She was a virgin when he raped her, impregnated her, and then beat her. She miscarried. A devout Catholic, she mourned her own pain less than that lost life. No amount of comfort from the priest made her tears stop flowing, but she resolved that it wouldn’t happen again. She went to the police, and they shrugged their shoulders because they couldn’t fight back against the 18th Street Gang. Some of them were probably secret members of that brotherhood of criminality.
And so she did the only thing she could, the only thing that gave her hope that it wouldn’t happen again, the only thing that made her believe the cycle of violence would end: She fled El Salvador.
She crossed three countries, two deserts, traveled with people who were themselves both refugees and criminals, and arrived at the border with Texas. She was taken into custody, denied bond, and held for three months, until someone finally gave her a chance to tell her story. She only told parts of it, omitting the lost child because of sorrow, and shame.
They let her out, and she came to Pennsylvania, to fight for her freedom and a peace of mind that would never be possible in her home country. And then she came to my office, and we began the three-year long legal dance to win her asylum.
This past Monday, a compassionate immigration judge listened to her story, told clearly but punctuated by sobs, in a courtroom in Philadelphia. He heard her tell how she tried to leave the man who beat her, but that it was only when he was arrested on a weapons charge that she was finally able to leave the home in which he kept her captive. And still, she said, he wouldn’t leave her alone. From behind the bars of a Salvadoran prison cell, he was able to buy favors, and those favors involved getting a phone so he could threaten her with horrible things if she didn’t “wait for him.” She left her home, and went to another city, but his friends found her and reported back to him. The calls and threats started again. She went to another city, and the same thing happened. The police took reports, but they were no real help, raising their eyebrows in resignation when she said “What can I do?”
And then she gave the judge the record from the hospital, which confirmed that lost child, the one that would have been a boy, the one that was killed by a sharp kick in the stomach from the man who’d raped his mother.
It took three hours, and then, the blessed words: “I approve your case for asylum.” The first thing she did was bless herself, and then collapsed in tears. This time, they were tears of joy because she’d been given a reprieve, a stay of execution, another sign that the God she loved and worshipped worked his miracles in cramped courtrooms.
As I sat there, I realized that if the people who are convinced that most illegal immigrants are unworthy, dangerous and illegitimate could have seen this woman and this process, they would at the very least come away with a sense that humanity is not determined by the shape and color of your passport. They might not want us to open our doors and our borders to refugees, and they might raise statistics about the amount of lies and falsifications that immigrants employ to gain a benefit.
But it is rare that we are given the great privilege of watching new lives emerge from the shadow of suffering. When it happens, it changes your view of your own life, and your obligations to others.
It happened to me again, this week.