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Honduran Family Finds Shelter, Seeks Asylum in Iowa City

Kate Payne / IPR
Jackie Torres Toro and her son Isaac Lopez Torres have found a temporary home at the Iowa City Worker House. They're seeking asylum in the U.S. after walking thousands of miles from their home in Honduras fleeing gang violence.

A mother and son from Honduras have found shelter in Iowa after traveling with thousands of migrants from Central America. The family arrived in Iowa City on Christmas Day, after fleeing gang violence in their home of Choloma, Honduras.

Jackie Torres Toro and her 10 year old son Isaac Lopez Torres are getting settled in at the Iowa City Catholic Worker House, an old Victorian home on a tree-lined residential street where a team of volunteers offer meals, a safe space, and transitional housing for those in need. They're hoping to get Isaac enrolled in school by the time classes start back in January, and are working on getting treatment for his seizure disorder. 

When Jackie and her son left Honduras in mid October, she said they knew no one in the United States.

"I am alone here. I don't have anybody." Jackie said. "But now I have a second family apart from my first one," she said, speaking through an interpreter.  

While traveling through the Mexican state of Chiapas, a chance meeting with a stranger on the street put Torres Toro in contact with Emily Sinnwell, an organizer with the Iowa City Worker House who used to live in Mexico. Torres Toro says she's thankful to have found friends in the United States and shelter in Iowa City.

"God puts other people as his instrument to work through," she said through an interpreter. 

Torres Toro says she decided to flee Honduras after her family began recieving death threats earlier this year. Her brother, who was a bus attendant, was working when a group of attackers stormed the bus, shooting and killing the driver and some passengers and injuring others, including her brother and her father, who was shot twice in the head. Her brother saw the attackers' faces, and she says they've since threatened to kill her whole family if he doesn't "disappear."

“So the people that got on the bus are still looking for my brother and they’ve been threatening my family that they’re going to kill us all,” she said.

Torres Toro says she believes she would die if she returned to Honduras. 

“I left to save my life and the life of my kids because of all these assaults and threats that they’ve been making against us and our family,” she said.

The mother and son traveled with a large group of migrants from Central America, making their way through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, their number swelling to as many as 5,000 people at times, Torres Toro estimated. The so-called migrant caravan was widely disparaged by President Donald Trump, whose administration has taken a series of steps to limit legal and illegal immigration.

"I left to save my life and the life of my kids because of all these assaults and threats that they've been making against us and our family." - Jackie Torres Toro

Members of the Iowa City Catholic Worker House are formally sponsoring Jackie and Isaac and sheltering them, working to meet their needs and finding them legal representation. Organizer David Goodner says his faith requires him to support and welcome asylum seekers.

"The Iowa City Catholic Worker House will go to bat for Jackie and Isaac all the way to the end of the line and do everything in our power to help them stay here permanently. Catholic Social Teaching instructs us that 'People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families,' and 'A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy,'" Goodner wrote in an email. 

After crossing the border without authorization, the mother and son now face removal proceedings. Torres Toro hopes to make the case for asylum at an immigration hearing scheduled for later this month. 

National and international law protects asylum seekers fleeing persecution, based on their race, religion, ethnicity, political party or social group, which can includethose affected by domestic violence or gang violence. In order to qualify for protection, asylum seekers must prove they have acredible fear of persecution or torture. Torres Toro is working on amassing records to bolster her case, including hospital records for her brother and father, and video interviews made with her brother after the bus attack.

Despite national and international protections, the Trump administration has taken steps to limit the number of asylum seekers crossing the border, including recentlyordering migrants stay in Mexico while U.S. immigration officials work through a backlog of cases.

It's not clear how long it may take to process Jackie and Isaac's case, due to a partial government shutdown that has slowed the country's immigration courts. 

Funding for parts of the federal government lapsed as the president and members of Congress fight over whether to fund a wall along the southern border.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter