A recent college graduate trekked through the most dangerous cities in the world to flee extortion from gang leaders after they discovered her identity.
Note: For the safety of the individual that shared her brave testimony, some place names and identifying information have been changed. Additionally, many details of this story may be triggering for those who have experienced trauma or violence in the past in various forms.
In Part 1, Lily spoke with me about needing to hide her identity as a gay woman in El Salvador and a formative incident in her life that shaped how she viewed herself. In Part 2, she talks about events that transpired that made her realize that staying in El Salvador meant certain death.
My Struggle: Escape from El Salvador
[KC]: So much has happened to you, but you remain so optimistic. It makes no sense! How is that possible?
[XX]: I have a different life now! There’s nothing to be sad about now… So another time, when I was 14, there [were] these police officers who wanted to date me. [Given] my [sexual] confusion at the time, I rejected him. [That was a mistake.] He was really good friends with a gang member.
If that’s hard to understand, police officers are involved in gangs, especially in this region [of El Salvador]... There was someone from my school that lived not too far from the neighborhood, and I think word spread through gossip. … I had no one to guide me or tell me how to handle things, so I did the best I could. And the best I could at the time was to deny it.
[When] I rejected him, he told me, “It’s obvious you’re rejecting me because you’re a lesbian.” My mouth dropped. How could he have known? Who told him? Why would they tell him?
Lily goes on to explain what happened after the police officer felt slighted by her rejection.
[XX]: After transitioning to high school, I had to walk about half a mile to get to my house. I had to take public transportation. Since this one police officer was friends with gang [members], he went to them and told them that my grandparents have a lot of money, that they own a farm, that my dad lives in the United States, and that I come from a rich background. That [news] is very attractive to them because that meant they could extort me. [There came a point where I had] to walk after 6 PM in pitch black [for] about half a mile to get to my house from the bus stop. And so they knew this, because he told them.
One time, after freshman year of high school, I’m walking towards my house. I get stopped. I have a gun pointed to my back. I didn’t even see them coming. He stopped me.
“We know where you live. We know where you go to school. We know who your friends are. We’re going to be waiting here once a week and expect money from you.”
There’s nothing you can do. The police is in cahoots with this guy. “Well then I guess you’re going to have your money,” I said. He was asking for $100/week, which was a lot of money back in the day.
My dad sends me a fixed amount of money but my dad doesn’t have that much money. He was sending me about $600 a month for my expenses and I had to pay for my school, food, transportation, and whatever other expense I had. I had to do this every week. For a whole month I did it. One time on my way from home, I actually saw them attacking someone else: This person got stabbed. I was crying so bad. [sic] I was so scared. I was so panicky. I walk in the dark for half a mile to get to my house. And this person actually passed away. I knew these people were going to kill me if I didn’t give them the type of money they were asking for.
[And] after that month, they asked for more money. That was the point when I realized that I had to leave. I didn’t tell my dad. I didn’t tell anyone. I had an ATM card, so the next day I packed my bags. I went to the ATM. I took as much money as I could. Those were my savings my dad was sending me every month, so I could use it for university when I finally graduated. What did I do? I took as much money as I could ($3000) and left towards the border. I didn’t tell anyone. Once I was there, just by asking, there were people who actually would take you all the way to the Mexican border, if you pay them $1000.
[KC]: Were you scared? What were you feeling at this point?
“There was nothing else that could happen to me. My innocence was gone. I could die if I stayed home. If I died on the way at least I would not die in other people’s hands. It would be my choice, as ridiculous as that sounds.”
So I left. I got to the Mexican border. Once I got there – I had to pay someone else to help me cross the border. And when I got to the Mexican border, I went from Ciudad Juarez to Nogales in Mexico. It turns out [that] Juarez is also one of the most dangerous cities in the world as well. They kidnap women. There is a rumor that after [a girl] turns 16, she gets stolen and never gets seen again. My goal was to make it to Marin county in California and that’s all I knew because that’s where my dad lived.
[KC]: How did your dad come to America?
[XX]: He [had] protection under TPS, which was granted to Salvadorian citizens after the 2001 earthquakes.
TPS stands for Temporary Protected Status.
[XX]: And that’s something that the Bush administration [worked out] for the people. It’s sort of like a work permit that allows you to work but you don’t have the rights to vote or in order to get out of the country, you have to apply. I never really saw myself living in United States. All I knew was home. I just wanted to be as far away from possible from home and to see my dad, who at that point I hadn’t seen for 9-10 years. … By then I was already a teenager. I knew he was my dad. I didn’t really remember what he looked like.
Crossing the Border
[KC]: So tell me. You went through the most dangerous city in Mexico. How did you get to the US?
