From El Salvador to Westchester: An Immigrant’s Journey

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by Charlene Weigel – 

Camila and her son Paul crouched silently behind the door. Camila’s husband pounded and kicked. “Open the door. You’re going to pay for this.” The attack followed a domestic violence report that Camila filed with the San Salvador police. Their response was to tell her to change the locks on her door.

Camila had nowhere to turn. Third in the world for femicide, El Salvador is in a “generalized state of violence” against women, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council. In Salvadoran culture, domestic violence stays within the family. Camila’s parents told her to be more respectful when they saw the marks on her arms. Only self-reliance supported her journey from victim to refugee to undocumented immigrant to asylum recipient in Westchester County.

In El Salvador, Camila was isolated, forbidden from working by her husband. Paul remembers, “I heard him yelling, ‘Shut up girl.’ I knew he was going to hurt her. My father broke my mother’s right foot. I would often hear my father hurt my mother when they thought I was asleep.” Camila was hospitalized three times, her husband hovering nearby to be sure she reported “an accident.”

One day Paul saw his father choking his mother. He pulled on his father’s shirt, begging him to stop. His father hit Paul with his belt. That night, Camila and Paul fled, returning only after she borrowed money to change the locks.

Camila hoped the door would keep out a second danger. Gangs control much of El Salvador, with the heavily tattooed faces of MS-13 dominating Camila’s neighborhood. In 2016, El Salvador was second only to Syria in violent death rates due to MS-13 and their rival gang, Barrio 18. Paul remembers mareros (gang members) walking “on the roof of my house at all hours of the day and night.” When Camila finally found work in a small store, a marero burned her arm with a cigarette for selling matches to a police officer.

Camila and Paul tried to be invisible. She explained, “We refer to us who stay at home as ‘civilized people.’” When Paul went to school, “I would tell him not to reveal his address or speak negatively against those who sold drugs. At home, he lived inside the whole time.” In seventh grade, Paul’s two best friends became mareros. “It’s just easier to be part of the gang,” he said. “For boys my age in El Salvador, you either join the mareros or you die.”

Despite Camila’s efforts, Paul was targeted. MS-13 passed a message to Camila’s employer that Paul was old enough to start delivering packages for drug deals. They demanded she “pay $3,000 or else they would kill my son. The police didn’t help.” Camila decided to flee.

Camila secretly sold her house and used the $11,000 to pay seven different “coyotes” (human smugglers). Over 28 days, she and Paul walked, rode buses and trains, and were cargoed in trailers through Guatemala and Mexico. Camila paid the “special” rate for a faster journey and better food, only to find that the trip was the same for everyone. The coyotes were willing to leave behind children who were sick or could not keep up; Camila and others cared for those children. She constantly begged Paul for forgiveness. He said he understood.

After crossing the Rio Grande, immigration officials found them in 10 minutes. “They were not aggressive. They asked us where we were from and our age. I was asked if I was fearful to return to El Salvador. I said ‘yes.’”

Camila and Paul were separated in detention. “He cried a lot and was very afraid,” she said. “An officer told him to remain calm. The problems were for the adults and not for them.” An attorney advised Camila to apply for asylum. After three days, she was fitted with the ankle bracelet that was to brand her for the next three months.

Camila and Paul were released to a relative in Houston. Camila applied for a divorce. Her husband refused to sign the papers, but a judge in El Salvador accepted the decree. She decided to join her family in Westchester County despite concern that her ex-husband could find her. She started English classes and contacted a local attorney to apply for asylum.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that, as of 2014, there were 61,000 people without documentation in Westchester County. The odds are stacked against those seeking asylum. Camila was fortunate to have skilled attorneys at Pace University’s John Jay Legal Services. The Court found that the torture, rape, and persecution she suffered under the “willful blindness” of Salvadoran authorities were grounds to grant asylum. Many cases are not even heard, adding to an over 650,000 immigration case backlog (November 2017). Only 17% of the 52,109 asylum cases completed in 2016 shared Camila’s success.

Camila fears discovery by her ex-husband and a change in immigration laws that could send her back to El Salvador. She worries about the 200,000 El Salvadorans whose Temporary Protected Status was revoked in January. “A small percentage will return,” she said. “The rest will decide to live in shadow. To return to El Salvador would be going to a cemetery.”

She knows that MS-13 and other gangs operate in the greater New York City area, but she has confidence in the police and legal system. “If something bad would happen to me or my son here,” she said, “that person would be held accountable.” Camila knows women in Westchester County who are undocumented and suffering domestic abuse. She encourages them to contact the Westchester police “because here laws are respected.”

Camila’s asylum grant allowed her to obtain a work permit. She supports Paul with her job packaging beauty supplies and takes English and driving classes. She is proud that Paul, now 15, gets good grades in mathematics, English and science. He dreams of becoming a policeman or a marine.

What does she want people to know? The words spill out in a rush. “It can be done. To leave a hellish life is possible. Don’t feel embarrassed to seek help. If we are in this country, it is solely to protect our lives. We are not animals. Our work also bears fruit.”

Look carefully at that next box of beauty supplies arriving at your door. It may have been packed with pride and care by Camila.

(Note: Camila and Paul reside in Westchester County. She was interviewed over the phone to hide her location. Their names have been changed for their protection.)

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