Americas

Honduran Migrant Seen Fleeing Tear Gas With Her Toddlers Is Now in U.S.

LOS ANGELES — A Honduran woman who was photographed pulling her two toddlers to safety as she fled tear gas along the Mexican border has been provisionally admitted onto American soil and is now applying for asylum.

The woman, Maria Meza, was allowed in to the border crossing at Otay Mesa, Calif., with her five children late Monday after several hours of waiting with lawyers and two members of Congress who had personally escorted them to the entry station.

Eight other unaccompanied children and a man were also part of the group.

The path to settling in the United States is still far from clear for Ms. Meza and her family, who are part of a caravan of migrants, mainly from Honduras, who have been waiting for weeks in Mexico for a chance to present their asylum claims. In order to gain admission, Ms. Meza and the others must first pass a “credible fear” interview to determine whether they would be in danger if they returned home.

If authorities at the border allow her case to proceed, Ms. Meza could either be sent to a detention center or released on bond with an ankle monitor.

“It could be a yearslong process, that’s what it’s most likely to be,” said Kara Lynum, an immigration lawyer volunteering with Al Otro Lado, a Mexico-based group that has been assisting migrants there. “She has an attorney waiting for her, but it’s hard to say what happens next because our asylum grant rates are inconsistent.”

Ms. Meza had traveled to the border with the migrant caravan and was captured on camera last month, when a group of migrants tried to force their way into the United States at Tijuana, south of San Diego. Officials with Customs and Border Protection said that the officers fired tear gas on hundreds of migrants because the migrants were mounting an assault.

The image by Kim Kyung-Hoon, a Reuters photojournalist, showed Ms. Meza, wearing a shirt with characters from Disney’s “Frozen” on it, fearfully clutching her children, both of them in diapers and one of them barefoot. It provoked a huge response, with many, including a number of Democratic lawmakers, criticizing the use of tear gas. Opponents of the Trump administration’s hard-line policies on immigration said Ms. Meza’s case countered the administration’s claim that the caravan of migrants, most fleeing violence and deep poverty in their homelands, was a threat to Americans.

Lawyers working with Al Otro Lado said that after the photograph spread across social media, Ms. Meza became a target of Paloma Zuniga, a right-wing media personality known as “Paloma for Trump,” as her Facebook page is called. Commenters on Ms. Zuniga’s page said taking care of the family should be the responsibility of the children’s father, and suggested she would be unable to both work and care for her children.

Ms. Zuniga tried to visit Ms. Meza in the shelter where she had been staying in Tijuana and posted several images of her, prompting Ms. Meza to move to another location, said Anna Joseph, another lawyer who accompanied Ms. Meza on Monday. Even there, she said, Ms. Meza received multiple calls and texts to her mobile phone.

While most migrants are now waiting weeks for processing at the United States border, which officials say has limited capacity, Ms. Joseph said the attention had made it impossible for Ms. Meza to continue waiting.

“It made it unsafe for her and she could not wait out this metering system of asylum,” she said.

Like many other migrants traveling from Central America, Ms. Meza is citing gang violence in Honduras as a basis for her asylum claim. But there is a long backlog of asylum seekers at the Mexican border — roughly 8,800 migrants are in Tijuana now, including 2,800 who have been there for months, officials estimate. Some have returned home, giving up after learning how long they may have to wait.

Border officials initially told the group Monday that the facility was too full to process any additional claims and suggested they turn back. Two members of Congress from California had traveled with the group and demanded evidence.

The Trump administration has recently added new hurdles for would-be asylum seekers, including a move, currently suspended because of a court order, to prevent migrants from filing asylum applications unless they enter at an official border crossing. Another policy still being considered would require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases wind their way through the legal system.

“They are asking for the right to be taken into detention, they’re asking to get arrested, they are begging for it and they still haven’t been able to do it,” said Sarah Owings, another lawyer who has worked with the migrants. Lawyers said they were unlikely to know more about Ms. Meza’s case until later this week.

The group seeking stepped-up processing first arrived at the Otay Mesa port just before 3 p.m., when officials told them that the facility was at capacity and could not process their claims. After several hours and pressure from the members of Congress, the unaccompanied children were allowed to proceed. It was nearly 10 p.m. when border officials came out with white plastic handcuffs and called for the Meza family to enter, lawyers said. The family gave brief goodbyes and were led into the processing center.

The immigrant advocates and lawyers then spent the night with another family from Honduras, which had shown up separately to request asylum. Ms. Lynum said a Border Patrol agent instructed that family to join the first group.

Around 8 a.m. Tuesday, the rest of the group was admitted for processing.

An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote on the requests of migrants at the border. It was Sarah Owings, another lawyer, speaking, not Kara Lynum.

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