The two families sat huddled around the kitchen table, their heads bowed and hands clasped together, as they prayed.
“God, we give you thanks,” the Rev. Ry Siggelkow intoned in Spanish. “We are very fortunate to share this food together, to play together, to laugh together, to dance together and to love together.” Amid giggling, the children rang out a loud “Amen!” and reached for the food.
Two months earlier, the six children and three adults gathered here in prayer were strangers, living 5,000 miles apart on separate continents and speaking different languages. Now they are living under the same roof in northeast Minneapolis, their lives and their fates entwined.
Nuria Arias, 32, and her three children fled their native Honduras this spring and joined a giant caravan of more than 1,200 Central American migrants that enraged President Donald Trump and triggered a fresh round of calls to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border. The Arias family rode on the tops of train cars, walked and rode buses for hundreds of miles through the desert and crossed rivers by moonlight — all to escape gang violence and extortion and to seek a better future. Their monthlong odyssey took the family from the chaotic streets of Tegucigalpa, where they say Honduran gangs sprayed the family’s restaurant with bullets, to the tranquil and caring home of Siggelkow, the energetic pastor of the Faith Mennonite Church, and his wife, Marcia.
Their worlds collided in June when the two families connected via Facebook and immigration authorities approved Arias’ move from a detention center in south Texas to Minnesota, where her asylum case winds its way through immigration court.
“The fact that we survived is a miracle,” Arias said.
But now, it has become uncertain whether the Arias family — and others fleeing gang violence and political persecution in Central America — can stay.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June ordered Immigration Court judges to stop granting asylum to most victims of domestic and gang violence, saying he believes immigrants are fraudulently taking advantage of the system. In a 2017 speech, Sessions cited skyrocketing increases in asylum claims and removal proceedings as evidence that fraudulent claims are “overwhelming the system and leaving those with just claims buried.”
Immigration advocates say the ruling will endanger tens of thousands of people seeking permanent entry into the U.S., and it comes as the Trump administration takes an increasingly hard line on asylum-seekers, making their slim chances of approval even more remote. Last year, 62 percent of those seeking asylum in the U.S. lost their cases, the fifth consecutive year that denial rates have increased, according to federal data.
For migrants from Central America, the odds of winning asylum are even worse, with nearly 80 percent being denied entry last year.
“The Trump administration tends to view all immigration as a security threat, and they are pulling out all the tricks and tools to keep out asylum-seekers,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a research group in Washington, D.C.
Memories of violence
The sounds of young children chasing one another echoed through the Siggelkows’ tidy home as Arias cooked a plate of warm corn tortilla flutes stuffed with meat, or flautas, for dinner.
In just over a month, the two families have become inseparable, sharing food, clothing, games, songs and prayers as if they had been living together for years. Spanish is the dominant language in the home, and the Siggelkows have taped pages of Spanish vocabulary words and phrases on their kitchen cabinet.
Yet memories of everyday violence in Honduras and the perilous journey north still haunt the family. “There are times that I have to remind [my children] that we are safe and that we’re not on a train anymore,” Arias said.
Brian, the youngest at age 5, sometimes becomes agitated and runs through the house yelling, “Fuera [out with] JOH! Fuera JOH!,” a protest chant against the authoritarian president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, who is often referred to by his initials.
Nuria Arias at times became overwhelmed with emotion as she recounted life in Honduras, and she deferred many of the questions to her cousin, Edward Arias, who recently emigrated to the U.S. and joined her for the interview.
In Tegucigalpa, Nuria Arias delivered sodas and other drinks to passengers on city buses. Her family’s home was on the border between rival gangs engaged in a vicious turf war, and bodies would sometimes turn up on the streets.
To avoid violence, business owners had to pay gang members weekly fees that amounted to nearly half the family’s income. When her uncle, a bus driver, missed a payment, he was shot dead on a busy street corner, according to Edward Arias.
“They know your life even better than you do,” Nuria Arias said of the gangs and their hired assassins.
