-white hair and a no-nonsense demeanor, Lulu devotes her life to the refugees and asylum seekers stuck in limbo just south of the US border. Although I had intended to spend the day meeting the residents of the many ad-hoc shelters in Tijuana, Lulu had whisked me away, expertly maneuvering her jeep over unpaved roads and past barren, beige-gray landscapes. Lulu, employed by a US non- profit (my host for this trip) is out in the field all day every day, making it her business to identify those families who, while so beautiful and deserving of happy endings, will not survive without urgent, generous, intervention. Looking out the window, trying to fix my eyes onto some spot in the distance as the jeep bumps forward, it is hard to believe there will be a town anywhere in this desolate space, miles of stripped earth and rocky road.
Finally, to our left, signs of life. Lulu turns into the small, isolated town and continues past shops selling sodas and hairbands and cheap colored pens, past green metal swings, a cement- block school, a lone tree, past streets with rows of misshapen shanties, steeped in the cautious hope of their grateful tenants.
The Portillo family comes out to the street to greet us as Lulu parks and we get out of the car. The light is flat and blinding. The family meets her with quiet excitement. They trust her and respect her, and so, by association, I am instantly included in the circle. After these last few years of living in the US, I had forgotten how good that feels: the unguarded eyes behind the smile, no need to pass a test of status or gold.
Lulu unloads the supplies she has brought for them, mostly for the children, donations from anonymous friends North of the border: clothes and toys, crayons and books, diapers, shampoo, and treats. The Portillos’ belongings would fit into a box or two: some bedding a few plates, a few simple pots, a comb, a brush, their cell phones; a far cry from the simple yet comfortable life they left behind. We take our places in the dark, windowless room- the only light from the tin door, hanging slightly ajar. As soon as I sit down, Mateo, 2, climbs up next to me, ready to hop into my lap for a cuddle before Clarissa gently shoos him away. The other two boys, Carlos (5) and Jeramias (8) stay close, listening to every word. Tomás, whose boyish good looks belie these past few years of struggle and trauma, sits in the chair closest to the door. Clarissa sits by him, close: they are together. At various times any one of the boys sits balanced on their papa’s knee, playing with his one hand, while he strokes their hair with his other. They were so quiet during the hours of our long visit; they did not complain or ask for anything. They smiled at the treats and were happy for a head stroke or a hug, but they did not play, and they did not laugh. Tomás does most of the talking but Clarissa joins in frequently. The words come tumbling out without guile, painful, a little too resigned. Despite the anguish, there were no tears: not until he tells us about what happened to them during their days in the ICE detention center.
“We felt very unsafe in the caravan”, says Clarissa, her face wide and open, her shiny hair tied back at her neck. But the couple felt they really didn’t have any other option. Their months in Tapachula had been very difficult. “We even had to beg for food,” Clarissa says and looks at Tomás who looks down at the floor. Tomás had taken a job as a night guard a few days after they arrived in Tapachula. The boss told him that he would be paid after a month’s work but at the end of the month, the boss would not pay. With no official papers, there was nothing he could do (“anyway”, adds Lulu, “Tapachula is known for their very racist police”). He had to walk away from the job, empty-handed. Their money had run out. “The two older children cried all day for food and for milk”, says Clarissa, “but not the baby. He was so hungry, he just looked at me and looked at me with his open eyes.” Finally, Tomás had to beg. “I just walked through the parks, asking people for help”, he says, “I don’t know how to beg! But what choice did I have?” A few people helped but most just looked away. Tomás says he felt weak from hunger but that the children were starving. “Their stomachs were growling so loudly,” he says, almost too softly for me to hear. “They had lost everything they had overnight. Their clothes, their toys, their beds. Now I couldn’t even feed them”.
Finally, they found a way to phone Clarissa’s mother in El Salvador. “I never, ever, wanted to ask anything of my mother”, says Clarissa, “she works so hard all of the time, and she is so poor. She has nothing! But the baby got so skinny I was really, really scared. Mama sent us $20, everything she had. I will never forget it”. The $20 was just enough to buy some food and to begin the journey by bus with the caravan. “There were all kinds of characters and I never felt quite safe,” says Clarissa, but adds that the people were generous with food and bought them their bus tickets. They traveled with the caravan all the way across Mexico to the US-Mexico Border at Tijuana.
I ask them why they had wanted to immigrate to the US. Had they not heard of the immense difficulties they would face trying to gain the right to enter? The detentions, the separations, the cages, the fear? Tomás tells me he respects and admires the legal system in the US – he trusted in it- and that he has family living there; he had hoped they could help, but they could not. Clarissa adds: “I just wanted to earn enough to take care of my mom and the boys. And leave the violence far, far behind”.
The energy in the room shifts. We have spoken of everything else and now there is no way to avoid it. It is time to talk about the Portillo family’s attempt to cross over, legally, into the United States, requesting asylum under international and US law. Tomás and Clarissa glance at each other and look down, then again, wanting to share this experience with us, not wanting to relive it. Jeramias, the eldest, claims his Papa’s lap. As Tomás slowly begins and as the story unfolds, the boy nods his head, silently approving every word as truth. I have interviewed hundreds, thousands of people in my long career as an investigative reporter. Although it was hard to stay completely present as emotions of anger, disgust, and grief coursed through me, I believe every word Tomás and Clarissa told me this day.
