Zoila’s story: With Biden’s Asylum Ban, I Wouldn’t Be Here
Published by Ms.Magazine
Editor’s note: This account was prepared by Zoila, an asylum seeker, with help from staff at Mujeres Unidas y Activas and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies. She is choosing to share only her first name to protect her safety.
I never wanted to leave Honduras. It’s the only home I’ve ever known. But two years ago I was forced to make the terrible decision to flee because home was no longer safe. After a long and difficult journey, my children and I were able to seek asylum in the United States.
It’s frightening to imagine what might have happened if we’d come just a couple years later, now that President Biden wants to ban asylum for people who are fleeing, like us.
I want to tell you my story. When I was only 16, I started dating a man with whom I thought I could share a life. But he quickly became very violent. He would constantly hit me, belittle me, sexually abuse me and even threaten me with weapons. He tried to keep me isolated too, refusing to even let me have my own phone or speak with my mother.
I endured this abuse for 12 years.
But when he came after our children, that was the final straw. He tried to kidnap my youngest son, who was only two years old at the time, and take him away from me. We were able to hide out in my mom’s house for a short while. But my ex-partner was relentless. He told me he was going to steal all of our children away and then have me killed.
I felt so powerless. My ex-partner had multiple guns. The police said they suspected he was involved with drug traffickers and not only refused to help, but threatened me, saying I would pay for his crimes. They said if I wanted to escape, I should just leave the country.
So I did. It was too dangerous to take all of my children, so I took my 4-year-old and 6-year-old and was forced to leave the other two behind with my mom. Leaving them was the hardest thing I have ever done. Not a day goes by that I don’t worry about them, wondering if they’ve eaten enough and if they are safe.
Our journey to the U.S. border was so difficult. We left Honduras with not much more than the clothes on our backs. We were hungry and thirsty all the time. I felt we were always in danger, because I knew that migrants often get attacked traveling through Mexico. At one point my children and I were chased and shot at by the Mexican police. We had to run as fast as we could to get away. Once we ran out of water and had to drink from a cow’s trough to survive. My children remember that to this day.
After nearly two months, we finally reached the United States. We presented ourselves to U.S. border agents and said we wanted to seek asylum. There were a lot of other moms with their kids there, too. Though Trump had closed the border to most asylum seekers, we were among the lucky few who were let in. After we were taken across the border, my children and I were put in a holding cell for three days. It was so cold there. A lot of immigrants call these places ieleras, or “ice boxes.”
When we were finally released, we were put on a bus and taken to a church. There I was finally able to get in touch with my relatives in the San Francisco Bay Area, who helped me secure transportation to my new home.
I’ve now been here for almost two years. At times it has been really, really hard. Our asylum case is still pending, which means I haven’t been able to petition for my other two children to join us yet. The government has also refused to grant me a work permit, which makes it hard for me to keep our family afloat.
And because the government does not guarantee the right to a lawyer in immigration court, I had to go to my first three hearings by myself. It was so stressful to argue my case on my own while a government lawyer was there telling the judge that I should be deported.
Some things are a lot better here, though. Most importantly, we are finally free from my ex-partner’s violence. After a few hearings, I was able to find both a lawyer who would take my case, and a therapist to support me during the legal process. Here in the Bay Area I have also been able to see a cardiologist who has been treating my heart problems. Back in Honduras, I kept having heart attacks, but I couldn’t access the healthcare I needed. Now I’m finally getting help.
I have also found a community of other women who understand what I’m going through. I have become a member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a local organization of Latina immigrants who support each other and advocate for our rights. With all of these people behind me, I feel I have the strength to keep fighting.
Some things are a lot better here. Most importantly, we are finally free from my ex-partner’s violence.
I feel motivated to fight for others, too. As difficult as my journey has been, I know that it could have been even worse. President Biden recently proposed a new rule that would ban asylum for most people who pass through another country on their way to the border and do not apply for asylum there first. He wants to implement it as soon as May.
If that rule had existed when my family came to the border, I probably would have had no chance of getting asylum at all. We had to travel through Guatemala and Mexico to reach the United States, and we couldn’t possibly have applied for asylum in either of those places. It could have been really easy for a man like my ex-partner to track us down there. These are also countries without working asylum systems and that are notoriously unsafe for women.
Along with my MUA compañeras (comrades), and over 41,000 immigrant rights allies, I have submitted a public comment telling President Biden why he shouldn’t go through with his asylum ban rule. We have survived so much to get here, and all we are looking for is a fair chance to present our cases and be heard. I hope the president will listen to our voices and do the right thing.
Communications Coordinator at MUAView All Posts by Jenni Martinez