a man posing for a picture in front of the border wall.

These migrant families walked north for safety. Now they face coronavirus.

After fleeing violence in Honduras, three migrant families grapple with lost jobs, illness, and uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19.

After two months of traveling on top of trains, buses and on foot, Moises Cubas stands at the U.S.-Mexico border, a little leaner, sunburnt, and tired. Cubas joined the migrant caravan leaving Honduras in 2019. Now, he waits for asylum in the border city of Mexicali, in Baja California, which has the third-highest number of cases of coronavirus in Mexico.

Photograph by Tomás Ayuso

Young parents flee their homeland carrying their child on their backs; a pregnant mother leaves her partner behind at the border; a family relies on a network of relatives to survive in the American heartland. These harrowing, disparate journeys are connected by a single origin point: migrant caravans.

Starting in late 2018, thousands of Central Americans joined caravans heading north, determined to reach the U.S. border via Guatemala and Mexico. Fleeing desperate conditions at home, they hoped that the caravans would bring safety in numbers, protecting them from gangs and human traffickers that prey on migrants. These journeys continued until the Mexican government deployed security forces to the border with Guatemala to deter them in January 2020.

Honduras was at the epicenter of the mass migration. After a hurricane in 1998 and a coup in 2009, the country struggled under the unrelenting combination of poverty, corruption, and violence. Murder rates spiked. Gangs proliferated. Climate change dried the lands that campesinos, farmers, had relied on for generations. Youth grew disillusioned in an economy where they had little opportunity. Honduras became one of the world’s most inequitable societies.

Initially, Honduran migrants who reached the United States’ southern border sought asylum by surrendering to American Customs and Border Protection. Some, including children, were interned in a network of detention centers that currently holds 52,000 people. But in early 2019, the United States struck a deal with Mexico to make nearly 60,000 asylum seekers wait for their hearings in that country.

More than a year later, the coronavirus pandemic has sealed the borders these groups once crossed. Some wait for asylum in the U.S. or in Mexico; many work on the fringes of the informal economy. The virus has frozen their applications, and with it, their futures. The cramped camps where they live are said to be on the brink of humanitarian disaster as COVID-19 cases appear.

What is life like now for the Honduran families who fled their country and headed north more than a year ago? As a photographer, I set out to find stories of those making their lives anew despite hardships and barriers. Did they find the sanctuary they dreamed of? Was the cost of exile too high?

Moises, Meya, & Gimena

Moises Cubas and Meya Chavez grew up in the same neighborhood in San Pedro Sula, on the frontlines of the gang wars ravaging Honduras’ second-largest city. Moises managed to avoid conscription into the local gangs, but that didn’t stop the police from assuming he was in one and repeatedly brutalizing him, Moises says. Death squads and masked youth with long guns were a constant threat, in a ruined city where their generation’s lives never mattered.

When Meya gave birth to their daughter, Gimena, everything changed for the couple. Meya had already lost her father, a sister, and a brother to street violence. She and her mother were the only ones left. “I don’t want my baby to live through what I’ve lived through,” Meya said.

A friend of Moises’s warned him, “The future here is dead. Save yourselves.” The pair caught word of a caravan leaving their homeland in spring 2019, and leapt at the chance. “Whatever happens, we go as a family,” Moises said the night before leaving. “Nothing will tear us apart.”

The morning they left, their families wept, uncertain if they’d see each other again. On a bus to Guatemala, Meya, who had never left her city, felt both at home and far away. The musical Honduran accent filled the bus. When it reached the Guatemalan highlands, Meya felt a cold climate for the first time.

Once in Mexico, the young parents hopped trains with Gimena swaddled to their chests. At the U.S. border, they gazed through the fence at the twinkling lights of San Diego.

The challenge of seeking asylum loomed. Without legal guidance amid ever-changing rules, Moises and Meya wait to plead their case to the bottlenecked U.S. system in the Mexican border town of Mexicali. They rented a small room in Mexicali’s migrant quarter and worked when they could—painting or babysitting—while Gimena played with neighborhood children.

Then came the coronavirus. Baja California, the state where they live, has the most cases in the country. Meya lost her housecleaning job. Moises hasn’t been able to find work for a month They can’t afford necessities such as masks or cleaning supplies.

With their asylum application on hold due to the pandemic, the U.S. feels far away. At night, Moises wonders: Did their opportunity pass? But he still thinks that scraping together a life on the margins while waiting for a better future is preferable to the violence at home. He and Meya believe they’ll cross the border with Gimena someday. God, they say, will grant them a safe home.