When the family first arrived in Tijuana, he tells me, they had to put their name on the waiting list (with many hundreds before them). Then they were made to wait in Tijuana for many weeks for their turn to come before US immigration to file for asylum- a status codified in International and US law and yet buried in a maze of conflicting statues, murky language and inconsistent bureaucratic practices. Through a practice called ‘metering’, the US government limits the number of refugees allowed to be processed at any entry point on a given day. Civil-rights organizations have been challenging this practice as unlawful for years and filed a (yet undecided) lawsuit in the courts in 2017; the Trump administration has expanded the use of metering since this current lawsuit was filed. Under another practice of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) called the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (2018) otherwise known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, asylum seekers must stay in Mexico while waiting for their turn, obstructing their ability to find counsel and find safety. Like most other refugees arriving from the south into Tijuana, the Portillos found beds in one of the many shelters in the city. “We were told of the many kidnappings for ransom and of workers not being paid”, he says, “just like what happened in Tapachula”. Others I spoke to told me of extortion by police officers and sexual violence against youngsters, as well. The explosion of asylum seekers in Tijuana has completely overwhelmed the governmental agencies- staffed as they are with many well-intentioned individuals. The majority of shelters are ad-hoc operations run by priests, nuns, and caring citizens who take over abandoned structures and cram them with metal bunk beds and as many people as can possibly fit; feeding them with donated food, relying daily on kindness and on small miracles to keep the whole thing going.
When it was finally the Portillos’ day to return to the US immigration office, they were brought before the ICE officers where they signed some papers and then immediately separated from each other, not knowing when they would see each other again. “They took my belt, shoelaces and cell-phone”, says Tomás (they confiscated Clarissa’s hairpins as well), “And that’s when they took us to the freezer”. All of the refugees I had spoken to call the ICE Detention centers “The Freezer”, because it is kept so cold they could barely sleep- and perhaps because of the acronym ICE. Tomás and Clarissa are so grateful that the boys stayed with Clarissa; they know very well that the children are often taken to separate holding facilities (“cages”, they tell me), possibly never to be seen again. This phase, the time in the ‘freezer’, can last 7-10 days, until it is the petitioner’s turn to come before an immigration judge for an initial hearing. The asylum seekers are not told in advance how long their detention will last.
There were 24 men in ‘the Freezer’ with Tomás, in a space he estimates at no larger than 10ftx30ft. They were each given a very thin rubber mat for the floor, with a piece of clear plastic as a cover (Clarissa, on the women’s side, was not given extra mats or covers for the children and they all had to share the same one). They were not given towels, soap, toothbrushes, nor a steady supply of toilet paper. On the men’s side, there was a small half-wall dividing the “room” from the “bathroom”- a toilet and a sink, without a shower. The women (and their children) had a shower but the water was scalding hot at all times. There were no windows. In the evenings, as in the day, there was barely any light. There were security cameras trained on them in the sleeping room and by the “bathroom”. Tomás was the last one in, and so was forced to sleep in the last space, basically right next to the toilet, which, with 24 men in the room, was always in use, all the time. “We drank from the tap next to the toilet”, he says, “that was our only way to drink.” He says that they were given a “burrito with hardened beans” for breakfast, a dry hamburger for lunch, and, for dinner, the same burritos with a little carrot on the side. The children were given one juice box a day as well. “When I asked for milk and diapers for the baby,” Clarissa says, “they got very angry with me, and told me to be quiet”. Tomás continues: “Every time the guards came in, they found some way to humiliate us, to laugh at us, to show us their anger, to call us names, to do something hurtful. We were not allowed out. We were not allowed to talk to our wives, our children. We were so scared. Grown men, calling for their mothers in their sleep”.
The tears that had been glistening in the corners of Tomas’ eyes begin to drip down into his lap, but he keeps talking. “I got a cut on my foot, and I could not keep it clean because of the toilet that was right next to me, overflowing and filthy.” His cut became infected and swelled up quickly. By the third day, he had a high fever, and it was decided to release him. “This is what saved me”, he says. By now Tomás is overcome by emotion and has begun to weep.
I am listening to Tomas, jaws clenched, fists clenched, reminding myself that this routine (I know now from others I have met that this is the routine) is practiced against people accused of no crime. They, our relations, have come, in fear, in desperation, in full humility, to ask to be allowed into our country so that they may be safe from persecution, and work hard to make a good life for their children. I am thinking of my own Jewish grandparents and great grandparents, escaping persecution and violence by the skin of their teeth, sailing to the United States after horrifying journeys, leaving everything they had behind, courageously and elegantly weaving our own history into the tapestry of this country. Their absorption was not always easy and some were turned away but they were never subjected to such cruel and vindictive humiliation. When they finally saw land, and first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty rising out of the steel gray waters, they sighed in relief. In my family, 2 generations later, we continue to mourn our great aunt Goldie who was not allowed in because she had had polio. Goldie, barely 16, was sent back to Europe, only to be killed 17 years later by the Nazis. We remember her because she was the exception, not the norm. Everyone else got in, with their dignity mostly intact, and several generations later here we are, integral members of the American Life. What had happened to eventually close the hearts of the American people to all of these hardworking, decent people wanting to join us in our towns and cities? What has gone wrong?
