Guatemalan family seeks refuge in the Triad after being detained by immigration officials

'Everything was the worst experience of our lives.'

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Allan (left) and his mom, Aura (center), speak with Yamile McBride at Siembra NC's event in Greensboro on Saturday.

A mother and son from Guatemala who fled their home because of threats of violence are being housed in Winston-Salem as they seek asylum in the United States.

One night in late December 2018, Aura, a 37-year-old woman from Guatemala, and Allan, her 16-year-old son, slept outside at a US immigrant detention center with the temperature just above freezing, followed by two days in separate facilities. Now, they’re being housed with a family in Winston-Salem waiting to have their asylum claim reviewed.

It’s been about two weeks since the family made it to North Carolina, after fleeing their home in Guatemala, where they say they faced threats of violence from a local gang.

On Jan. 12, Aura and Allan, who declined to share their last names out of fear for their safety and because their case is ongoing, helped members of Siembra NC, a project of the American Friends Service Committee, paint a sign for Greensboro’s upcoming MLK Day parade. The two, who don’t speak any English, told City Beat about their experience of leaving their home and family behind through an interpreter. 

Aura and Allan help paint a sign for the upcoming MLK parade.

Aura, who is married but separated from her husband and also has an older son, said she and Allan fled Guatemala after he received death threats for refusing to join a local gang.

Her son said that the gangs, which are made up of kids from the ages of 13 to 18, run the schools and the surrounding areas and regularly terrorize students to join or face violence.

“They cause a lot of chaos and problems,” said Allan, who just finished high school.

He said he knows of at least eight other students in his school that have been killed by gang members because they rejected them.

“Just yesterday, they killed someone’s mother because her son rejected,” he said.

Hearing this from her son, Aura said they had no choice but to leave. Without telling anyone except her brother, the two packed up as much as they could carry and left in the middle of the night. They walked and took buses for 22 days from Guatemala City, where they lived, into Mexico, near the Colorado River, next to the US border. There, they found a hole that had been dug under a section of tall metal wall, one that stretched about 10 feet high, and crawled through to the US side.

“There was nobody else there,” Aura said. “We were in the middle of the desert.”

After walking for about 15 minutes on a paved road, they were stopped by an immigration officer, who called another officer, who in turn took them two hours away to a detention center in Arizona.

“We were taken in a car with blacked out windows,” Aura recalled. “They just said get in. They didn’t tell us where we were going.”

When they got out, they realized they were inside of a building. There, officials told them to strip down to one layer of clothing — they had traveled wearing two because of the cold — and took everything they had brought with them, including their jewelry and IDs. They watched as everything that wasn’t deemed valuable was thrown away while the rest of their belongings were bagged up. Then they were taken outside to a fenced in area and left there for an entire night. A few hours in, Aura remembers two young women who looked to be in their twenties, being put outside with them. She said it must have been about 40 degrees or colder. Despite being left to sleep out in the cold, she said that her and Allan weren’t treated as bad as some others she witnessed at the facility.

“There were these guys who had come in,” she said. “Then the officer pointed at them and said in Spanish, ‘You guys know each other? You guys are trash. You guys are all trash.’”

The next morning, the two were brought back inside the building and separated into two different rooms. Allan with other boys and Aura with other women.

“I was super scared and wondered what they were gonna do to him,” Aura said. “I was trying to watch where they were taking him.”

For two more days, Aura and Allan remained separated and only saw each other through windows in their rooms when they were standing up.

“I felt like a convict,” said Aura, tearing up. “I felt like I had done something wrong for leaving my country behind when it was others who made us leave. I heard about other people being there for seven days and it made me wonder how long we would be there.”

In her room, Aura remembers there being about 20 other women who ranged in age from their twenties to their forties.

Allan said there were about 55 boys in his room, with the youngest being 13. He said some of the boys would cry while others talked to each other. He, like many in the room, remained quiet. Throughout their journey, even during the bus rides, Allan and Aura said they never talked to anyone. Aura said they were scared they would be found and sent back to Guatemala.

During the three days they were held at the facility, Aura and Allan said they were given the bare minimum for accommodations. They slept on hard floors next to toilets that lined the rooms and ate hamburgers sandwiched between two pieces of bread in the morning. They got juice and crackers in the afternoon, and for dinner they ate instant soup. They were never given anything to drink except for the juice during lunch, said Allan. Not even water.