[XX]: There are a lot of police patrols in Mexico between Guatemala and Mexico. Every time they would get on the bus and ask everyone for documents (for their Mexican IDs), I didn’t have any of that. I was by myself, or they strategically positioned you next to a woman... They never asked me because I was 14 [or] 15 year old. Why would you assume that I was illegal?
[KC]: Where did you hide the money?
[XX]: I had a purse with me and a backpack, and that was it. It was my school backpack. Maybe I looked like a student.
[KC]: Nothing else crazy happened to you [during your trek across Mexico]?
“At that time, nothing else could have happened to me. I was raped. I almost died. I had a gun pointed to my back, I didn’t have my parents with me. ... At that point, I had nothing to lose. If I died on my way to the United States, I would have died at home as well. While that seems like a bad outcome either way, I had a 50/50 chance of making it to go see my dad.”
[KC]: So after you got to Mexico, what happened?
[XX]: I had to pay someone else to cross the border. I had half of [my] money left: $1500. They gave me a card with their phone number. They offer their guarantee that they will get you through, no matter what. I didn’t have one of those stories where people walk day in and day out to make it. My walk was about 15 minutes. There was no wall or border. The scary part once you’re in the US, you’re supposed to run for your life. There was a car waiting for us at the bottom of the hill.
[KC]: To evade border control?
[XX]: Yes. We get to the apartment where I could spend the night and leave the next day and someone knocks on the door. The neighbors had seen us. They had to take us in. I was instructed to say that I was from Mexico. I was told to give a fake address. I was told to say that I was 18. I also got educated. They made me memorize the pledge of allegiance of Mexico. They made me memorize the national anthem.
[KC]: Who was telling you this?
[XX]: On my way from Guatemala to the border. There was someone on the bus telling me “This is what you have to do.” “This is what you have to say.” Because if I said I was from El Salvador, they would deport me directly to El Salvador and I could not risk going back there. Sure enough, they fingerprint you. They search you. They have you in these huge cages.
[KC]: I’m sorry. You said cages? Did you mean jail cells?
[XX]: They’re not jail cells. It looks like a cage. Have you ever been to [the] Humane Society, and you see the puppies in those places? It was literally one of those but way bigger; it’s almost like an empty warehouse divided with those metal things; it honestly looks like a cage. It doesn’t look like a jail cell.
That’s when they process you. When they put me in the van, there were at least 20 other people in there. And so the whole group got divided between men and women. They put us in this place. Then they transfer you one by one. “What are you doing here? What is your name? Where are you from?”
I knew a little bit of English of the time. Let me tell you. The border patrol agents are very, very cruel. I could barely understand them, but I understood that what they were saying was not kind. I understood that was the job they are supposed to do, but I think they have been so desensitized, that they’re cruel. They were not kind at all.
[KC]: How [were the border control agents cruel]? Tone of voice? Actions? Facial expressions?
[XX]: They knew most of the people didn’t speak English. They were making jokes about people. I can’t tell you exactly what they were saying. That’s just what I remember. So that was not very successful. I got deported to Mexico. I contacted the guy [who initially helped me cross the border] through the card. I explained [to] him that I got detained. And he said, “Okay, let’s give it a couple of days, and we’ll try again.” This time, the walk was a little bit longer, wasn’t bad either. It was about half an hour. We were certain that a border patrol agent saw us. The car was there. You could tell someone was inside. You could tell. But it did work this one time. … The people who picked me up from the US side of the border [took me to a house to stay].
“This was the most horrible [place] I have ever seen. That’s when I understood. Wow. There’s not just me trying to immigrate to this country. There’s actually people who have had it worse than me trying to get there.”
So it was a house with about… I want to tell you that there was at least 50 people in the house. 4-5 bedrooms. I remember there being 2 bathrooms. I remember that there was not much food.
The only thing people would cook, and by people, I mean the “coyotes,” the people who are trying to get you into the country. There’s like potatoes. It took me a few years to get back to liking potatoes. All they would cook were potatoes or plain tortillas.
It was such a weird house. There were always people coming and going. They worshipped La Muerte. There were lots of candles to protect this goddess of death, I guess.
[KC]: How did you come to know there were people worse off than you?
[XX]: Well, you talk. Where you trying to go/ what is your family why are you here. Then you realize that my situation was special compared to all these people trying to flee more violence than the one I experienced.
[KC]: Did you feel kinship with them because [you’ve both had a traumatic experience]? Or did you feel something else?
[XX]: I honestly felt like my problems were not as big anymore. I can’t tell you I felt some sort of kinship because in my state of mind, I was very selfish during those days. I was trying to…
[XX]: Yeah! I just felt that at that moment I needed to take care of myself. From that moment on, I just made up my mind that I was going to make it. That was always in my mind. I‘m going to make it.
