EL PASO — They left their Ixil Maya town deep in the Cuchumatanes mountains of Guatemala just before dawn and without much time to say goodbye.
Francisco Chávez Raymundo, 45, and Gaspar Cobo Corio, 32, had been part of a tight circle of indigenous activists who in the spring of 2013 helped bring a military dictator to trial over the 1982 genocide of the Ixil people, a Mayan ethnic group that became one of the main targets of systematic racism, rape, and forced displacement during the Guatemalan civil war.
But as they continued their work to preserve historical accounts and records of the massacre, and to defend their ancestral lands from the government and the transnational corporations with which it partnered, an authoritarian backlash began to gain momentum. First came the random assaults, then the assassinations.
Twenty-six human rights and climate activists were killed in 2018, including a 20-year-old university student, a friend of Cobo’s. The death toll was still mounting when activists hosted a town forum in May 2019 that ended with Mayan council leaders fiercely pushing back against a municipal candidate’s denial of the genocide. Afterward, a towering man followed Cobo out. He wrapped his arm around him, casually pressing him on his politicking as he walked Cobo to the edge of a desolate road known as “Feliz Viaje,” “Happy Journey.”
That night, he let Cobo go home but not without a warning, the metal touch of a gun at his waistband. “I called my friends and told them what happened, and the next day I told La’s I was leaving town,” Cobo said, referring to Chávez by his indigenous name.
Rattled, Chávez decided he should run, too.
Two years later, Chávez and Cobo are among thousands of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador who have been allowed to enter the United States, as the Biden administration unwinds a Trump-era program requiring asylum seekers to wait out their pending cases in Mexico. For nearly all, refuge remains elusive, as federal officials struggle to rebuild the path to asylum gutted by the prior administration.
In this crush of desperate humanity, it has been easy to lose track of the causes of this refugee increase and the reality of the people caught up in it. The stories of Chávez and Cobo may help close this grave gap in understanding; certainly, that is their hope.
Since 1980, people have had a right to enter the United States, legally or illegally, and request asylum, a status which allows them to stay lawfully in the country and is granted by a judge only to those escaping persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in “a particular social group,” and who can prove that oppression was at the hands of the government or an actor that government can’t control.
But when Donald Trump took office, his administration began to reduce the number of asylum cases officers could process in a day, encouraged judges to turn people away, and developed legal tactics to narrow who could qualify. By January 2019, officials had started implementing the controversial “Migrant Protection Protocols,“ known by the initials MPP or as the “Remain in Mexico” program, which allowed US officials to expel migrants and refugees who tried to cross into the US. Tent cities of thwarted asylum seekers sprang up on the Mexican side of the border as a result, as migrants waited years for the chance to apply for refuge.
As Joe Biden came into office, pledging to take a more humane approach to immigration, one of his first moves was to unravel the initiative, announcing that his administration would admit an estimated 25,000 migrants who had been expelled, most of them from Cuba, Guatemala, and Honduras. As of February, people traveling alone and in families, large and small — some of whom have spent up to three years waiting in Mexico — have started to cross in shifts through international bridges at border cities like El Paso to proceed with their asylum claims.
But the fact that they can now finally petition the US government for asylum, does not mean they will receive it. The bar for receiving asylum is very high, and migrants fleeing drug violence and persecution in Central America rarely had their petitions granted even before Trump’s asylum crackdown. The Biden administration does not seem in a rush to change that restrictive pattern as federal immigration agencies grapple with a large increase in the number of migrant children arriving at the US-Mexico border without their parents.
Biden officials have continued to keep refugee numbers low. Vice President Kamala Harris, tasked with addressing the “root causes” of migration from Central America, just last week met virtually with Guatemalan leaders to talk about how they could improve conditions in their country to prevent people from coming at all.