“Everything was the worst experience of our lives,” Aura said.

Calls to multiple Customs and Border Patrol officers were not returned for this story.

After three nights, they were taken by bus, one with bars on the windows, to an office in Phoenix where Aura had a tracking brace put on her ankle. Clunky and black, the GPS monitors are distributed through Geo Group, a for-profit company that owns several prisons and detention centers. According to a 2015 report by Homeland Security, ICE has issued thousands of these 5.5-ounce ankle monitors since the reversal of an executive order that allowed for immigrant families to be separated as part of a “zero tolerance” program. For now, with the monitor, Aura can only travel within North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

After their visit to the immigration office, a local Phoenix organization called Puente, connected the family to Siembra NC and Pastor Lia Claire Scholl, who helped them find temporary housing in Winston-Salem.

“They treated us really well,” said Aura about their experience at Puente. “They gave us clothes, a shower, they gave us food and a cot to sleep on.”

After Aura’s brother in Guatemala paid for them to fly to Greensboro, the family met with members of the Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem with whom they are currently living. They said they don’t have any family members in the states.

“People need to understand that they would not be here if it wasn’t for their lives,” said Yamile McBride, a volunteer with Siembra. “They don’t know anyone.”

On Jan. 9, Aura and Allan had their first attendance check at the immigration office in Charlotte, where Aura was asked questions about her husband and her other child. As undocumented immigrants, they are required to meet with officials regularly. Their next meeting is on Jan. 20 and then they will be scheduled monthly.

“The government shutdown is causing a lot of confusion right now,” said Jessica Yañez, an immigration attorney who runs her own practice out of Greensboro. “People have to keep checking in.”

According to Yañez, because the family was apprehended when they first entered the country, they will likely be placed into “expedited removal,” or deportation, proceedings. There, they will be required to pass a threshold “credible fear” screening or be given a removal order before they are able to even meet with a judge. If they pass the hearing because they have credible fear, they’ll be able to meet with an immigration judge and make a case for asylum. She said that this particular case could be difficult because gang violence isn’t a regularly recognized form of persecution like those who claim asylum based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. 

In June 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempted to issue a broad legal decision that would disqualify claims of those seeking asylum based on domestic or gang violence. On Dec. 20, 2018, US District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan struck down Sessions’ decision, and ordered the government to return to the United States any plaintiffs who were deported as a result of the policy, and prevent further deportations.

Based on online data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) organization at Syracuse University, immigration judges in Charlotte have high rates of denials. The average percentage of denials by the four judges between 2013 and 2018 came out to about 87.9 percent. According to additional data from TRAC, asylum denial rates rose during the initial months of the Trump administration, reaching over 65 percent in July 2017. Data from September 2018 shows the percent had risen to about 68 percent. To compare, during the last two years of the Obama administration, the highest denial rate was about 58 percent.

“A lot of it depends on the judges, and in general it’s difficult to win this kind of asylum case because they will say it’s general violence that affects lots of people in society,” Yañez said. “But sometimes people can win because there are certain social groups that have been recognized.”

In Aura and Allan’s case, Yañez predicts that seeking asylum based on family ties — or fear for their family — would be their best bet.

 “The new administration has done everything that they can to decrease the number of asylum approvals,” Yañez said. “Asylum cases were already difficult but they’ve gotten more difficult.”

Assuming Aura and Allan pass the credible fear test, the government shutdown makes it uncertain as to when the family will get to appear before an immigration judge.

For the time being, Aura said she just wants a stable home and a job. Laura Garduño Garcia, an organizing fellow for Siembra NC, said the organization has set up a GoFundMe to help raise money for the family for things like an apartment, transportation and furniture.

“They cannot stay in the current place where they are for very long,” Garcia said. “They want to be able to provide for themselves. They don’t want to be a burden on anyone else. They can’t do anything if they don’t have a job.”

Aura said she misses her family and is worried about being so far away from people they’ve been with their whole lives. Allan, on the other hand, said he’s happy they’re in the US because the threat of violence was real. Both say they are trying to stay occupied by participating in local events like the sign making with Siembra or Zumba. Allan said he is looking for a local soccer league to join.

“In the beginning it was difficult because of the fear,” he said. “But I’m excited to come here and be free from all of that.”

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