The abuse was always worse when he drank, Paula says, and it didn’t stop – not when she moved with her five kids, not when she begged her husband to end the death threats. She filled out police reports and filed a court petition in the small town in Honduras where she had fled to get away from him. It didn’t help.
When he threatened her oldest son with a machete in 2015, she decided she had to leave, she says. Terrified, Paula sold her small home in the country’s coastal region and packed up her three oldest children, whose father, she says, had been murdered years earlier by a robber. They headed for the border.
She trusted that her story would be enough to earn her safe haven in the United States, where other Hondurans she knew had been able to settle and live peacefully. She ended up in Charlotte, one of the most difficult cities in the United States for asylum seekers.
And she landed here at exactly the wrong time.
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A change in the law
In 2015, when she arrived, Charlotte already had one of the country’s toughest immigration courts to petition for asylum: The year before, the city’s immigration judges had granted just 16 percent of asylum requests — less than a third of the national rate of 49 percent.
In June of this year, Paula’s prospects sank lower.
A Department of Justice decision had allowed a victim of domestic violence – a woman from El Salvador who said her husband had raped and brutally beaten her for years – to seek asylum as a member of a “particular social group.”
But this June, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions overruled that decision, using a Charlotte immigration court case. His ruling declared that “private violence” such as domestic abuse would no longer be grounds for asylum.
Christopher Hajec of the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which supports reduced immigration, explained the thinking: “Sadly, domestic violence occurs in all religious and racial groups, in all nations, and in all social classes. Its victims are not a socially distinctive group any more than victims of other crimes are.” And if all crime victims got asylum, there wouldn’t be room for people persecuted for their race, religion, etc., he said.
Sessions and defenders of his decision also pointed to the skyrocketing number of asylum seekers. In 2008, fewer than 5,100 screenings of asylum applicants were done, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In 2016, there were nearly 92,000.
Allowing domestic violence to be grounds for asylum “opens the door to granting asylum for all victims of criminal violence in foreign countries,” said Dan Cadman, a retired federal immigration official. “Should someone who has been the victim of domestic violence be granted asylum, but someone who has survived an attempted murder be denied?” he wrote in an essay for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that seeks to limit immigration.
“Where does such a spectrum end?”
Paula’s chances had dimmed.
A work permit, a job, a license
Before Paula left Honduras in July 2015, she says, she promised her two younger children she would send for them as soon as she could. They would stay, in the meantime, with their father’s parents. Although he was the man who had punched and threatened her, she says, he had never raised a hand to them, and she felt they would be safe, at least for awhile.
She is telling her story on condition that her full name not be used, because of the threat of domestic violence.
With money from the sale of her house, Paula and her three teens set out for the Northeast, where relatives awaited them. She paid smugglers to take them across the U.S. border, she says. Just before crossing from Mexico into Texas, and with a hefty debt still owed to her smugglers, she was robbed, she says.
U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended the four at the border but after she told her story, she says, she was allowed into the country. Her money gone, the smugglers, or coyotes, took her to Charlotte, where one of the smugglers was headed anyway, and where Paula had a relative with a truck that could be used for collateral.
To pay her debt, Paula decided to stay. She and her oldest son applied for and received work permits, then immediately found jobs: Paula cleaning buildings, her son working construction. She enrolled the two other teens in high school.
Paula got a valid N.C. driver’s license and began saving the thousands of dollars she would need to fund an asylum application — while attending her immigration court dates and check-ins at the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, she says. She represented herself in her first court appearance in November 2015, court records show.
She says she felt intimidated in court, and left shaken. She met lawyer Zoila Velasquez in an elevator in Charlotte’s immigration court that day, and hired her.
Velasquez says Paula’s case has strong evidence: Police and court documents attested to the abuse she had suffered, bolstered by neighbors and family members back in Honduras, who later gave sworn statements about the abuse.
But Velasquez cautioned Paula the way she does all her new asylum clients. She pulled up national immigration data to show that the chances of winning asylum in Charlotte are remote compared with other U.S. immigration courts. Many Charlotte immigration lawyers say they just assume an initial request to certain judges will be denied. So they prepare appeals at the same time as first petitions.
“I’ve won enough appeals with the board (of immigration appeals) to know that I stood a good chance to win,” before Sessions’ ruling, Velasquez says. “Your alternative is to just give up.”
Her first petition for asylum for Paula and her three older children landed on Judge Barry Pettinato’s docket in February 2017, and was denied, court records show. Pettinato ruled that Paula didn’t have enough evidence, and that she wasn’t being targeted as a member of a protected social group, records show.
Giving up the fight to stay in the United States wasn’t an option, Paula says.
She continued to fear her husband. Throughout their years together, according to her testimony in court documents, he had verbally and physically abused her and threatened her life and her children. Though he had moved out of the house several times, she had allowed him to return, she testified – but the threats and abuse continued. When she left the country and told him she would not return, she testified, he told her “if she returned to Honduras, he would cut her to pieces so no one would find her.”
And by this time, her girls were here, in school and flourishing. They had been allowed into the country in 2016, Velasquez says, spending a few weeks in a foster home, as is typical, before being reunited with Paula and their siblings in Charlotte.
The girls had learned English within months, and the family had settled into a peaceful routine — work, school and all-day services every Sunday at a Pentecostal church. Paula, with a government-issued work permit, had a job in housekeeping at a large office building. She filed income taxes and owned an old but serviceable van to take to work and drive the kids to school.
The girls’ case was assigned to Charlotte immigration judge Theresa Holmes-Simmons, and Velasquez was working on it.
Then came Sessions’ decision. A month later, Paula’s appeal was denied.
In October, a letter showed up in her mailbox.
Her young girls had to translate it for her: Paula and her three oldest children were ordered to report to the Charlotte ICE office with their passports and plane tickets out of the country. They must leave no later than Nov. 30, the letter said. Each could bring along no more than 40 pounds of belongings, what will typically fit in a small suitcase.
“A review of your file indicates there is no administrative relief which may be extended to you, and it is now incumbent upon this agency to enforce your departure from the United States,” the letter read.
The girls asked: “Mami, are they really going to make us go back there?”
The girls don’t have to go back — at least not now. In August, Judge Holmes-Simmons had given them until June 2019 to appear in court. But Paula has sworn she will not leave them again.
They love their neighborhood elementary school, where one is devouring “A Wrinkle In Time” and the other has become a math whiz. When newly arrived non-English speakers join their classrooms, teachers ask the girls to buddy up with the newcomers. They counsel their new friends: “Don’t worry, you’ll learn fast like we did. Don’t be afraid to speak English and make mistakes. That’s how you’ll learn.”
Paula says she can’t bear to picture them back in their school in Honduras, where she says they learned nothing and even pencils were hard to come by. She has paid Velasquez to make a last-minute request for another appeal. Neither knows if a decision will come before her deadline to leave.
So Paula, like anyone being deported, faces choices. She can leave the country, with or without her youngest children. Most deported people who leave, lawyers say, return to the land they had fled.
Or she can stay, and try to remain undetected, likely losing her job as she becomes what she is not now: undocumented.
Earlier this month, Paula spread the pieces of her asylum petition out on her kitchen table — the sworn statements from family members in Honduras, the police reports, the court filings, the marriage certificate and the death certificate of her slain ex-partner.
“What more proof could they want, of everything I’ve been through?” Paula asked, wiping away tears. “What else could I have done?”