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Central American migrants watch as a Mexican Federal Police helicopter flies over the border bridge connecting Guatemala and Mexico in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018.
AP Photo/Santiago Billy
Watching from a distance.
THE WAITING GAME

“I decided not to join the migrant caravan”: A husband’s decision to wait

By Ana Campoy & Caitlin Hu

Marianne O’Riley has been waiting for her husband Alex for seven years.

Gamaliel Alex Rivera was deported to Honduras shortly after their engagement. The pair call each other on Whatsapp two or three times a day, sharing updates on Alex’s search for a job, Marianne’s health, and their petition to the US government to live together again in northern Virginia.

Two weeks ago, Alex told his wife that he was considering joining a group of civilians who planned to walk all the way to the US-Mexico border and request asylum. Walking with the group meant no smugglers and no more waiting.

“The week that the caravans started, some of my acquaintances left,” Alex says. “They told me, ‘Let’s go!'” Marianne was hesitant, fearing that joining the caravan could jeopardize Alex’s visa application. But the clock was ticking: A few years earlier, Marianne had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

The caravan sets off

The caravan set off in the Honduran border town of San Pedro Sula on Oct. 13. As word spread, people from other parts of the country joined. Two of Alex’s cousins called him to come, saying they had already decided to embark on the walk with their young children, and would request asylum when they arrived.

Now the group is in southern Mexico, still several weeks by foot from the US border. Many have dropped out along the way, due to hardship and entreaties from the Mexican and Honduran governments to give up. From its peak of roughly 7,000 members, about half are estimated to remain.

Donald Trump has taken a dim view of the travelers. The US president has repeatedly described the group as an “invasion,” and threatened to send thousands of US troops to the border. The precise number of troops to be sent rises every time he speaks about it; Trump’s latest threat is 15,000 soldiers, though federal troops’ activities are legally limited to support tasks, and do not involve border enforcement.

“These illegal caravans will not be allowed in,” Trump said at a Nov. 1 press conference. “They have to apply.”

But the caravan’s goals are legal. According to US law, people seeking asylum have the right to present themselves at a port of entry for refuge. While Central American migrants have in the past paid human traffickers to smuggle them to the US, the caravan’s members are betting on safety in numbers and complete transparency about their intent to request asylum.

“[The caravan] is big not because not because it poses some kind of threat to the US or disturbance, but because it disrupts networks of human trafficking and smuggling,” says Yoana Kuzmova, an immigration attorney and fellow at Boston University’s Forced Migration and Human Trafficking Initiative. She sees the public nature of the caravan as similar to the public “coming out” of many Dreamers in the US, after DACA was announced in 2012.

“The caravan is asserting a right, in that same sense,” she says. “It’s challenging countries like the US and Mexico to uphold their normative commitments to ensuring asylum.”

Running out of time

In 2009, Marianne, then 55, was working at a Virginia nonprofit that assists poor, homeless, and precarious individuals when Alex, 24 years her junior, walked in with a request for help: His employer had refused to pay him after a big construction job. He kept coming back after that, stopping by her desk and bringing her cups of coffee, she says. After a year, Alex asked Marianne’s adult son Charles for permission to date her.

Marianne and Alex speak Spanish together; although she never finished college, Marianne speaks five languages, in part thanks to practicing with the foreign exchange students she hosted from Charles’ high school.

On July 4, 2011, in front of a fireworks display in Washington DC, Alex proposed to Marianne. She accepted, knowing that he was undocumented. “Once we were engaged, I tried to get him to get civilly married here. Because once you do that, it stops the clock,” says Marianne. “But he was saying he wanted to give me a church wedding and see me walk down the aisle in a white dress.” Having been married twice before, Marianne chuckles at the romanticism. Still, she calls him her “soulmate.”

The two planned to marry in the spring. But they ran out of time—just weeks after the engagement, Alex was caught jaywalking to a local Chipotle. He was quickly put into deportation proceedings. “I cried,” he says. Marianne did not know where he had gone until the next day.

The pressure only rose after that. Marianne followed Alex to Honduras a few weeks later and they were married that winter by a local judge. Because of his deportation, Alex is banned from entering the US for 10 years. Honduras is one of the poorest Latin American countries, and he struggles to find work. He now lives in a single rented room in a gated community, which Marianne pays for but no longer visits.

