How Texas Wreaked Havoc on One Man's Journey to Citizenship

Living the American nightmare

Roberto Mejía, an Austinite whose journey here involved months of incarceration bouncing from facility to facility in Texas (Photo by John Anderson)

Roberto Mejía's greatest fear crossing the border was a simple one: He didn't know how to swim. He realized he would not be welcomed into the United States as a refugee – asylum protections would only be available to Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. He didn't realize he would spend months incarcerated. His limited knowledge of the process came from his nephew's experience a few years earlier, when he had fled their home country of Honduras after facing persecution for his sexual orientation.

Mejía decided to cross the river in Piedras Negras, where he had heard the current was weaker. That decision turned out to be perilous. Near the river contemplating his next move, several armed men (who he believed to be cartel members) approached asking where he was from and how many people he was with. Though he was alone, he said he was with eight people, hoping the cover of night would conceal his lie. As they moved closer to him, he handed them his backpack. They inspected it. He politely asked if he could have it back. They obliged, and he decided to run.

“I came to the United States to save my life, to seek security, and in that search for the American dream I found an American nightmare.” – Roberto Mejía

He ran for 30 minutes along the shore without looking back. Unsure how close they were, he plunged into the Rio Grande. With the current pulling him, and the water up to his neck, he second-guessed his decision. Glancing back to the river's Mexican shore, he saw the men had caught up with him. "I started to pray," he said. "I decided to cross the river, thank God."

Mejía was in Texas. He didn't know exactly where, but he had received a tip from fellow migrants: "Follow the train tracks north." As he walked through the night, he came upon two Honduran men and a woman from El Salvador. They continued until late afternoon the next day when they heard motors humming toward them. They hid near a hill, and the vehicles passed. But as they kept walking, the vehicles surrounded them and National Guardsmen began asking questions. "What are you doing here?" they asked. "We come in search of the American dream."

The National Guard called the Border Patrol, who arrived to ask questions of their own. Were any of the men in a relationship with the El Salvadoran woman? They told him no, and the Border Patrol agent took just the woman. That agent called the Kinney County Sheriff's Office, which accused the three men of trespassing on private property – the primary reason for most arrests under Operation Lone Star.

The Governor’s Pride

Unbeknownst to Mejía, he was entering a state that has put a new face on its antipathy for immigrants. Look no further than the spate of violence that has besieged Texas in recent weeks. A man crashed his vehicle near a migrant center in Brownsville, killing eight immigrants, and Greg Abbott falsely claimed the five shooting victims in Cleveland were "illegal immigrants."

Abbott's Operation Lone Star kicked off in 2021 as a state-run effort to increase border enforcement – a responsibility that typically falls to the federal government – in Texas counties. Roughly 50 counties have opted into the program.

The end of Title 42 (which allowed the authorities to turn immigrants away due to the pandemic) inspired Abbott to send Department of Public Safety troopers to the border, including those recently deployed in Austin. "President Biden is laying down the welcome mat to people across the entire world, but Texas is deploying our new Texas Tactical Border Force," Abbott said in a press release detailing the third phase of state efforts to militarize the border. (Phase one involved the use of the National Guard and phase two a deployment of military police units.) Thus far, it doesn't seem like Abbott has gotten the spectacle he hoped for. The Biden administration celebrated that, in the first few days following Title 42's May 11 expiration, the number of Border Patrol encounters with migrants decreased by about 50%, despite some expectations that crossings would spike.

Nonetheless, Texas officials have boasted of Operation Lone Star's success. Abbott recently tweeted an infographic stating that the effort had led to over 371,000 apprehensions, over 17,000 migrants bused to sanctuary cities, and over 27,000 criminal arrests. The Texas Tribune reported last year that many of the arrests had nothing to do with border enforcement, instead ranging from cockfighting to stalking. Many outlets have reported on problems with the program, including the more than $4 billion it has cost Texas and the disorganization using the National Guard.

“Por Sapos”

Mejía largely enjoyed living in his hometown between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa – Honduras' two biggest cities. However, gangs were inescapable. "It's a constant struggle in Honduras," he said. He was 11 years old when his father died. Around that time, gang members recruited him, but he rebuffed their advances.

As an adult he employed his academic training as a psychologist to found an organization that created a space for low-income youth to avoid gang life and become community leaders. In taking up work focused on the same teenagers that gangs sought to recruit, Mejía had a target on his back. "We know where you live, who your family is, and who your brothers are," they told him. So he altered the focus of his program to help the community youth in other ways.

