I Am An Immigrant: Trail of Terror, Part 3

A recent college graduate trekked through the most dangerous cities in the world to flee extortion from gang leaders after they discovered her identity.

The peace that certainty brings.
The peace that certainty brings.

This article is part of the I Am an Immigrant article series in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month. For more uplifting stories of the American Dream in action, check out the podcast Community Voice.

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. In this third and final installment, she describes the events leading to her final days in the federal prison where she was detained after crossing the Mexican border and finally granted political asylum.

“I’ve been so lucky these past few years: … I’ve been healthy enough to work, healthy enough to put myself through school, healthy enough to enjoy a relationship. I’m in a way better place than I was many years ago. I have a boyfriend that I’ve been with for over 5 years. I have really good friends. Everything is really great. I mean I feel like almost all the suffering that happened back then. It’s like it never happened, because it took me to the place that I am right now.”

I’m very happy with that. And those things would have not been possible if I had not gotten out of my country and if I hadn’t come to the states. I am so happy for this country that has the opportunities that it has. It has allowed me to go to school. It has allowed me to be whoever I want to be, especially in a city like San Francisco [which] is so LGBT friendly. It’s amazing... Gay people can get married nowadays. This is unbelievable! This would have never been possible in my country. It’s still not possible in my country. And I was very fortunate because… someone heard my story and they helped me get some amazing lawyers. They didn’t even get me one. They got me 3 amazing people that graduated from Stanford!

[KC]: How did you get in touch with lawyers?

[XX]: After I finished my stay at the prison, I was transferred to this one program for immigrant kids that is called [the] Southwest program. It’s based out of Phoenix, Arizona. I think they also have one in Los Angeles.

[KC]: What about your dad at this point?

[XX]: He was in California... He was really trying. But they moved me so often between these prisons, he never really knew where I was. After he saw me a few days later, I was transferred to this one program. It’s a house with a lot of underage immigrant kids. Those people were amazing…

This program what they do is that they try to resolve the kid situation. If [you’re a family] without status, they [put you] under their custody, so you have a case in the country for removal proceedings or deportation. For kids who don’t have parents, they almost have an adoption process. There were a couple of kids who were pregnant, and they provided medical attention. They had teachers. It’s almost like going to school. It’s almost like going to camp. They are amazing. Oh my gosh! Those people changed my life.

When I went there, one of the girls heard my story... When they told her about the officer kicking my face, she was so upset. She was talking to me, and she was so upset. She gave me all this information. Once I was released into my dad’s custody, I was able to use that.

[There] was this one [nonprofit] organization in San Francisco once I had settled. They wanted to see if I had a case or not… if they could represent me or not… We can refer you to some people in Washington D.C., and they can tell us where this case can go. So, my phone number got exchanged [with] so many of these people.

The one thing that I remember clearly from the people in Washington D.C. was the fact that they were able to do this type of work from celebrities. I remember her clearly saying that Angelina Jolie gave tons of money for this to happen… for this nonprofit to look for lawyers, to look for resources, for people who are trying to create an immigration case in this country. With no doubt, she is my favorite. I love her. The fact that I wouldn’t be here if there weren’t people who [make] donations like she does…”

There were these people who recently graduated from Stanford University... One had moved from New York City to work for this huge firm. This firm took over my [life] for over 5 years. Every Tuesday, I was driving down to San Francisco to their offices, giving my testimony, [while] they were looking for proof. We went through this whole 5 years in order to build up a case. You know the result: they granted me political asylum.

[KC]: This nonprofit helped you get lawyers. …You won, and you got political asylum?

“Yeah. And you know what the most amazing part was of that trial? I mean, it’s the United States vs. you. There [are] 2-3 lawyers from the government versus you trying to plead your case. And when the judge asked the people from the government: ‘Is there any objection from the US government for this girl to not have political asylum?’ they said, ‘Uh, no. We don’t have any objections.’”

It was unanimous... I was in tears. My lawyers are crying. The people who served as witnesses are crying behind me. I’m crying. The judge is getting a little teary. It’s madness in that court room. That was really amazing to me. A whole 5 years of me to spend it in limbo – I didn’t know if I was going to stay in the country or if I had to go back to El Salvador. [sic]

[KC]: What’s the date range between when you left El Salvador and when you won the case?

2008 was when I was given to my dad’s custody. October 2008 was when I left El Salvador. I was 15. [After] I left El Salvador, [I was gone for] the whole month. I made it on time for Christmas… At the beginning of 2009, that’s when I met my lawyers. We worked together 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012. We worked together for about 4 years. I’m sorry. It wasn’t 5 years [as I mentioned]. In 2013, I was approved.

[KC]: Were you going to school during this time?

2010 was when I graduated high school. I moved down to Santa Barbara to study at the city college there. I have a green card. ... I’m going to be able to apply for citizenship, but all these stories I have told have been recorded for the government. They have all my records. They know what happened… This was all discussed in the court of law. I’m legally okay. There are affidavits that have been approved. The case is closed.

Over the Rainbow

[KC]: Along your entire journey, from your childhood to immigrating, to even this process of assimilating, what was the single biggest challenge for you?

[XX]: The most difficult thing is when I was in the city college in Santa Barbara [when] I didn’t know all this life that I was building for myself was going to be permanent or temporary. Because I didn’t know if I was going to be deported. That was the biggest challenge for me. Not knowing that if everything I’m doing for my future... Is it going to be worth it? Am I going to have a life in this country? Or do I have to go back? Because it was years of living in this limbo…

[KC]: This part when you were in Santa Barbara? What was your legal status between the time you were in your dad’s custody and when you got political asylum?