Chávez and Cobo, who were released from US immigration detention in February, spent 17 months in Ciudad Juárez under the Remain in Mexico program. The cases of the two Mayan leaders touch on virtually every piece of the tainted legacy of US immigration and foreign policy in the Latin American region, from the US sponsoring paramilitary dictators in their country to investing in some of the very security forces and development projects that have continued to displace thousands. For now, they say, they hope to continue their defense of indigenous communities in Guatemala from the US — if the US allows them to stay. They are here of necessity and not by preference.
“We are not looking for a better life,” Cobo said in the cinder-block apartment he shares with Chávez just blocks from the border wall. “We had that life where we are from.”
Chávez and Cobo prefer to go by their Ixil names, La’s and Kaxh, respectively, but the government, in a vestige of the era of colonial conquest, imposes Spanish names on people from the three towns of Santa María Nebaj, San Juan Cotzal, and San Gaspar Chajul, as well as dozens of remote villages and hamlets, home to the Ixil Maya. In schools, Ixil children are versed in Spanish history but not their own ancient story in this land — “the names of kings and queens, but not the rivers running through Ixil land that serve as our water supply,” Cobo said.
Born two war-torn generations apart, Chávez and Cobo are part of a larger movement of activists working to build social consciousness — a collective “memoria historica,” or historical memory — of the bloody Cold War-era battles that pitted US-backed authoritarian regimes against leftist guerillas and activists across Latin America. In Guatemala, that armed conflict spanned 36 years and was largely waged on Mayan lands. Roughly 200,000 people were killed, mostly of Mayan descent.
Chávez, a soft-spoken man with a slight frame and solemn gaze, was 6 when military forces pillaged his village in a series of massacres against the Ixil enabled by the late General Efraín Ríos Montt. Communal land was turned over to coffee growers and private property owners. He and his family went into hiding in the highlands of the Cuchumatanes. But soldiers soon pursued and executed his father, a Mayan activist forced to work on a coffee plantation, and tore Chávez and his 3-year-old sister away from their mother. The two were held in a military camp until Catholic nuns and priests took them in. In a documentary on Ríos Montt dubbed “El Buen Cristiano” — “The Good Christian” — a younger Chávez in Ixil dress takes his sister through the foggy mountain paths along which their family first fled their land.
“We saw many deaths, as well as burning houses, sick and elderly people,” he tells her, recounting how they walked for days through ravaged villages and foraged for food. “It’s good that you know this, because it is what we lived.”
The loss and bloodshed would have been forgotten had it not been for Chávez and other war orphans and widows, who collected historical records of the 1982 Ixil genocide and drew notice to the voices of survivors. Their efforts would become part of a larger push in Guatemala to strengthen the rule of law, weed out government corruption, and end violence against indigenous communities. But army death squads that persecuted villagers paved the way for exploitation by unscrupulous politicians and narco traffickers who sought to derail those hopes.
The movement reached a pivotal moment in 2013, when Ríos Montt was brought to trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. Chávez was one of many key Ixil Maya eyewitnesses to testify, his voice breaking as he recalled the painful reunion with his mother years later.
“My sister and I, we didn’t think we even had a living mother,” he said, pausing to compose himself as Ixil women in the courtroom audience wiped tears from their eyes.
Cobo, then a slim and outgoing man in his mid-20s, had been helping escort Chávez and the other witnesses to the courtroom. He had been raised in a military “model village” where the Guatemalan government had forced Ixil citizens after the civil war and was part of the next wave of young activists fighting against corruption and exploitation of Mayan lands. But a strong right wing backlash against their efforts began to take hold; with many denying the 1982 genocide had ever happened.
By 2019, only five months before Chávez and Cobo fled, thousands of activists blocked major roads to demand justice for indigenous communities, as the nation sat on the verge of a constitutional crisis. Leading up to it was a legacy of racism and land grabs targeting the Maya — first by the Spanish, then by coffee plantation owners, and now by corporations pursuing mining licenses and the building of hydroelectric plants, according to Giovanni Batz, an expert at the University of California Davis.
