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Alex Guevara weeps as he describes the five-month odyssey that brought his family from Venezuela to a diner just metres from the United States border – and the uncertainty and danger that lie ahead.
It was June when Guevara and his family fled on foot into Colombia, carrying nothing but a Bible and a worthless Venezuelan coin to remind them of their homeland.
“It was life or death – either we left or we left,” Guevara’s wife, Andrea, said of the persecution they had suffered because of ties to the opposition movement trying to force Nicolás Maduro from power.
From Medellín, the couple flew to Cancún with their two young children before traveling overland to one of the most dangerous stretches of the US-Mexico border and crossing the Rio Grande in a rubber dinghy.
When border guards detained them on US soil, the Guevaras thought their ordeal was nearly over.
But, rather than being allowed to stay in the US while they sought asylum, they were separated and spent a fortnight in detention before being released into one of Mexico’s most notorious border towns in the dead of night.
“Wow, that was a low blow,” said Andrea. “After all the trauma and everything we had been through in our country … we found ourselves in the mouth of another wolf.”
The Guevaras – who asked for their real names not to be used – are among more than 57,000 people who have been forced back into Mexico this year by an innocuously named immigration policy that activists consider one of the cruellest and most ruthlessly efficient strands of Donald Trump’s anti-migration crusade.
Unveiled in January, the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) project, or Remain in Mexico as it is better known, stipulates that asylum seekers must wait for their court hearings in Mexican border towns – several of which count among the most violent places on Earth.
Even when they do reach court after months of waiting, only a tiny proportion of applicants succeed. Research by academics at Syracuse University found that only 11 out of nearly 10,000 asylum requests were granted in the first nine months of this year.
“It’s just a chicken-shit administrative way of not letting people legally seek asylum,” said Kelly Overton, whose NGO, Border Kindness, helps the policy’s victims in Mexicali, one of six border cities involved in the scheme alongside Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Piedras Negras, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros.
“The majority of people are fleeing something – whether that’s an immediate threat of violence, [or] a guaranteed life of poverty and despair for their children. They are doing this for a reason,” Overton said.
“And it is shameful how the United States is responding. It is devastating.”
Overton, whose group buses asylum seekers to hearings in the US, said the human consequences of the policy were twofold.
Many of those sent back, convinced they stood no chance of being legally admitted to the US, were risking their lives by returning to Central American countries suffering some of the world’s highest murder rates. “Some of the people we have helped this year that have gone back will be dead by next year,” Overton said.
Those who chose to wait it out, meanwhile, were exposed to con artists and kidnappers who preyed on those whose accents or clothes marked them out as outsiders.
Earlier this month the advocacy group Human Rights First accused the Trump administration of exposing asylum seekers to “life-threatening dangers” after documenting 636 cases of kidnapping, rape, torture, assault and other violent attacks against those returned to Mexico.
Victims included a nine-year-old disabled girl and her mother who were kidnapped and raped after being sent back to Tijuana.
Human Rights First researcher Kennji Kizuka said he suspected such perils were actually part of Trump’s plan. Exposure to hostile environments was designed to “scare people out of remaining and waiting for their immigration proceedings” and thus reduce migration.
Terrifying stories of violence and exploitation are easy to encounter in towns such as Mexicali.
A Cuban woman told of how armed men had forced her into a car in broad daylight at the start of a terrifying four-day abduction during which she was deprived of food and water.
“They took everything – our money, our clothes, everything,” said the woman, who had also fled her country for political reasons.
“Thank God we managed to escape and we’re alive to tell the story – not everyone is so lucky.”
A Honduran woman, who also asked not to be named, said she had not left the shelter where she was living since being approached by a gang of pornographers offering her $50 to pose for naked photographs.
“I’m scared – really, really scared,” she said.
The Guevaras, whose home is now a cramped flat on Mexicali’s outskirts, said they also lived in constant fear, speaking quietly in public to hide their distinctive Venezuelan accents and hardly venturing outside.
“People say to us: ‘Be careful. Don’t go out on the streets. Don’t leave the kids on their own,’” Andrea said. “You never know who you are dealing with here.”
Her husband insisted they could not return to Venezuela. “But Mexico is almost as dangerous.”
Remain in Mexico is part of a wider set of anti-immigration initiatives created since Trump took office in 2017, including an asylum ban targeting Central American migrants, a dramatic reduction of refugee resettlements and a highly controversial family separation policy scrapped after a global outcry.
Margaret Cargioli, a San Diego-based immigration lawyer, called the policy part of “an astonishing anti-migrant machine” designed to repel outsiders.
“All of the measures, fundamentally, are racist and xenophobic policies,” Cargioli said. “It’s very planned out, it’s very deliberate.”
Trump defends the moves as intended to protect the US from “bad hombres”, “thugs” and “animals”.
But in Mexicali the Guardian found mostly desperate young families forced from their homes by situations far beyond their control.
In a dingy abandoned cinema converted into a migrant flophouse, Norma Quevedo said crime and deprivation had compelled her to flee Guatemala City with her five-year-old son, Antonio.
“The truth is we want a better future for our children … so we decided to risk it all,” said the 30-year-old single mother.
In another shelter Leonela Cabrera Martínez, a Honduran mother-of-three, said she was trying to outrun gangsters who targeted her family for failing to pay “rent”.
“They killed one of my brothers. That’s why we came,” said Cabrera, who was with three daughters aged 10, six and three.
“I can’t go back,” Cabrera insisted. “If I could go back, I would. But I can’t.”
On a recent afternoon the shelter welcomed its latest guests: a 42-year-old asylum seeker called Santo Catalino López Velásquez who had been returned from the US just hours earlier after a 36-hour stint in the freezing hielera (icebox) detention centre with his wife, Fidelia Jaqueline García Álvarez, and their baby daughter and toddler son.
Like nearly every other migrant interviewed for this story López shed tears that spoke of overwhelming emotional exhaustion as he told his story.
In March, land-grabbers in southern Honduras had threatened to kill him if he failed to surrender his small farm. In April they torched his home. Days later López fled, stowing away inside lorries all the way to the US border with his wife and children.
Penniless and still dazed from the ordeal, López said he had no idea how he would support his family as he remained in Mexico – let alone attend their court hearing 130 miles away in San Diego.
“We haven’t got a single peso,” he admitted. “Nada.”
But like many of those now stuck in border limbo, López was sure of one thing.
“There’s no way we can go back – we’ll be killed,” he said, breaking down as he spoke. “I cannot go back.”
Additional reporting by Jordi Lebrija