An 81-year-old woman is advocating to sponsor for two young men from Guatemala who were recently denied asylum by an immigration judge in Brownsville.

Fran Schindler, a former psychiatric nurse and resident of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, forged a relationship with the 21- and 23-year-old brothers living in a camp of asylum seekers in Matamoros after she began volunteering with Witness at the Border in January.

Schindler gave testimony during a merits hearing on March 13 as to her knowledge of the brothers’ journey north and her willingness to serve as a sponsor should they have been granted entry to the United States.

Enrique, 23, and Melvin, 21 were denied asylum and withholding of removal by an immigration judge the same day. According to Schindler, they have opted to appeal the case and are weighing their options.

Fran Schindler displays a photo of her with her adopted “nietos” Enrique and Melvin March 17 in Xeriscape Park. “I really and truly feel that we have become a family of choice,” said Schindler.

Currently, the brothers are still in Matamoros, where they work with the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers. Schindler pays their salaries. She noted that while volunteers refrain from entering the camp during the coronavirus pandemic, the two have been assisting with daily activities to make sure everyone is taken care of.

“They are helping now with work in the camp that people are having to do for each other. These young men would not be a drain on the welfare system of the United States. They have work. They are willing to work. They are competent and intelligent in construction. In Guatemala, Enrique wanted to start a cyber cafe,” she said.

Schindler is currently searching for an immigration attorney who is willing to take the case on. Inquiring about her potential sponsorship during a recent consultation, she said the answer she received was simple: the men are subject to the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program and therefore cannot be paroled into the United States and won’t be granted asylum.

The recent denial of the brothers’ asylum applications and the decision to appeal means that they will remain in Matamoros for the time being. However, Schindler is worried for the brothers’ safety, as they were kidnapped in October following a trip into the city.

“They made a poor decision in October after their second hearing. They walked into the city and were promptly kidnapped. They were taken to Reynosa, held for five days; they were not given anything to eat and were beaten up a little bit. Fortunately, they were not sexually abused. They had to get ransomed out by their father for something like $3,000. And now, of course, they’re terrified,” she said.

Schindler says she was able to locate the father in the United States. He told her that hr hadn’t seen his sons in 14 years due to his circumstances. “They gave me his name, and I called him. I said, ‘Sir, I just want you to know, I was at the camp. I met your sons and they are fine young men and they are healthy and safe.’”

She sent the father a photograph. “He contacted me, and he was so grateful. I promise you, if I never get anything else, the gratitude that man expressed to me was a total gift to all of us – a simple photograph of his two sons.”

She recalled meeting the brothers sitting on the camp’s concrete steps on her first day in Matamoros. Schindler brought a pad of drawing paper and some markers. She tore off a sheet of paper, traced her hand, and drew a face on it, asking one of the brothers sitting next to her to participate.

He asked to draw her portrait. “He drew an excellent picture of me. And his brother was sitting next to him, and he drew another picture. Both of these young men are incredibly talented artistically. We started a conversation, and began to get their stories via Google Translate,” she said.

“He was in the hospital for quite some time. Enrique tried to help him. The gang came after him. He got away. Then, as I learned a bit later, they went away to an area where there wasn’t as much gang violence happening. Then they found their way to the border.”

Over the course of three months, Schindler became close with the brothers and learned their story. They keep in contact via Whatsapp when she’s out of town. The brothers identify as Christian and had been refusing to join the gangs, making them targets.

Schindler suspects that if Enrique and Melvin had an attorney, the religious persecution they faced at home could qualify them as a protected class under current asylum law. The brothers, like the majority of asylum seekers returned to Mexico under MPP, were forced to represent themselves.

Enrique and Melvin arrived at the border late last summer and have been living in the camp in Matamoros since then. The two fled Guatemala after Melvin was shot six times by gang members, according to Schindler.

Currently, a transit ban included in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, ‘Remain in Mexico’) bars asylum seekers arriving at the U.S./Mexico border from receiving asylum if they did not first apply for asylum in a ‘safe third country’.

These ‘safe third country’ agreements have been signed with Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, essentially shuffling asylum seekers fleeing violent conditions in Central America back to the region, scattering families among the different countries. The law requires that anyone seeking asylum from Guatemala first apply for the protection in Mexico.

Simultaneously, the program bars asylum seekers subject to MPP from being granted parole into the United States. Prior to the creation of ‘Remain in Mexico’ by the Trump administration in January 2019, asylum seekers were generally released to shelters and paroled to family sponsors already in the country.

Immigration attorneys working locally have confirmed that DHS will refuse to accept bond payments even in the event that clients were to be granted parole by an immigration judge.

Schindler says Melvin sustained a gunshot wound to the chest, placing him in the hospital for an extended period of time until he was discharged and the brothers were able to flee. “I am not ready to accept that law. That law is an unjust law. It is akin to genocide if these men are sent back to Guatemala. I am just about 100 percent sure that sooner or later, they will be murdered.”

Fran Schindler stands outside the gated entrance to the immigrant tent courts March 17 after an unsuccessful attempt to ask an employee walking on the other side if court would be continuing still. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

The woman traveled back to Brownsville for the final hearing despite it coinciding with a screening appointment for her daughter, who is a breast cancer survivor. “I said, ‘Let me sponsor them, let them out of here.’ I was willing to take responsibility. I have that paper work; I have their signature saying they wanted me to have permission to come into the court.”

The brothers gave Schindler permission to speak on their behalf before the judge in the tent courts – Brownsville’s Immigration Hearing Facility (Brownsville IHF). “She swore me in, and then I had to wait until she heard their testimony, and then I came back in, and I said mine.”

“The judge refused them asylum.”

Schindler made clear that her background in mental health treatment has prepared her to offer to take on the brothers. “I was a psychiatric nurse. I understand boundaries. But something was tugging at me. And I thought, ‘Yes, boundaries are boundaries. But boundaries are not walls.’”

“As a psychiatric nurse, I am certain they have PTSD. I would bank on that after going through that kind of a trauma – then the trauma of coming here, then the trauma of being kidnapped. How could you not?”

Schindler is “Abuela” to the brothers. She said they also call her “Mom”, and that she’s been in contact this week to make sure they’re taking precautions to protect themselves from the spread coronavirus as adequately as possible. “I really and truly feel that we have become a family of choice,” said Schindler of her adoptive nietos.

She said she also understands it’s likely they won’t win asylum, but that she refuses to give up until every option has been exhausted. “All I know right now is they don’t have a lawyer. And then they’re going for this appeal. If the courts are going to be working again,” worried Schindler, referring to the decision to place immigration courts on a reduced schedule to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

“What good reason is there for them to not finish whatever trial, whatever needs to be done for me to become a sponsor? It’s like nobody cares if they go back and get killed,” she said.

“I’ll scream as loud as I can for as long as I can. This law is unjust.”