EL PASO — Some immigrants fleeing violence in Mexico are being denied the right to make their case for asylum once they arrive at the border, according to human rights organizations.
"Denying immigrants expressing fear for their lives a credible or reasonable fear interview leaves the individual isolated from the court system and violates both international and domestic law," said Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, an organization that runs two shelters for migrants.
"We are profoundly concerned about the denial of the rights of asylum seekers," he added.
The organization is following several cases. Among them: Rosa Hilda Carrera, 46, who is in an immigration detention center in El Paso.
"Right away I said I couldn’t return to Mexico," Carrera said, talking about a conversation she had with a Border Patrol agent after being arrested for crossing the border illegally in Laredo. "I said I was afraid because of what happened to my sons."
Her sons were murdered in Chihuahua, Mexico on April 13, 2012. Her son Abraham had moved to Mexico a year earlier. His brother Noe was deported.
They grew up in Dallas and came to the U.S. with their mother at the ages of 6 and 7. She arrived with a visa, but stayed after it expired.
Carrera spent 19 years living as an undocumented immigrant in Dallas, where she raised a family and only returned to Mexico to bury her two oldest sons — aged 26 and 27 — when they were gunned down in Chihuahua.
“Any mother would have done that,” said Gloria Reyes, Carrera's sister and a legal resident of the U.S.
But back in Mexico, when Carrera pressured police to investigate the murders of her sons, she said she was warned her family would face retaliation. So she fled across the border in fear of her life.
She was caught by the Border Patrol after crossing illegally into Laredo.
But Carrera said the border patrol agent who took down her information "did not say a word" when she told him about her fears. According to Carrera, he only asked for her name and date of birth, and then she was asked to sign a paper that turned out to be a voluntary departure document.
Carrera would try to cross the border a total of three times, and said each time told authorities she feared for her life in Mexico. Following the last attempt, she was sent to the El Paso immigration detention center.
Her surviving children — Jessica, 16, and eight-year-old Maximo — traveled from Dallas to the border to visit their mother for the first time since she was locked up a year ago.
Jessica has had to step in and fill her mother’s shoes.
“It’s really hard to be a mom to [Maximo] and still go to school and work and take care of him," said Jessica, a high school junior this year.
Maximo has struggled in school in his mother’s absence and has had to repeat a grade.
"I miss my mother," he said.
Both children are U.S. citizens. Their father, a truck mechanic, is a legal resident, but has had trouble working since his wife is no longer home to take care of the children. He recently found a job where he can work the graveyard shift so he can be home during the day.
Carrera finally got a "credible fear" interview with an asylum officer while at the immigration detention center and "passed." But by then she was considered a felon, so she is no longer eligible for asylum.
Immigrants caught entering the country without documents more than once face felony charges.
“Had they been given their 'credible fear' interview at the very beginning, they would not be convicted felons, and they would not be in detention," said Garcia, talking about Carrera and other Mexican nationals in the same situation.
Carrera's case is documented by Human Rights Watch in a report titled "Turning Migrants into Criminals."
According to Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — which enforces immigration laws — refers more cases for criminal prosecution than the Department of Justice, FBI, DEA and ATF, and the U.S. Marshal's Service combined.
In the past decade, prosecutions for illegal reentry have increased from 8,000 in 2002 to 48,000 in 2012, according to Human Rights Watch.
In a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency said due to privacy laws it cannot discuss specific cases.
An immigration judge will hear Carrera's appeal on September 4.
"The judge would probably be a father, and I know he wouldn't want his kids to be in the situation that we are in," Jessica said as she started to cry.
Her mother said she needs to be home with her children. She also wants to keep a promise she made to her oldest son, Noe.
When Carrera and her daughter visited the crime scene where he was killed, they found a tooth on the spot along with dried blood. Noe and his brother Abraham died in a hail of bullets outside a popular bar.
Carrera wants to use the tooth and hold a memorial to fulfill her son’s wish.
“He told me, 'If I die, don’t leave me in Mexico. Take me back to Dallas.'"