One afternoon, machine-gun fire tore through a small restaurant owned by relatives of Arias in Tegucigalpa. Edward recalled how they dove to the floor as bullets flew above their heads and glass shattered. “It was ‘Russian roulette,’ ” Edward Arias said. “Every day you wondered if it would be your turn to die.”
The violence intensified following the re-election last December of Hernandez in a disputed vote that plunged Honduras into its worst political crisis in a decade. Dozens of protesters were killed by military police during a postelection crackdown.
Journey by caravan
In March, Arias and her children fled Honduras, and she recounted the journey in exhaustive detail from the Siggelkows’ living room.
She said the family traveled by bus through Honduras and Guatemala until they reached the Suchiate River, which borders Mexico. They crossed the wide river on inner tubes early in the morning, while it was still dark, to avoid being spotted by Mexican immigration authorities.
Once in Mexico, she saw fliers for a migrant caravan of hundreds of Central Americans making its way to the U.S. border. Arias joined them in Tapachula, a town in southwest Mexico, and hoped, like many, that the larger numbers would protect her family from thieves and predators.
In Mexico City, the Arias family and hundreds of other travelers climbed atop one of the freight trains known collectively as “La Bestia,” or “The Beast.” Using hay bales for support, Arias clung tightly to her youngest children as the train hurtled through the Mexican desert. At times, the conductor would stop and force everyone off, stranding the passengers for hours in the hot sun until the next train arrived, she said. “It felt like an eternity on the train,” Arias said.
It took the family three nights and five trains to reach the large city of Guadalajara, where the swelling numbers of migrants then took buses to the U.S. border.
Along the way, the caravan was thrust into the international spotlight after Trump expressed alarm and unleashed a flurry of tweets, warning of perceived threats to U.S. security posed by the migrants. At points, Trump threatened to call out the National Guard and warned of reprisals against Honduras and Mexico if they did not stop the convoy. “NEED WALL!” Trump tweeted in April.
The escalating rhetoric emboldened people on the caravan, who heard about Trump’s comments via social media and from the growing swarm of Latin American news reporters covering their journey north. Among the hundreds of Hondurans on the trains, chants of “Fuera JOH!” were soon replaced with “Fuera Trump!”
“If I was a criminal, then I would have stayed back in my home country,” Arias said. “It is because we are not criminals that we chose to flee.”
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the Siggelkows had become increasingly concerned as they watched news reports of the caravan and a standoff at the U.S. border.
They put their names on a list of potential sponsors. In June, the families connected via Facebook Messenger but then lost contact with each other for weeks after Arias and her children were detained after presenting themselves legally at a border crossing near Tijuana, Mexico.
Migrants who claim asylum at a border crossing, and who demonstrate that they have a “credible fear” of returning home, can be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally while their asylum requests are being processed.
The Rev. Siggelkow woke to a phone call July 5 informing him the family would be released from detention the next day and would need transportation to Minneapolis. He bought them one-way plane tickets, and the families met for the first time at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “I want to cry now,” Arias said in Spanish as she recounted her joy at meeting her sponsor family.
“I can’t even describe the feeling,” the pastor added. “When we finally hugged, we didn’t want to let go.”
Waiting for asylum
Nuria Arias dreams of opening a restaurant in Minnesota and buying a home for her family. But the electronic monitoring device wrapped tightly around her left ankle is a regular reminder that she is not yet free, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) knows exactly where she is at all times as her asylum case moves forward.
At Minnesota’s Immigration Court in Bloomington, which has a backlog of about 6,400 pending cases, the average wait time for a hearing is nearly two years.
“The most important thing now is for my children to study and do well in school,” Arias said. “The rest we shall see.”
On a bright Sunday morning, members of the Faith Mennonite Church in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis warmly greeted Arias and her children as they settled into a pew for worship service. In his sermon, Siggelkow compared their journey to the Bible’s story of Job.
“Nuria knows what it means to suffer unjustly,” Siggelkow declared from the pulpit. “Nuria knows what it means to wrestle with God. Nuria knows Job. Nuria is Job.”
The pastor ended the sermon with an impassioned call for unity: “We do not fear evil, for we have experienced a love and a life that can overcome the death-dealing realities of our world.”