[XX]: …Once I turned 18, since you’re in proceedings and you’re considered an adult, the government legally has to give you a work permit, so that you’re not stranded, so they do give you the right to work. So I had a work permit between when I turned 18 to when I got green card. And it’s something you have to renew every year.

[KC]: Interesting. So that even trumped the time when you were seeing your dad for the first time behind the glass? This idea that [your life as you knew it] would all be taken away from you. That pervasive, chronic feeling was even more difficult than that single moment when you saw your dad [in prison]?

[XX]: Yeah. I think they were different situations. I don’t want to say that seeing my dad for the first time during that situation was not as harsh as not knowing what’s going to happen with my future. But you know it was very realistic that I could be sent back at any given time versus all those times waiting for the judge to grant me asylum or reject the asylum petition.

I had much more to lose at that point which was why it was harder for me. I had a completely different life at that point. I had started dating my boyfriend in 2011. The friends that I had made, the schooling [I] was getting done, the work I had. I had much more to lose.

[KC]: What’s been your proudest achievement since coming to this country?

[XX]: Oh my gosh! Graduating college. I cannot wait. I’m graduating this semester. I am so proud of that. That’s it. That’s what I’ve been working for all these years.

[KC]: You said that at the beginning of your story. The thing that got you through everything, even at that age of 11, when you…

[XX]: Even back then… I am so excited, Kiron.

[KC]: What was something you learned about yourself?

[XX]:

“How I want to contribute in this world. My plan right now is that as soon as I get my citizenship, which I get to apply [for] in a few months, I want to volunteer with Peace Corps. I think it’s the best way I can give back all the blessing[s] this country has given me.”

The things that I learned about myself… I finally understand that I like girls as much as I like boys. [I] love this city. San Francisco is amazing. California in general. There is so much freedom. This is so cliché. People can be whoever they want to be and whatever they want to be. That is so beautiful, and I think people take it for granted, since they don’t know how good they have it. To me that’s just incredible. [I’m] so lucky to live in a place like that.

[KC]: What did you learn most about yourself in the process of immigrating?

[XX]: I learned that I am part of a minority. That sounds really silly. To me, I guess there’s not so much racism as it is discrimination towards people who are gay or people who are weird and whatnot. But I didn’t realize coming here, I was part of a minority. I did not see myself like that. Through that process, just like I am trying to immigrate, so many people [are doing the same]. The process is so incredibly hard. It is not possible for a lot of people fleeing for their lives to do it in the legal way.

[KC]: What was the thing that helped you the most during your case? Was it because of the boot or because you were in a minor? What tipped your case over the edge in your favor?

[XX]: [For] political asylum, there are 3 category groups you need to belong in order to be considered for it. You have to be part of a social group. You have to be fleeing political or government persecution. I don’t remember the third one… For me, the fact that I was part of the LGBT community. I had this police officer that was trying to date me, and I rejected him. The gang[’s] extortion. All those things worked in my favor, since they checked [for proof].

For more information about the requirements for getting political asylum, click here.

[KC]: How were you able to bolster your case? They weren’t able to follow up with those people up in El Salvador, right?

[XX]: Believe it or not, my lawyers did it!

[KC]: Really?

[XX]: Yeah, they hired someone, and they had this person in El Salvador interviewing a couple of my friends and they had them take pictures. I mapped out where things took place. They brought them to the court. They had the help of some professors from [a university, and for an] assignment for their course, they had to research on El Salvador and hate crimes on LGBT and all those things piled up. [They provided it] to the judge that my story was valid, and that my life was in danger if I were to come back.

[KC]: That’s incredible… What’s one takeaway from your experience that you want to share with the world?

[XX]: That no matter how hard things get, you’ll be fine. It’s all a matter of being positive. It’s a matter of wanting yourself to pull through that situation. When people say mind over body, I totally believe it. It’s you wanting to change. Maybe I’m a little naïve.

When you’re in the situation you don’t think anything can get any worse. I already had nothing to lose. Your spirit is the only thing that can break. And once that’s broken it, that’s it. You’re doomed.

[KC]: For people who are teetering on that edge. They have something that they’re going through… What would you say you held on to during those hard times that made you feel like you could make it?

[XX]: I just wanted to pull through. Everything takes time. You can’t decide in one [moment]. You just have to believe in yourself. You [have to] want to get out of that situation. We’re so lucky. In this country, there are so many resources. If someone has mental problems there [are] organizations that help… If you can’t pay for school, there are scholarships that help you with that. It’s about you wanting to pull through. And it takes a little bit of work… of course. But it’s possible. And it takes a little bit of time, but it’s definitely possible.

Footnotes:

  • Southwest Key Programs is a national nonprofit organization committed to keeping kids out of institutions and home with their families, in their communities. Our kids' programming is separated into three areas: Youth Justice Alternative Programs, Immigrant Children's Shelters, and Educational Programming. We also run programming that seeks to create opportunities for families to become self-sufficient including adult education and workforce development. The inspiring kids and families we work with are seeking the American dream: equality, education, and a healthier quality of life. At Southwest Key, we simply open the doors to opportunity so they can achieve these dreams.
  • KIND (Kids in Need of Defense) serves as the leading organization for the protection of children who enter the U.S. immigration system alone and strives to ensure that no such child appears in immigration court without representation. We achieve fundamental fairness through high-quality legal representation and by advancing the child’s best interests, safety, and well-being.
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