TIJUANA, Mexico — Kenia Elizabeth Avila Garcia sat in a restaurant stairwell looking dejected while the youngest of her three children bounced a rubber ball on the steps.
She had just met with an American lawyer providing pro bono legal consultations in a room upstairs to the migrants from Central America who traveled in a caravan through Mexico to the U.S. border.
The lawyer had just given her a sobering warning.
By applying for asylum, there is a chance U.S. immigration authorities could separate her from her children, the lawyer told Avila Garcia.
"I didn't come all this way to be separated from my children," the 35-year-old mother from Honduras said as the late afternoon sunlight shining through a window accentuated the deep lines on her travel-weary face.
The warnings are based on mounting evidence that U.S. immigration authorities under President Trump's administration have been separating Central American parents from their children, possibly as punishment or a deterrent.
Children have been separated from parents after the families arrived at the U.S. border seeking refuge and taken into custody.
'More harsh than it's ever been'
"We are providing a warning because, unfortunately, it's by choice of the officers and the U.S. customs and immigration authorities to separate families," said James Davis, an immigration attorney from the Immigration Legal Services of Chula Vista who joined other lawyers from the United States to provide legal consultations to the migrants in Tijuana.
"There have been situations where they will mis-track the kids and then have to try and find them because they've been separated from their parents," Davis said, adding that the family separations appear intentional. "The environment is clearly more harsh than it's ever been."
As a precaution, American lawyers have been providing migrant parents legal documents that verify the children they are traveling with belong to them and requesting that they not be separated during the asylum process, Davis said.
More than 700 migrant children have been taken from adults claiming to be their parents since October, according to the New York Times. The newspaper reviewed data prepared by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, which takes custody of children who have been removed from migrant parents.
More than 100 of the children taken from parents were under the age of 4, the Times reported.
DHS: Separations not for deterrence
DHS officials could not be independently reached for comment Saturday.
But in a statement provided to the Times, a DHS official said children are occasionally separated from an adult they are traveling with in some instances, such as when parental relationships cannot be confirmed.
DHS does not separate children from parents for deterrence purposes, the statement said.
Critics aren't buying it.
There has been a "huge spike" in the number of migrant children separated from parents as the result of efforts by the Trump administration to deter migrant families from Central America, said Jennifer Podkul, director of policy at Kids In Need of Defense, a group that provides legal representation to unaccompanied migrant children.
She noted two cases involving mothers separated from a 7-year old and a 12-year-old who were deported while their children were still in the custody of U.S. immigration authorities.
Podkul said the Trump administration's decision to aggressively prosecute migrant parents is exacerbating family separations.
"Under this administration, what we've seen happening is a sort of punishment, as a way of trying to deter families from trying to come here," she said. "And also they've devoted so many more resources to criminal prosecutions (of migrants and) that has also caused a huge spike in the separations."
'I can't go back to Honduras'
Avila Garcia said she fled Honduras with her three children after receiving death threats from gangs after she filed a police complaint against her abusive husband.
She is among the approximately 300 migrants from Central America who arrived this week in Tijuana in a caravan, the majority of them women and children from Honduras.
She planned to present herself on Sunday to U.S. border officers at the San Ysidro port of entry and apply for asylum. She said she has a brother who lives in Miami who is married to a U.S. citizen.
She said she was worried about the possibility that she could be separated from for her three children, 4-year-old Jeremy, 9-year-old Oscar Steven and 10-year-old Jose y Manuel.
Returning to Honduras, she said, was not an option because of the gangs that threatened her.
"I can't go back to Honduras," she said. "They said they want to kill me. I am sure they will kill me."
Domestic abuse and gang violence are rampant among the multiple factors forcing families to flee Honduras, said Suyapa Portillo, an assistant professor at Pitzer College, in Claremont, Calif.
Portillo is currently living in San Pedro Sula on the northern coast of Honduras, conducting research on the conditions in Honduras that are driving migrants and families to flee.
She was robbed in 2013, while visiting Roatan, an island popular with tourists.
While walking toward the beach with a friend, two young men jumped out from a woodsy area.
"One had a machete," Portillo recalled. "The other had a gun."
The men stole money and a camera, she said.
Portillo said victims of street crime, gang violence and domestic abuse in Honduras are afraid to call the police because they don't trust them.
Migrant caravan in Mexico
Violence, political turmoil worsening
She said drug-cartel violence has also worsened in Honduras, as U.S. efforts to stop drug trafficking through the Caribbean have pushed routes through Honduras and Central America. Free-trade agreements with the U.S. also have exacerbated divisions between the rich and the poor, forcing working-class people to seek better economic opportunities elsewhere, Portillo said.
The country is also grappling with major political turmoil in the wake of the November presidential election, which many Hondurans believe the incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernandez, won by fraud.
At least 23 people were killed during protests against the re-election of Orlando Hernandez, among them 22 civilians and one police officer, according to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the Higher Commissioner.
There were mass arrests during the protests, with at least 1,351 people detained by security forces, the report said.
Portillo said she has interviewed family members of political prisoners who haven't been seen since they were arrested in December. She said family members told her police were filming protesters and "then they would go hunt them down at night."
The political turmoil is now a main factor in pushing people to flee Honduras, including many who joined the caravan and now planning to ask for asylum in the U.S., she said.
"A lot of the migrants in that caravan are leaving because they've become disillusioned," she said. "People are leaving because they are now being hunted down by police. They don't just have to contend with narco-traffickers and gang members, now they have to contend with police investigations because they went to peaceful protests."