Mejía lived with his wife, Dilma Maria Monge Sánchez, and three children about 150 feet from a house where a gang ran a drug dealing operation. During public school winter break in 2020, he noticed kids as young as 8 years old hanging out at the house. The gang seemed to provide the kids, who mostly came from working-class neighborhoods, with food, toys, and other gifts. They also gave them bikes and backpacks to drop drugs throughout the town.

After months of watching the house, Mejía decided he needed to act. In May 2020 he called the police. They showed up, but didn't do anything, he says. A month later, Mejía saw the kids back at the house drinking and smoking. He called the police again, but used a more forceful tone. The police told him he could submit a formal complaint by giving his personal information: name, address, and phone number. Desperate to resolve the situation, he obliged.

"We went to church that Friday afternoon, thank God, and since it's not so safe in my neighborhood, it's dangerous, we always leave the lights in the house or a television on, to give the sense that people are there," he said, speaking Spanish. "When we returned from the church to the house, the house was completely broken." Inside, he found a rock with a note that read simply, "por sapos," or "snitch" in English. He and his family quickly decided that Mejía needed to leave the country, because they feared he could not evade the gang's network in Honduras. Monge Sánchez and the three children – the twins are now almost 5 and the youngest just turned 3 – moved to her family home elsewhere in Honduras.

As Mejía worked his way to the United States, he figured the gangs were looking for him. Their presence spread beyond Honduras into Guatemala – the first stop on his voyage. Deciding he needed to get to Mexico to escape the gang's network, he moved to Tapachula near the Guatemalan border, where he worked for a few months.

Then he began to move northward toward the U.S. With an encyclopedic knowledge, he told the Chronicle the stops on his journey: Tuxtla Gutiérrez; then Veracruz, where he narrowly avoided a kidnapping; Tampico, where he again evaded a kidnapping; San Luis Potosí; and finally to the border town of Ciudad Acuña, where he befriended Haitian migrants. "I'm very sociable," he said. After a month in Ciudad Acuña, he crossed the Rio Grande near Piedras Negras into Texas.

A section of the Rio Grande near Piedras Negras, Mexico (Photo by Los viajeros 77 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Bugs for Dinner

In October 2021, after being apprehended in Kinney County, Mejía learned his trespassing charge carried a sentence between three months and one year, with a minimum bail of $5,000. He would spend months bouncing between prisons: Val Verde, then Briscoe, then Segovia. He said conditions at all three were equally bad.

At Briscoe, a group in the prison set fire to mattresses and tried to escape. The prison staff punished all the detained men by making them stand outside in the sun from 8am to 4pm. At that same facility, Mejía said, he found cockroaches and worms in his food, adding that it smelled like human waste on one occasion. He avoided eating, as his fellow inmates fell sick. His weight dropped from 185 to 147 pounds. "I felt physically weak."

The punishment took a psychological toll, too. Solitary confinement was common, and the guards told them that their lives were worth less than cats' and donkeys', Mejía said. The prison staff lobbed racist insults at him to the point that he wondered if part of the Operation Lone Star design was to convince people that the United States was an undesirable place to live.

Monge Sánchez said living in Honduras without Mejía has not been easy. She opted against sending her 5-year-old twins to school this year and is hunkered down with family in Honduras. "I always have that fear that at any moment [the gangs] can recognize us," she said. When Mejía was imprisoned in Texas, she could only speak with him for five minutes on Mondays. After his initial arrest, she didn't hear from him for more than 10 days. She said the children are having a hard time processing what is happening to their father. "When they talk to their dad, they start to cry, because Roberto is a very loving father," she said.

During those short calls, Mejía implored Monge Sánchez to expose what was going on in the prisons. That's when she connected with Grassroots Leadership, a Texas-based civil and human rights organization, via their hotline.

"We are an organization that is led by people directly impacted by immigration, by the prison system," said Alicia Torres, immigration campaigns consultant at Grassroots Leadership. She says Operation Lone Star forces migrants to fight two legal cases: asylum and trespassing.

Mejía said his first lawyer on his trespassing case never gave him clear responses. In fact, she got angry with him because he refused to plead guilty to the trespassing charges. "I just walked along the train tracks," he said of the idea that he had been on private property. His lawyer dropped his case.