Adriana & Franklin

In mid-2018, Adriana (last name omitted for her safety), a single mother from San Pedro Sula, received an ultimatum from a gang: Hand over her 10-year-old son, Franklin, or face deadly consequences. She and her partner Miguel (not his real name) had lived surrounded by violence for years and he had vowed to find them a way out. When the gang went to her son’s school to recruit him as a lookout, Adriana knew it was time to leave. But how? As if the universe heard her, a caravan formed that October.

They left with nothing but a backpack of Franklin’s stuffed animals. Miguel had made the journey to the U.S. before, at age 12. He had fled an abusive father but was later deported. Miguel had sworn that if he ever became a dad, he’d be nothing like his own. As the caravan wound its way through Mexico, Miguel found shelter for Adriana and Franklin, and made sure they ate even when he didn’t.

When the caravan reached Tijuana, Adriana discovered she was pregnant. Rumors swirled that the U.S. asylum system was shutting down and Miguel feared that his past deportation might hurt their case—so he urged Adriana to take Franklin and cross the border without him. Before sunrise on a December morning they said tearful goodbyes through a chain link fence.

Now in Los Angeles, Adriana mourns her lost country and left-behind love, but is grateful Miguel made good on his promise to give their family a future. Their son, Leandro, was born in the U.S. in June.

Adriana’s life revolves around getting to her asylum court dates; one missed appearance and she and her sons could be deported. The gangs don’t forget, she says, so to return to Honduras likely would be fatal. Adriana tears up when she speaks about her older son, Franklin. “He’s my angel,” she said. “I would have never left if it weren’t to save my baby.”

As Adriana cradles Leandro, her phone buzzes. It’s a videocall from Miguel, who coos at the bright-eyed infant through a cracked cellphone screen. He received asylum in Mexico and remains in a Tijuana suburb, a few hours south of them. Before the coronavirus crisis, Miguel had a job in security to support the family. Now, work is hard to come by.

In self-quarantine, Adriana tries to keep Franklin and Leandro entertained. She lost her job cleaning houses, but the family is getting by thanks to food banks and a program started by Los Angeles’s mayor to help the county’s undocumented population. She longs for life to return to normal.

Since they separated at the border, life has been tough, Miguel confesses. Nowadays they argue more than they laugh. But what choice did they have? He couldn’t cross and she couldn’t stay.

Josh & Ana

Joining a caravan was a life-or-death choice for Joshua and Ana Martinez. La Ceiba, the port city where they lived, was torn apart by traffickers’ war over cocaine routes to the United States. Ana’s first husband—the father of her son, Brian—was shot and killed on her doorstep five years ago. Joshua has lost siblings and countless childhood friends. Both feared they could be next.

The caravan, as Joshua saw it, was a human lifeboat that would bear them across parts of Mexico where countless Hondurans before them had disappeared. Ana hesitated. Her elderly mother pleaded with her to stay. It’s better that family remain together, she said, and they had already lost so many.

Ana chose to go. She decided to leave her preteen daughters in her mother’s care and figure out a way to bring them north later. She took her son’s hand on one side, Joshua’s on the other, and the family left La Ceiba for good.

Ana, Joshua, and Brian walked on scorching pavement and rode in the backs of trucks. They slept on streets and in parks. After two long months, they entered the U.S., where they settled in Indianapolis. Joshua’s extended family had moved there in the late nineties after a hurricane destroyed their home in Honduras.

As they waited for a second court date to settle their immigration status, Joshua found work as a construction worker, Ana as a housekeeper. Eight-year-old Brian learned to speak English better than Spanish. Last summer, the family joined other members of the Honduran diaspora in Indianapolis for a Fourth of July celebration. Neighbors’ fireworks tinted the sky as the children screamed for more. Ana and Joshua’s worries faded away, if only for a few moments.

All in all, life in America hasn’t been easy. The distance from family in Honduras is hard, Ana admits: “We speak every day. I can’t help but cry and question if I did the right thing.”

Recently, Joshua came down with a high fever, cough, and chest pains that he believes was COVID-19. Brian did not fall ill, but Ana had mild symptoms. She was furloughed from her job at a hotel; Joshua still works as a roofer, a job considered essential.

Their asylum hearing has been postponed indefinitely.

Tomás Ayuso is a Honduran photographer who focuses on Latin American conflict.

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