By Delphine Schrank
TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - After Willians Bonilla fled threats from a street gang in Honduras two years ago to seek asylum in the United States, he spent seven months in detention only to be deported back to his native land in Central America to face his attackers anew.
So Bonilla, a 26-year-old car painter, promptly headed back to the U.S. border, now with his wife and 2-year-old son. They crossed Guatemala to southern Mexico and then, in a ragtag caravan relentlessly criticized by U.S. President Donald Trump, trekked 2,000 miles north to Tijuana.
Mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, caravan migrants like Bonilla face a predicament. Escaping gang violence, political turmoil and economic dysfunction, they seek a refuge in the United States, but with little certainty of a welcome, especially in the age of Trump.
Chances of being granted asylum are slim. Many could face long detentions and separation from families while awaiting court hearings that could end with deportation orders.
Bonilla had no desire now to fight for asylum, unwilling to again endure the hardships of U.S. detention and the tortuous wait for a trial before an immigration judge, only to be rejected and flown back to the lethal quagmire he had fled twice.
Instead, the family decided that his wife and child would apply for asylum, figuring they stood a better chance because of their vulnerability and the fact they have relatives already in the United States. Sharp and witty, with a dream of studying art that turned into a career of custom-painting cars, Bonilla said he struggled with his decision.
"She knows hardship," said Bonilla, almost proudly, of his wife, who had lived in a restive part of Honduras, but even that might not blunt the shock when his family arrived in America. "They have no idea what they're in for."
Bonilla's gaze darkened as recalled incarceration first in a Texas government-run facility, which he remembered as "okay," and then in the private Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, which he called "a cesspool."
Trump has made his hard-line stance on immigration an integral part of his presidency and has advocated a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to stem the flow of migrants.
Nevertheless, about 5,000 Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans were given interviews each month in 2017, the first step in claiming asylum, according to the most recent U.S. data.
At least 140 migrants of the caravan plan to apply for asylum. U.S. authorities have allowed in a few at a time since Monday, mostly women and children, through the San Ysidro port of entry into California, with much of the group camped near the crossing still waiting for entry.
When Bonilla made his 2016 asylum attempt, American border officials asked him if he was frightened to return home, a mandatory question for undocumented arrivals at U.S. ports of entry during the first few days of detention. He answered "yes."
That "yes" triggered the asylum process, which entails an interview to assess an applicant's "credible fear" and a court date for a ruling on asylum or deportation weeks, months or even years later.
Bonilla was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, first in Texas and then in the Georgia detention center owned by CoreCivic Inc. "Ay! Ay!" he said, as he recalled the Georgia facility. He called the food barely edible. The guards, he said, were racist and tore up letters that detainees wrote, including one he had hoped to send to a state official regarding his case.
Responding to complaints at the facility, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report last year that backed up Bonilla's account. It detailed questionable use of solitary confinement, delayed healthcare, broken and dirty bathrooms and moldy food.
"The issues identified by the December report were quickly and effectively remedied," said CoreCivic spokesman Steve Owen said, adding that much of the facility's leadership team eats the same meals as the detainees and that he was unaware of complaints of racism or instances of staff not delivering mail.
"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement," ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said.
In the end, a judge rejected Bonilla's asylum claim and he was sent home, where he said the gang closed in again, this time attacking his wife.
Carrying photos to document the beatings she sustained, Bonilla's wife and child may spend less time in custody thanks to rules limiting the duration that women and children can be held as well as a shortage of beds in detention centers.
Another member of the caravan, Bonilla's fellow Honduran Jose Cristobal said he also chose to remain in Mexico while common law partner Yolanda Hieron Meras and his 15-year-old son seek asylum.
Cristobal, a 48-year-old welder, said the family left home under the cover of darkness shortly after his son received two death threats from a gang, one in person, the second handwritten.
"They don't give you more than two chances," Cristobal said.
He pinched his nose hard to hold back the tears as he watched his partner and son disappear through the San Ysidro gate on Tuesday to make an asylum claim. Cristobal said he would try to join them sometime later in the United States legally but acknowledged the chances were low.
The journey from Honduras had been arduous. The family were robbed within minutes of arriving in Mexico through Guatemala, he said, losing their only valuable possessions: two telephones and all their cash.
Unwilling to seek police help for fear of deportation, Cristobal found work as a handyman until he struck his thumb with a hammer and the injury became infected.
The family stumbled upon the caravan in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula, Cristobal said. From there, on March 25, it began its month-long odyssey northward. They saw it as a way to reach the U.S. border safely, with sporadic offerings of transportation, food and shelter.
The caravan, which peaked at nearly 1,500 people in early April, had dwindled to a few hundred by the time it reached Tijuna, a vast logistical feat that had meant relying on loaned buses and walking for hours.
For one long leg of the journey Cristobal's family had to leap aboard a freight train, dubbed "El Tren de La Muerte", the train of death, because of the injuries suffered as migrants race to catch it, climb to the roof, and grip on for dear life as it rolls and pitches.
Making it to Tijuana seemed to them a near-miracle.
Dozens of caravan members described to Reuters fleeing appalling conditions that included sexual violence, political persecution, dysfunctional economies, and lethal threats to themselves or family members in neighborhoods with some of the world's highest murder rates.
Migrants who fled the brutal Barrio 18 or MS-13 Mara gangs after refusing to join them or pay protection money said they continued to receive threats in Mexico. At least two said they had received messages that family members back home would be killed if they failed to send payment.
But once they reach the United States, they must run the gauntlet of an immigration system caught between assisting or criminalizing hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who have entered the United States in the past decade.
Asylum seekers must demonstrate fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group. Criminal threats or violence alone are generally not considered sufficient reason for asylum.
The Trump administration has cited a more-than-tenfold rise in asylum claims compared to 2011, including growing numbers of families and children and a shift to more Central Americans as signs that people are fraudulently taking advantage of the system. Trump aims to change U.S. law to make it harder to claim asylum.
Some immigration lawyers said the unrelenting criminal violence in Central America should prompt the United States to reassess the asylum system.
"In a lot of ways, those countries look like war zones," said Bree Bernwanger, an asylum attorney who works on Central American cases.
Jenna Gilbert, a lawyer at the Human Rights First advocacy group, said enduring the asylum process would be hard on anyone.
"It's a different name, but let's have no qualms about what it is," Gilbert said. "It is jail."
(Reporting by Delphine Schrank; Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Will Dunham)