But this one time, I was sure I am going to make it because my situation was not as bad as many [people’s situations]. I vaguely remember this woman telling me that her entire family was killed. Her entire family. Her parents, her children, [and] her husband. Everyone was dead. I think she was from Honduras. [I mean] seeing your entire family die... my problems were not as big. Kids making fun of me at school versus seeing your entire family die? I can totally make it, you know? This was my mentality. … I don’t have a right to complain.
What happened 5 days later you hear all these helicopters. You hear all this banging on the doors. Immigration got to the house again. But this one time it was really bad.
“It seemed like it was this SWAT team getting into the house. They arrested a lot of people. They took all of us. They gave instructions to lay on the floor. This was like out of a movie. The officer who told me to be on the floor. My hair was poking my eye, and I moved it. He hit me with his boot in the face and he told me ‘I told you not to move.’”
[KC]: You were kicked in the face with a boot?
[XX]: Yes. I actually had a little… [mark]. And then I thought to myself, “Oh my God, maybe I will die here!” I don’t know if you believe me at this point. I got taken to the immigration center. They took my fingerprints again. They told me that they were building a case against the people who were running the house. I was being selected to testify against them.
They transferred me to a maximum security prison, because apparently they were protecting me because I was a witness against a case against these people. I got transferred from there to what looked like a court room. Then they transferred me to a federal prison. Once I was in the federal prison, things got a little bit better at that point.
“Things got better in the federal prison?”
[XX]: Trust me. From the things that I’ve seen, from the treatment you get when you are in a maximum security prison to a federal prison, things do get better. I got really close to one of the girls. Most of the people who were there they were drug traffickers. I never thought I was going to become friends with that type of people, you know?
They told me to tell them that I was not 18. They’re going [to put you in a place] where you’re supposed to be. I didn’t believe them. At this point from when I left home to when I was in the federal prison, my dad had no idea where I was, and it has been a month already.
In this prison, I was finally able to make a phone call. I tried to call collect and found a federal prison. It wouldn’t put me through because he had a cell phone, not a phone line.
…No one paid attention to me when I told them I was 18, or so I thought. A few days went by, someone came to get me. I was transferred to another prison. I was given a psychologist and given a translator, and they explained everything that was going on at the time.
These people were getting convicted. And so I guess they couldn’t use my testimony because I gave a fake name, and I was under 18, so they really couldn’t use [me]. They asked me if I had family here. The psychologist was amazing. I’ve never felt so safe but at the time given the truth at once like that woman did. I wish I remembered her name.
She’s the person who made me feel the safest ever while at the same time telling me the truth. I never had someone sitting me down looking me directly in the eyes, saying to me, “I understand your situation. You’re okay right now.” I guess in my vulnerable state, and never having a parental figure and being as scared as I was at that moment, she was my person at that moment. So, I have so much respect for psychologists.
With this person, I was finally able to get through to my dad. In this prison, I got a visitor. Turns out my dad had flown to California to go see me in Arizona.
“That was the saddest day of my life, Kiron. I had handcuffs on. I was wearing an orange uniform, there was a glass between us. We had to talk through what looked like a payphone. I had not seen my dad in almost 9 years, first time I see him again was behind bars in that situation. That broke my heart.”
He started crying, that made me cry. I could only see him for 20 min. That was the most horrible thing I’ve gone through, out of everything. That what was really broke me down. Because, you know, I thought the next time I saw him, I thought it would be different. He didn’t recognize me at the beginning. It took him awhile for him to realize that “Oh, this is my daughter.”
[KC]: Do you remember how you were feeling at this point?
[XX]: I couldn’t even pick up the phone for a little bit. He couldn’t really look me in the eye. It was a mixture of emotions. It was guilt because for the fact that I hadn’t him let him know I was leaving the country and coming to see him. It was regret for all these years that we didn’t get closer. It was happiness to see him, that he was well. We talked. I explained to him that I was going to be fine. At this point, he didn’t know why I was there. Why wasn’t I at my home? I said that I told him I would explain everything.
After I said I was a minor, [I was put in] complete isolation. I read articles about people who are in [maximum] security jails and they have a bathroom, and they’re never let out, and their food goes through a little hole through the door, and they only get only 20 minutes of exercise a day. [T]hat was my situation. Because I was a minor and they didn’t have place for me, the government decided to isolate me. I think it was about 10 days on my own just like that.
[KC]: Did the psychologist come back? If she was reading this article, what would you want to tell her?
“I guess I would thank her, because if I hadn’t seen her at that point as vulnerable as I was, I don’t know if I would have had the will to keep going. You have no idea the words a complete stranger can make on your life, be it positive or negative. They make a huge influence. Depending on your state of mind. There’s so many stories. There’s so many people. There’s so much going on right now, and these stories are important. I’ve been so lucky these past years. I cannot stress that enough.”
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