"We didn't have lawyers, but we knew what injustices were going on, that the lawyers assigned to them were not communicating with them," Torres said. They began to interview men at the Segovia prison to better understand Operation Lone Star, and learned about the awful conditions.

The Grassroots Leadership team eventually paid bail for 11 men. When the men reached McAllen, they contemplated accepting deportation, Mejía said, but feeling that they couldn't let the Grassroots Leadership team down, they continued with their pursuit of asylum. Six of the 11 were automatically deported – largely because they were Mexican, Torres said. Grassroots Leadership began exploring how they could pay for legal representation on the remaining immigration cases.

Mejía spent time in detention centers in McAllen, Port Isabel, and Conroe, often without an opportunity to call Monge Sánchez. "Every time an officer passed by my cell I begged him to please give me a phone call because my wife was so worried," he said. When they finally spoke, he said it was the hardest call of his life. "All my resilience, all my strength, that was the moment when I heard her voice, I broke down," he said. Just as he began to again think about giving up on his case, he got word that some of the other men bailed out by Grassroots Leadership were getting out of the migration center. Mejía left the Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe on April 21, 2022, and moved to Austin.


The Texas Attorney General's Office has made clear its desire for legislation from the Texas Legislature that would challenge the 2012 Supreme Court ruling ensuring that the federal government is in charge of immigration enforcement. Conservative lawmakers in the Texas House have taken a step toward that goal, passing House Bill 7, a border enforcement bill, last week. The first round of voting on the bill ended just before 2am on May 10.

It wasn't the first time this session that politicians discussed border enforcement in the wee hours of the night after crowds of protesters had thinned. An April hearing also lasted until 2am. Advocates decried these late-night votes. "At 1:39am, the Texas House voted for HB 7 with the border vigilante provision from HB 20 added on. The chamber was completely empty. People traveled from all over the state, including the Rio Grande Valley, to bear witness to this. It's truly shameful to govern like this," tweeted Bob Libal, a consultant for Human Rights Watch.

Republicans say HB 7 will help stem the flow of fentanyl into the U.S., even though it isn't typically trafficked by migrants, as NPR debunked last year. Ironically, Mejía fled Honduras due to his own efforts to stem the drug trade.

An Unshakable Faith

Mejía's legal battles continue to haunt him as he adapts to life in the United States. He has worked climbing telephone poles to make repairs, which requires him to travel. On a job in Mississippi in March, the court informed him that he would need to be present in court the next day. "I said, 'Wow!' For me it's impossible, because at that moment I didn't have money to buy an emergency plane ticket, because plane tickets were extremely expensive," he said. Torres, who he refers to as one of his "angels," helped him buy a ticket.

Despite his experiences with Operation Lone Star, he and Monge Sánchez both believe the U.S. is safer for them than Honduras. "What I most long for in my life is to leave," she said. "And to be with my husband again, because here we are in danger."

“What I most long for in my life is to leave, and to be with my husband again, because here we are in danger.” – Dilma Maria Monge Sánchez

Mejía's current lawyer on the trespassing case advised him to accept a deal, which would avoid the possible nightmare scenario of having to go back to prison to finish his sentence and perhaps missing his hearing for his immigration case. That could have either pushed his case to the back of the line or led a judge to reject his claim.

For his immigration case, the Grassroots Leadership team connected him with the UT Law Immigration Clinic, where student attorneys Niko Marcich and Hunter Steitle have handled his case. Marcich noted that having representation significantly increases the likelihood of a successful asylum claim. "Roberto is such an incredible and amazing and inspiring person," Marcich said. "I wanted to be able to give him the help that I knew that he deserves."

They noted that his trespassing charges shouldn't have an impact on his asylum case, but a judge could use discretion to consider a misdemeanor charge in the case. "It's this independent, long, drawn-out process that at the end of the day, doesn't affect their eligibility for asylum. Which just makes it feel like, why are they even bothering to do this?" Steitle said.

Asylum cases can take years to resolve, and there is currently a backlog of around 1.6 million cases nationwide. Steitle said immigration law varies throughout the country, as appeals courts in Texas might rule differently than those in California or New York. Mejía's case falls within the notoriously conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Mejía said he's been told his chances of getting asylum are somewhat remote, but says he remains optimistic thanks to his unshakable religious faith. "I do not consider myself a criminal," he said. "I came to the United States to save my life, to seek security, and in that search for the American dream I found an American nightmare."

Leer esta historia en español.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle