Seeking Asylum: A Mother’s Journey is a documentary film directed by Rae Ceretto. It was released on February 21, 2023 and showcases a mother’s journey from Honduras to the United States in search of a better life for her three children. The documentary was filmed by Kensy and her family on their cell phone due to the coronavirus pandemic. The documentary highlights the detrimental impact of Title 42, the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), and implementation of other immigration policies on those seeking asylum in the United States. It also brings attention to the struggles and uncertainty that migrant families face once entering the United States. The documentary emphasizes the critical need for an equitable approach to the asylum-seeking process through telling one family’s story and discussing the structural barriers and human consequences associated with the immigration policies of both current day and the past.
Kensy’s story in Seeking Asylum
Kensy Mensilias left Honduras on June 4th, 2019 with her children Stephen, Valeria, and Anthony. For thirty days, they walked through the mountains, rested in abandoned houses during the night, and made every effort to avoid becoming victims of robbery. Kensy rarely slept the entire journey– as sexual violence and murder are likely for those fleeing Honduras. In the film, Kensy shared that her telephone was stolen– removing any sense of navigation she had to help her reach the United States. According to the film, violence has killed more people, since 2000, in Latin America than wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen combined. For Kensy, the decision was between certain death and the prospect of having a better life in America. Kensy personally received countless death threats and was sure her family would be harmed if they stayed in Honduras. The opportunity for a better life was worth risking the challenges Kensy and her family would face along the way.
In July 2019, Kensy and her family made it to the United States and were immediately declined asylum due to there already being “too many people from Honduras and Guatemala'' (Seeking Asylum 2023). U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told her she would have to return to Honduras the same way she arrived– by foot. Kensy and her family were then put on a bus, taken to Tijuana, Mexico, and left there with no resources, direction, or information on her case. By September, Kensy and her family were living in a church in Tijuana called Embajadores De Jesus. There, they lived on the ground in tents with many other asylum-seeking families awaiting their case to be processed. Not allowed to go outside, Kensy’s children Stephen, Valeria, and Anthony were kept inside the church to avoid street danger. Under Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), asylum seekers are forcibly returned to Mexico for the duration of their asylum cases– which can take anywhere from six months to more than six years. Only 1.76% of asylum seekers enrolled in MPP have been granted asylum. Many individuals and families are seeking asylum as a result of political instability, violence, or consequences of human-induced climate change. To prove that Kensy was a victim of past persecution or that she had a “well founded” fear of future persecution, she needed multiple sources of evidence. One of her only pieces of evidence– a recorded phone call– was taken from her when she was robbed on her way to the United States.
In March of 2020, eight months after first arriving in the United States, Kensy and her family were transported to their court hearing in San Diego. It resulted in the denial of her appeal. Before Kensy’s family were deported to Mexico, they were temporarily sent to Los Angeles and given an ankle monitor. Two days later, the Trump Administration implemented Title 42 which closed the border to all migrants. As a result, Kensy and her family remained in Los Angeles and were temporarily protected from the vulnerabilities of living in a border town. Despite this, they were still left without educational, nutritional, or housing resources. The film documents the family’s resistance and fight to support themselves despite being denied work visas and finding a space to live when many landlords took advantage. Fortunately, being able to remain in the United States provided an opportunity for Kensy to find her family legal representation. Later in 2020, the Jewish Family Service of San Diego agreed to take Kensy’s case. Yet, as of the film’s release in February of 2023, Kensy and her family were still awaiting their asylum hearing in Los Angeles.
Title 42 and Migration Protection Protocols (MPP)
Title 42 was implemented in March of 2020 in response to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19. Asylum-seeking individuals encountered under Title 42 were turned away, told to return to their home countries, and sent to Mexico. Title 42 officially ended on May 11, 2023 and expelled migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border more than 2.8 million times according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Families and children traveling alone were supposed to be exempt, but this was clearly not the reality according to Kensy’s story and the evidence presented in Seeking Asylum.
Similarly, MPP (also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy) was relaunched by the Biden administration on December 6, 2021 to allow immigration authorities to send any migrants that arrive at the border without proper documentation to Mexico for the duration of their case proceedings. It is important to note that many migrant families arrive to the U.S. with little amounts of food, water, clothing, or means of communication– the expectation that all migrants will have all proper documentation is beyond me. During the Trump administration, MPP enrolled about 68,000 migrants– with hope that it would deter people from crossing the border illegally. The effectiveness of MPP is up for debate. Out of the 68,000 enrolled migrants, only 723 were granted asylum or other relief (Migration Policy Institute). MPP’s initial introduction and particularly, its reintroduction, has exacerbated the negative consequences migrants face by simply asking for asylum. It also acts as an additional system by which the United States orders asylum seekers to be removed and without proper legal representation for their hearings.
Together, Title 42 and MPP deny migrant families their right to seek asylum in the United States. In many ways, this is against international law. Title 42 and MPP have undeniably contributed to the rapid increase in denial rate for asylum cases in the U.S.– denying families such as Kensy’s the right to exist safely, healthily, and happily everyday.
San Diego, CA: A Microcosm of Immigration Challenges
San Diego is a major receiving hub for newly processed migrants and asylum seekers. The county of San Diego has received more refugee arrivals than any other county in California since the year 2000 (Refugee San Diego). This is due to location, presence of resettlement agencies, and prevalence of many immigrant communities in the county (CalMatters). The City Heights community in particular, is home to Vietnamese, Burmese, East African, Iraqi, Syrian, and many other refugees (Refugee San Diego). Due to the high volume of asylum seekers and migrants wanting to enter the U.S. through San Diego; a space for people to wait while their cases are being processed has become an increasingly dire issue. Otay Mesa Detention Center, a private facility, highlights the truth that the basic rights of asylum-seeking individuals and families are neglected within these holding centers. There are several similarities between these centers and incarceration centers– such as restricted movement, secure confinement, limited access to legal representation, limited access to health services, and classification categories. If Kensy and her family were not enrolled in MPP, they would have likely been held in a detention center similar to Otay–where acts of violence, forced labor, sexual assault, and inadequate healthcare are just as real of threats as the vulnerabilities of camping in a border city in Mexico. There is also a chance that Kensy would have been separated from her children. If, after being held in a holding center, asylum-seeking families are released, enormous challenges such as lack of work and a space to live that Kensy described, wait ahead.
Since September 2023, “more than 30,000 migrants have been processed by Border Patrol…before being dropped off at transit stations in San Diego County” (The San Diego Union-Tribune). If lucky, local organizations will be there to provide them with basic services. If not, asylum seekers will yet again be forced to navigate food and shelter despite significant financial and language barriers.
Seeking Asylum: A Mother’s Journey is a compelling documentary, illustrating the myriad of challenges asylum-seeking families confront while seeking asylum in the United States. I hope that Kensy’s story and this film will help people better understand the struggles that persist inside the United States for asylum seekers and prompt them to advocate for an equitable approach to the asylum-seeking process. Furthermore I hope this helps people better understand the ongoing impacts Title 42 and MPP have on current and future immigration policies. Kensy’s story is only 1 out of 667,229 pending cases; this documentary gave a portrait of what it is like to wait in silence, not knowing whether you will ultimately be granted a safe place to exist.
Alongside the documentary’s release, a website was organized to offer viewers action steps to help other asylum seeking families like Kensy’s. Visit https://www.seekingasylumfilm.com/ for information.