When José Colindres saw the picture of the Salvadorean man who drowned with his toddler daughter while attempting to cross the Rio Grande, he got chills.
The photo took the Fredericksburg resident back to May 2017, when he and his son, Jeycob, who was then barely 3 years old, crossed the McAllen–Hildalgo–Reynosa International Bridge over the Rio Grande and asked for asylum in the U.S.
“That could have been me,” Colindres said of Oscar Ramirez, who died with his daughter, Valeria, on June 23. “It really hurts me to see what people are going through now. I’ve been through that. The laws are every day harder and it’s even worse now.”
Colindres, who is from Honduras, was granted asylum by an immigration judge in Arlington on May 2, 2018, one year after he crossed over the border from Reynosa, Mexico, to the United States.
He was fleeing from the Cartel del Golfo, the powerful Mexican drug trafficking organization that was demanding $600 from him to stay in Mexico.
If he didn’t pay within 24 hours, the cartel told him they would raise the price to $5,000—and after that, if he still didn’t pay, they would throw his body parts into the Rio Grande.
Before he was fleeing from the Cartel del Golfo, Colindres was escaping the gang that threatened him and his family in his native Honduras.
Colindres, 34, said he had been involved with the gang when he was younger, but he’d stopped paying their extortion fees and started publicly denouncing their activities.
“When they realized who was speaking up, they came to kill us all,” he said, speaking through a translator, Sue Smith with Lucha Ministries.
One night, the gang broke into the apartment where Colindres lived with his sons Jeycob and Junior—who was 1 at the time—and their mother.
“They burst in and wrote graffiti on the walls,” Colindres said. “They destroyed stuff, burned stuff. We escaped out the back door. We called the police, but the police did nothing.”
The boys’ mother had been planning to join her mother in the Fredericksburg area. Soon after the attack, she took Junior and left Honduras.
“That was really the destruction of my family,” Colindres said. “It was a year and a half before we saw each other again.”
Colindres and Jeycob moved to a hotel and then to Colindres’ mother’s house. Each time he thought they were safe, the gang found them.
Eventually, he went to the Office of Human Rights in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa and asked them to help him leave the country.
He and Jeycob were escorted to the border with Guatemala in a truck. After that, they took buses through Guatemala to Mexico.
They were in Mexico for eight months. While there, Colindres said he was kidnapped several times by the Cartel del Golfo and its rival, Los Zetas.
Once, he said, he was kidnapped and held hostage with 20 other families. The Mexican marines freed them. Colindres got a humanitarian visa that would allow him to stay in Mexico, “but it was very dangerous to stay there,” he said.
So he and Jeycob made their way to Reynosa, a town across the U.S. border from Hidalgo, Texas.
“There was another attempt at kidnapping and we took sanctuary in a church,” Colindres said.
The only person at the church was a cleaning woman who was tidying the building after mass.
“She was cleaning up and closing the door when I came asking for help,” Colindres said.
The woman let them in and notified the priest, who came back to the church. While Colindres and Jeycob sheltered inside, they heard the members of the cartel arrive and tell the priest that “the chickens” had 24 hours to pay up.
“The church had a truck that they used to take out the garbage,” Colindres said. “The father told us, ‘This is the only way we can get you out safely.’ They gave us several layers of extra clothes and we came out of the church inside the trash truck, with the trash.”
The priest took them to the McAllen–Hidalgo–Reynosa bridge that crossed over into the U.S. He gave them eight quarters and told them, “Go fast,” because behind them, they could see a black car approaching.
Colindres calls the priest and the church cleaning woman “angels from God.”
“They risked their lives for us,” he said.
At the checkpoint on the U.S. side of the bridge, Colindres asked for asylum. A Customs and Border Protection officer administered the expedited screening known as the “credible fear interview” and determined that he could stay in the country.
Colindres and Jeycob were taken to a shelter for 12 hours. Then Colindres was outfitted with an ankle monitor and allowed to leave to reunite with his family in Virginia.
But it wasn’t a happy reunion. Colindres arrived in Fredericksburg to find that his former partner and her mother wouldn’t receive him. They took in Jeycob, but Colindres was left homeless.
He slept on the street for three days. He found work, but it wasn’t consistent, and he had to go to Richmond every two weeks to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE also came to Fredericksburg to check up on him, but because he had inconsistent housing and was trying to work, there were two occasions when they couldn’t find him, Colindres said.
“After that, they told me I had to go to Richmond every week,” he said.
In September 2017, Colindres showed up for an appointment in Richmond after having missed the previous one.
“I was trying to do everything they wanted,” he said.
Jeycob was with him—the boy didn’t want to stay with his mother, Colindres said, and Colindres didn’t have child care for him.
ICE officials arrested him on the spot, Colindres said.
“They cut my ID in half and arrested me in front of Jeycob,” he said. “They told me they would put him in foster care. I called Jeycob’s mom to come get him. They took off the ankle monitor and basically I was in deportation proceedings.”
Colindres was sent to the ICE detention center in Farmville.
“I fell into a very deep depression,” he said. “I had no desire to continue to live. No one was going to help me. I quit eating. I was in solitary confinement.”
Colindres went in front of an immigration judge “in a very bad state.”
“I didn’t even know what was happening,” he said.
The female judge—he can’t remember her name—ordered psychiatric treatment for him and set him up with the Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition, which arranged for a pro bono attorney to help him argue his asylum case.
“There was evidence in my record in Honduras of being chased by gangs and persecuted by the police,” Colindres said.
On May 2, 2018, he was granted asylum.
“It means I won’t ever have to go back and suffer in Honduras,” he said.
‘EVERYBODY HAS A DREAM’
Colindres has custody of both his sons now and is working with Lucha Ministries to petition for asylum for them.
“The children want to be with me all the time,” he said. “They depend on me for everything.”
Colindres works for a contracting company and rents the bottom floor of a townhouse in the Bragg Hill neighborhood. He and his sons sleep on couches in the living room.
“Junior is the happiest guy in the world when he’s with me,” Colindres said.
Junior’s best day is when he gets to be home with his dad. The two of them cuddle and watch cartoons, eat milk and cookies and take naps.
Colindres said his boys are the reason he risked everything to come to the United States.
“I came here so my children wouldn’t grow up without a father,” he said. “Everything I suffered was worth it for my kids.”
“I believe in Honduras they would have never have a life like this. This country cares about children. They will get a good education and a future.”
Jeycob is in first grade at Hugh Mercer Elementary School in Fredericksburg and Junior is in the city’s Head Start program.
Colindres’ main goals are seeing his boys graduate from high school, getting a green card for himself and learning English.
He said he knows there are some “bad people” among the current wave of Central Americans coming to the U.S., but “the majority are good people.”
“They want to earn money to send to their families,” he said. “There is no money, no food and no work there.”
He said people are willing to risk everything to come here because they will starve or be killed in their home countries.
“I would never recommend that anybody leave their homes, but everybody has a dream,” he said. “I suffered, others will do the same and they will continue to come.”