“I was united with my wife and kids”, Tomás is saying, a bit recovered, as I snap back into the here and now, “and we were brought to the judge’s room”. The proceedings were in English, but someone was translating, which is not always the case. They had heard ‘bad things’ about the judges, but say their judge was kind and explained things well. Still, it was over within a few moments. The judge denied their application but gave them time to go look for a lawyer.
“Right”, says Clarissa, “how would we find or afford a lawyer?”
“Or,” adds Tomás, “if we could not afford a lawyer, we could take a special form, very long with many pages, in English, and represent ourselves”. Unfortunately, The Portillos do not speak, read or write English.
It is common to be called back to the judge two or three times, sometimes more. Most requests will eventually be denied. When that final denial happens, the petitioners, usually penniless by now after months of waiting and repeated hearings, must rely on Mexico’s hospitality, which may or may not be granted. From the reports of many I spoke to, including Lulu and the head of a shelter in Tijuana, there is a current ICE practice to immediately load those who have been denied onto busses and take them to a border crossing in a different state, usually Texas. Once there, they are simply dropped off back in Mexico; far from whatever family, job, or friendships they may have been nurturing in Tijuana. It seems to be a punitive move designed to make their lives as difficult as possible, impressing upon them that the US wants anything but their wellbeing.
That day, the Portillos were given another date to return to court and sent back to the shelter in Tijuana. “Now don’t give us some big story about violence and gangs”, the immigration officer told them while handing them the forms, “we’ve heard all of that before. We know it is a lie”.
“You know they burned down the bakery?” says Clarissa, “the day after we left. They burned Panadería de Los Ángeles down to the ground”.
They returned on the given date, with form partially filled with the help of other asylum seekers and a lot of guesswork. When they walked in their youngest, Mateo, saw an ICE officer, a woman, in the middle of the room. “He loves everyone, but he especially loves women,” Clarissa says. “He ran over to her and tried to hug her leg. She yelled at him”. Tomás continues “She yelled ‘don’t touch me! Don’t you dare touch me’, in Spanish, and pushed him away. He almost fell down.” Mateo ran into a corner, and for the first time since he left his home more than a year earlier, a year of wandering and hunger, strife and incarceration, the two-year-old broke down and cried. Clarissa said to Tomás ‘this must be a very mean country, full of very mean people! Who would do that to a tiny child, a baby?’ She told her husband that maybe she did not want to live in such a place.’ They took their children, turned around, and left.
Since that day, the Portillos have been trying to make a life in Mexico. Tomas received a scholarship from the Mexican High Commission of Refugees and has completed his training as an electronic repair technician. Their dream? To own their own appliance repair shop, educate the children, and watch them grow up, safe. But meanwhile, Mexico has denied the Portillos a renewed humanitarian visa- this has become common in the past months. With literally nowhere to go, they have decided to try to the US one more time. Lulu and I, while sitting with them that day in late December, bombarded them with advice, anything to break the feeling of hopelessness that had settled on the room: have your relatives back home text you photos of the burned bakery! Ask them to take photos of newspaper stories about the gangs and the violence and send them to you! Find other people from El Salvador to come with you as witnesses! But they say their relatives are afraid and are not tech-savvy; anyway, Lulu and I are not lawyers and do not really know the proper advice.
The criteria for admission remain shrouded in bureaucratic mystery and, with frequent policy changes and constant new hurdles, can be seemingly capricious. It is anyone’s guess who will eventually be let in and given the right to remain. If a family finds a sponsor in the US, their chances increase. Still, even if they are let in, the process is far from over. There is also a real need for competent legal counsel. Several non-profits do connect U.S. lawyers working pro bono with asylum seekers waiting for their hearings; one organization even provides donated airline miles to lawyers who will come to Tijuana. But the need far outweighs the supply. Families like the Portillos require real assistance if they are to make it through the labyrinth into a worthy future, one in which their lives and stories are woven courageously and elegantly into our American Story.
It was hard to say goodbye; I don’t know if I will ever see them again. As we are about to get into the jeep, I ask Tomás if he thinks about the bakery, about their life in El Salvador, if he misses it. “I don’t think about it much”, he says, “It is all gone now. It is ashes and smoke. If we go back, the gang will find us, and kill us. As an example”. But then he adds, and the expression he made in this moment is the one that is etched in my heart, a combination of innocence and grief, longing and acceptance, the look of a small child and a very old man at once, “It is true that at night, in the “freezer”, I was remembering the oven, and the delicious smell of the semitas de piña. That was a really nice memory. Maybe it got me through”.
The names in this story have been changed in order to protect the family, at their request. All other details are true.
If you would like to help the Portillo family please donate to One Story At A Time HERE. You may add a comment that your donation is specifically for this family. Or, consider keeping your donation for the general fund: many families and children are being helped by these donations.