By Ellen Wulfhorst
LAREDO, Texas, Feb 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Moises Rodriguez was grabbed by human traffickers as he tried to cross Mexico's border into the United States and given an ultimatum: smuggle fellow immigrants by night or be killed.
He chose life.
It was just one of several crossings - some hazardous, few successful - that the soft-spoken chef and father of four has made since 2002, seeking his small bit of the American Dream.
Having survived the cross-border ordeal, risked death by frostbite in a desert escape and plunged into debt to pay a do-or-die ransom, Rodriguez fears the worst may yet be to come.
That's all down to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose unprecedented rhetoric and crackdown on immigration might alter the fate of millions of migrants just like Rodriguez.
"I'm always optimistic," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I say: 'On this day, things will go well for me.'"
Now living free, Rodriguez was formerly one of the 40 million people estimated by the United Nations to be trapped in modern slavery, be it in forced labor or forced marriages.
Some survivors face a daily struggle to get by, others wage legal battles demanding more support from their governments.
While Rodriguez lives in the United States with his wife and toddler, it is not clear for how much longer or on what terms.
There is no good tally of migrants like Rodriguez who fall victim to traffickers as they cross the border illegally - but their chances are now murkier given the government clampdown.
Victims of human trafficking had been allowed to apply for a special "T visa" that allows them to stay in the country.
But under Trump, the government is moving to deport people who were trafficked if they cannot corroborate their ordeal - far easier said than done.
"Being able to prove that you were trafficked sometimes is really difficult, but under the Trump administration ... they're just making it more and more difficult," said Jennifer Bryson Clark, a human trafficking expert at South Texas College.
Rodriguez, 43, lives under that threat each day as he rises early to make food he peddles from a painted snack truck that tours the border city of Laredo.
Workers spill out of loading docks and garages to buy his Mexican specialties - pots of hot beans, cheese-covered corn chips and cold watermelon pressed into juice.
In the afternoons, he picks up his 4-year-old Victoria, who shares her father's wide smile and easy warmth, from school, and his wife Norma returns from her job at a Mexican restaurant.
He tends to his garden; on Sundays, the trio goes to church.
"That's what gives me strength to go forward," he said.
But his fortunes may turn any day.
His work permit has already expired, and he has been waiting more than a year to learn if it will be renewed.
His history of deportations - many - could stifle any official sympathy as he pleads his case to stay.
And he does not have any money to pay a lawyer.
Under Trump's 'America-first' policies, Rodriguez could be the face of the future - a trafficking victim stuck in limbo.
And Clark said the new crackdown and legal restrictions make migrants ever more vulnerable to the myriad smugglers and traffickers who lurk near borders to steal their freedom.
The danger has already worsened in Mexico's camps as they overspill with Central American migrants who fled home and now sit and wait in the U.S. anteroom to plead for asylum, she said.
"Whenever you have a lot of thoroughly desperate people, which you have with people who have come up with the caravans, traffickers always hone in, smugglers always hone in," she said.
"They're just sitting ducks."
Overall, some 11 million immigrants - about half of them Mexican - live in the United States without legal documents, according to Pew Research Center, a research and polling group.
If Rodriguez is rejected, he would be sent back to the life he has repeatedly tried to flee in his home state of Puebla.
He knows too well its relentless poverty and crime, saying: "I wouldn't even earn, in a week, 1,000 Mexican pesos ($53)."
Extortion is rife, said Rodriguez, citing an uncle in Puebla who pays a cartel 100,000 Mexican pesos ($5,300) each month just to keep his bar and restaurant open.
"And if he doesn't, they'll kill him," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez first crossed the border successfully in 2002 and worked for nearly a decade in a Greek restaurant in New York.
Missing his family, he went back to Mexico, only to make for the border once again - which was when the traffickers struck.
WALL OF NOISE
Pretending at first to help, the traffickers instead held him hostage on the Mexican side until he could raise $10,000 from a sister in the United States - and threatened his life.
"'No one leaves from here. You're in our hands,'" they told him. By night, his captors would take him to the border wall to haul other immigrants up a ladder and lower them onto U.S. soil, using long harnesses fashioned from old seat belts.
"That wall won't be as secure as Trump believes," he said. "They'll do anything to cross the wall that he wants to put up."
Trump wants to replace a patchwork of barriers that line the border with a solid wall, partially shutting down government with his demand that Congress approve its $5.7 billion cost.
In the most confrontational immigration policy of any modern U.S. president, Trump has turned up the rhetoric and clamped down on asylum requests, reduced rights for many refugees and put forward bans on nationals from mostly Muslim nations.
Rodriguez was forced to work months until his sister raised the captors' ransom. He still owes her several thousand dollars.
His next border crossing saw Rodriguez stumble, lost, in the U.S. desert until authorities found him frozen, unable to move.
Deported again, he once more crossed back into Texas, where he and his wife were soon detained by federal agents. The couple was freed and he said sympathetic agents helped him get a work permit. Since that expired, Rodriguez has lived in limbo.
"I worry that I'll get stopped by a policeman and he'll ask for my papers and then he'll find out that I don't have permits for anything," he said.
Rodriguez relies on his Christian faith, and a pastor friend who helped set him up with the food truck.
"He's very strong and hard working," said Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz. "I want him to have his own restaurant."
So Rodriguez gets up early, cooks his spicy delicacies, sets his truck on the road and hopes things might one day get better.
"We have suffered so much. Life has not been easy for us.
"Yesterday, I went out to work and the truck broke down. And Saturday, we have to pay the rent," he said. "I tell Norma: 'What are we going to do? We have to keep going forward.'" (Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Lyndsay Griffiths)
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