It’s too dangerous, she says, citing a shoot-out that erupted in front of Alex last week as he made his way to the bank in Villanueva, where he lives now. Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and the US State Department urges Americans to “reconsider travel” to Honduras due to crime.

At home in Virginia, Marianna is fighting a different kind of danger. In 2014, she received a Stage IV diagnosis of a rare cancer in her digestive system that had long gone untreated. So far she’s lived two years longer than doctors expected, but has been unable to work. Meanwhile, she’s supporting both herself and Alex.

“Her salary is a pension. She is paying two rents. I feel bad knowing that she is suffering there too. Anywhere in the world, life is hard without support,” says Alex. “I had the strength to help her when I was there. I didn’t let her carry anything. If the car was broken, I would fix it. I even washed her clothes on occasion.”

The conversation

In 2015, Alex and Marianne duly filed his application to return to the US, just as Trump suggests. But Marianne has lost faith in the process.

A sheaf of affidavits make up an urgent chorus: “Marianne’s time is running out.”

Paperwork seems to have slowed under the Trump administration, they say, a complaint also made by others. Their family reunification petition has already been approved by the US government, but they’re still waiting for the final stage of Alex’s application: two waivers that would forgive his past and allow him to re-enter the country.

Their lawyer, Hassan Ahmad, speaks guardedly about the couple’s chances. Before Trump took office, the citizenship applications his office processed took four to five months, he says. Now, the average is 13 months. In Alex’s case file, a sheaf of affidavits signed by doctors, specialists, and nurses make up an urgent chorus: “Marianne’s time is running out.”

In mid-October, Marianne and Alex started discussing the caravan. He sent her videos of crowds gathering in the main plaza of Villanueva. Today, many Hondurans watch the caravan’s progress with anticipation, even as Trump rages against it. A second, smaller caravan of Central Americans has formed and follows in the tracks of the first. “When I go out to buy food, I hear of nothing else other than the caravans,” says Alex. “‘Let’s go boy, you’re losing your youth,’ they say.”

Marianne did not want Alex to join the caravan, fearing it would endanger his existing application. “Well, I just want to be with you,” she remembers Alex saying. “And I go, ‘I get that, but this is not the right way.’ And he listens to me! So he says, ‘Ok, caravan is out’… I said, ‘You made bad decisions; you already wrote a letter of pardon [about previously entering the US illegally]. You knew it was illegal to come. If there’s laws, you obey them, or you change them.'”

Legally, Alex is entitled to request asylum and have a screening interview like all asylum seekers. But the decision boils down to Alex’s safety, says their lawyer Ahmad. “Traveling with the caravan would have gotten Alex out of Honduras sooner,” he says. On the other hand, Trump’s militaristic language about sending troops to “treat them as if they were an army or a horde of some sort” concerns Ahmad, who would not have advised Alex to join the caravan.

The couple’s decision illustrates the tough choices for Hondurans considering joining a caravan, he adds. “Alex is always looking over his shoulder when he goes out. He sees people getting killed with impunity. When you’re literally dodging bullets, you don’t have the luxury of just waiting, even if that’s the best way to preserve your future in the long term. And it’s very difficult to sit down and have a rational conversation with someone who’s in a precarious situation.”

Waiting, apart

Alex ultimately told his friends that he would not go, on his wife’s advice. “The truth of things is that I cannot waste the money she has paid to migration,” he says. For now, he is resigned to wait. He and Marianne watch and share news of the caravan’s process every day, unsure whether Alex dodged a bullet or missed an opportunity.

Marianne doesn’t want to leave her son and granddaughter, who live in Virginia; nor can she easily leave her doctors. She calls the US “the best country in the world.” Yet she often thinks about quitting it, in order to find a third country where she can settle with her husband.

Alex remains a hostage to his safe room, he says. Violence looms in his city, and increasingly in US political rhetoric about people like him. “I take great care of my life; I want to share my life with my wife,” he says. “Sometimes I want to go, but she says ‘Alex, no, stop, no,’ and I stay here in my room, although I do not like my country.”