Seeking Asylum in the US: Lidia’s Story

Lidia is a 26-year-old who fled Guatemala with her 6-year-old daughter. From an early age she was physically and verbally abused by her father. The abuse continued until he died; she was 12 years old. At the age of 13, Lidia was raped by two masked men who were believed to be gang members. They threatened to kill her if she reported the rape. She believed them.
Lidia became pregnant as a result of the rapes, but was forced by her family to give the baby up for adoption.

While walking to school when she was 14, Lidia and a friend were jumped by a man wielding a machete. Although at one point the man held the machete to Lidia’s neck, both girls were able to escape. It happened again when she was 15, but this time there were four men and they had guns. In each case, Lidia refused to report the incident to the police – many of whom are viewed to be corrupt and a key factor in Guatemalan President Molina’s recent indictment and resignation – and out of fear of additional violence or retaliation by the gangs operating largely unchecked in Guatemala.

Lidia married young – she was 17, had two children, and was happy for a time. Then last year, her marriage broke up. Lidia, feeling vulnerable and alone, did not want to risk being a single mother alone in Guatemala. She was afraid for her children and for herself.
So she fled.

Currently, Lidia and her daughter are being held at Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. CCA is a private corporation and the fifth largest correctional facilities manager in the US, with locations in 20 states. CCA operates the Dilley holding center on behalf of US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), employees a staff of 700, and houses up to 2,400 women and children.

Last July, a federal judge in California ruled that “the Obama administration’s detention of children and their mothers who were caught crossing the border illegally is a serious violation of a longstanding court settlement, and that the families should be released as quickly as possible.” In late August, the same judge gave the administration two months “to change its detention practices to ensure the rapid release of children and their parents caught crossing the border illegally.”
Those two months are up tomorrow – October 23rd.

In September, April Autry, Doctors of the World’s Medical Director, spent a week at the Dilley holding center reviewing asylum cases. She joined a volunteer team comprised of lawyers, legal students and aides. As the sole clinician on the team, April’s role was to conduct forensic psychological examinations – or to evaluate women whose initial request for asylum had been denied or who needed additional support for their cases. She then issued comments on their potential psychological trauma and their current diagnoses.

Lidia’s was one of the cases that April reviewed. But the circumstances of Lidia’s story were not unique. April reports that many of the women she saw were doubly-traumatized – first by the violent situations they were fleeing in their home countries, and second by the living conditions in the Dilley holding center and the impact those conditions had on their children and themselves. “Over the course of the week I saw hundreds of children, and every single child I saw looked ill. Every single one.” said April.

Many of the women were frightened by their child’s deterioration inside the facility, frequently reporting that they had stopped playing, eating, or sleeping. Two children were so sick that April could feel the heat radiating from their bodies. However, the women’s gravest fear was that they and their children would be deported back to the life-threatening situations they had fled. A Human Rights Watch report released last week has identified as many as 83 US deportees who have been killed on their return to Central America since January 2014.

Lidia’s case was ultimately successful. But many of the women’s asylum claims are nearly impossible to pursue without basic legal assistance. And, given the almost total absence of pro bono legal representation in the area, they are in a double-bind. Without legal assistance, they risk being sent back to the very violence, abuse and gang warfare they were trying to escape. And without significant changes in the Obama Administration’s policies on detaining women and children fleeing to the US from Central America and elsewhere, they face an uncertain future in a place no family should call home.