Chávez had already been thinking of heading north when Cobo called that May. Men had held a gun to his head three times, once or twice running off with records from his activist organization. “I had filed so many complaints with the public ministry and with the police, but there came a moment where I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Chávez said.
Chávez and Cobo left on a crisp day in June 2019 and made it to the US-Mexico border after a two-week journey. Mexican gang members threatened them. Mexican police took their money and called them racist slurs, according to a complaint they have since filed with a Mexican human rights commission. In Ciudad Juárez, across the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso, they were kidnapped by coyotes, or smugglers, and held in a warehouse with an open roof and little food for days.
After they escaped on July 10, they sought the aid of human rights organizations, which helped them apply to the Remain in Mexico program and connected them with a lawyer. They were denied entry into the country twice, until a series of messages from unknown numbers flooded Cobo’s phone one night, threatening their lives. Among the most ominous was a photo of his indigenous name — one only his family and friends use — scrawled on a scrap of white paper amid brass bullets.
“We called our lawyer and he said to drop everything and leave, so we did,” Cobo said. They crossed the border in November and were held in immigration detention until their release in February.
But in the United States, though they have stronger claims than most, Chávez and Cobo face steep odds of receiving asylum.
From January 2019 until January 2021, more than 71,000 asylum cases were filed from Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, mostly by people from Honduras and Guatemala, according to documents obtained from the Department of Justice by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which collects and analyzes immigration records.
Of more than 41,700 cases completed or closed, just 1.6 percent — 664 people — were granted asylum or given shelter in the United States. In 2017, by contrast, judges granted 40 percent of claims from asylum seekers.
The MMP petitions of Chávez and Cobo are now among some 8,100 active cases that have so far been processed under the Biden administration. They are still awaiting a final decision on their cases, which could take years in backlogged courts. Chávez’s first hearing is October; Cobo’s isn’t until August 2022.
The steep road Chávez and Cobo face in receiving asylum, even with such a well-documented tale of persecution over their ethnicity and political activity, illuminates how difficult it is for Central Americans to qualify for relief, even in the most compelling of cases. Immigration judges often require petitioners to prove their persecution was government-directed, which can be difficult to show for those in Latin American countries where the lines between narco traffickers and politicians are blurred, or where unstable governments are often unable to protect their populations from persecution. Human rights advocates are pushing for a broader definition of asylum that would include more applicants from these countries, and they point out that the United States contributed greatly to the instability in this region, and has a responsibility to do more.
Chávez and Cobo will have to persuade a judge that the threats they received came from people associated with the government and came as a result of their political activities, even though they don’t know the identity of all of their attackers.
But they have strong claims because they know the military was behind the attacks, said Carlos Spector, a lawyer and cofounder of Mexicanos en Exilio, a group of Mexican asylum seekers that has long worked to broaden the definition of asylum for people running from drug war violence.
“The case is significant,” he added, “because it touches on the many aspects of immigration both at home and abroad, starting with a triple conspiracy of three countries to expel people and have them fail at the asylum process.”
Hours before they left with nothing but a couple of backpacks two years ago, Chávez and Cobo tucked their children into sleep. Chávez left behind six, Cobo three. He had not known yet his wife was pregnant with his fourth.
Chávez holds back tears thinking about how he grew up without a father, and now his children are doing the same. But Chávez and Cobo stay focused on a larger mission. They have continued to share their story on Ixil broadcast networks back in Guatemala. They’re hoping to meet with members of Congress to give their first-hand accounts of how security has broken down in their country — and how US efforts to aid the region have failed indigenous communities like their own.
On a recent day, the two met immigrant rights advocates and lawyers at an international bridge in downtown El Paso under the brightness of the desert sun, far from the lush, green paradise they call home. They greeted new migrants arriving under MPP, helping haul their luggage and offering guidance, at times joining in cheers of “Welcome to the United States.” It is the kind of welcome they would have wanted for themselves.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of children Cobo has with his current wife. The couple has two children together, and she was pregnant with Cobo’s fourth child.