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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mex. – One of the largest families to cross the U.S.-Mexico border together into Texas in recent years with the hope of securing asylum arrived in El Paso on Saturday.
After languishing for five days in a hot government office here surviving on soup, beans, and water, 20 family members crossed the Bridge of the Americas into El Paso, seeking asylum after two of their relatives were killed the previous week and death threats against others increased.
Héctor Porras, 45, said he and his family fled Villa Ahumada Tuesday to Juárez, after his 49-year-old brother, Rudolpho was killed June 16, and his 18-year-old nephew, Jaime, was killed two days later while visiting his father's new grave.
In a phone interview from the Attorney General’s office in Juárez Saturday, Porras said the family, which owns small food stands in the area was being extorted by La Línea, the street enforcement arm of the Vicente Carillo Fuentes/Juárez Cartel.
"They – the police – are supposed to be here to protect us,” Porras said. “But while the store was being robbed and my brother shot, they were sitting outside and did nothing."
Since 2008, Villa Ahumada has been the scene of numerous killings that included the chief of police, kidnappings and allegations of police corruption and links to the Juárez Cartel.
"We received threats that they were going to kill more of us, so we grabbed what we could and left," Porras said.
The family quickly fled en masse to Juárez with an escort from the state police. Once in the city the family told officials at the Attorney General’s office, where they thought they would be safe, they were afraid for their lives and wanted to seek asylum in the United States, but needed protection for the 10-minute drive to the border, where they could surrender themselves to Customs and Border Protection officials to make their request.
"First they wanted to see about helping us, but then they began changing their mind where as of today (Saturday) they said we can just leave if we wanted but they wouldn’t protect us," Porras said. "We are afraid."
In a rapid series of events that Porras believes was precipitated by increasing media coverage, the officials at the Attorney General’s office, known by its Spanish initials as PGR, agreed to provide security on the perimeter of the route to the bridge but not an official escort. By around 5 p.m. the family crossed the bridge and was being processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Crystal Massey, a human rights advocate with the law office of Carlos Spector in El Paso, Texas, who has been retained to represent the Porras family through the asylum process said the family has legitimate concerns. She said families may come here, “but usually in smaller groups of threes and fours.”
“We have seen it many times in Chihuahua where families have been killed,” she said. “This is the largest single family group we have ever seen cross the border at the same time.”
Massey said last August they saw a group of 14 family members seek asylum.
Officials at both the PGR and U.S. Customs and Border Protection were unavailable for comment.
Massey said it is not uncommon for asylum seekers to receive escorts to the El Paso sector bridges from Mexican officials.
“We’ve had several families escorted to the bridge by the military for protection,” Massey said.
Porras said he doesn't feel the family, which includes his 67-year-old mother and children as young as three years old, was being held against their will by the PGR office in Juárez, but without protection the uncertainty of walking outside was daunting enough to keep them in the government building until authorities reached a decision.
He said at one point an official from Mexico City was supposed to arrive and persuade the family to relocate within Mexico, an option Porras had no interest in discussing.
The family had been languishing in a single room in the drab PGR office building in downtown Juárez without air conditioning to cool the 104 degree temperature. They slept on the floor, had no showers, and only could use one bathroom.
"The PGR is essentially washing their hands of this family by saying that if they want to leave they can but without any security," said Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter and advocacy group in El Paso, Texas. "Héctor told me he was not going to risk any more of his family without protection."
Porras said as the week wore on not only had there been no further support from the PGR, the family actually began to fear the very people they turned to for help.
"We can't trust anyone," Porras said.
Garcia said he believes the Porras family has relatives already in El Paso they will be staying with.
Though the Porras family was accepted at the border, they still face an uphill battle to acquire asylum. Most of them will file defensive applications because they do not possess a valid border crossing card – a process can take up to four years before an immigration judge makes a decision.