Last night, I had a special guest stay at my house: an international guest. I didn’t find her on Airbnb or couch surfing. She was an asylum seeker from Central America, and she had come to Portland with a friend of mine who is working with asylum seekers in the Latino Community in Oregon.
I can’t give her name or country for safety reasons, but she was young, kind, and offered to pay for everything from the dinner she we gave her when she arrived, to her breakfast this morning. She’s here because Portland is the regional seat for the so-called, “Immigration Court” where she will have her preliminary hearing to set a court date with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to allow her case to be heard. Without a car, and without fluency in English, nonetheless, if she misses this first date, she can be subject to immediate deportation.
My friend began this work with her first “case”, a woman who she met through volunteering. The woman’s husband was threatened and extorted by local gangs until one day he was knifed, shot, and left in a gutter to die. He lied there for 36 hours before he was able to get to safety, and eventually, recover. Later, to protect his family, he escaped to the US, saved money, and brought her up. My friend helped her get asylum, and later, they were able to get her husband papers on her successful petition.
Word got out to the community that my friend helped her, and soon, she started hearing all kinds of stories. It’s important here to distinguish between “illegal immigrant” and “asylum seeker.” Illegal immigrants typically come for economic opportunity. But, these asylum seekers are not looking for jobs: they had jobs back home. They are fleeing for their lives, or to protect the lives of their children or families.
Violent drug gangs have turned many parts of Latin America into a War Zone that rivals ISIS-occupied Syria for savagery and lawlessness. Failed anti-drug policy, the deportation of violent drug offenders en masse from high-security prisons in the 80’s and 90’s (which were like training camps for viciousness), and a deterioration of social order and the strength of institutions generally in these countries has left families and women (in particular) vulnerable.
My friend says, “If the gangs find out there is a family member in the US, they will target the families left behind. They break in, and steal what they want. And the women are there by themselves with children. That’s when rapes happen. There’s impunity, the prosecution rate against the perpetrators is basically zero.”
Additionally, this insecurity in the culture has led to an increase in domestic violence. Fortunately, Asylum law changed a few years ago and now, my friend tells me, “Women who are victims of domestic violence and who cannot otherwise be safe, are recognized asylum seekers.”
This case, however, is a classic case: with nowhere to seek shelter or safety from the gangs, and as a risk to any family member or friend who would take her, this woman had no choice but to seek asylum for her survival.
Sadly, no law firm in Oregon is big enough to absorb all of these cases pro bono, and so it is left to people like my friend, whose work at the food bank led her to help in her first asylum-seeking case. You don’t need to be a lawyer (though it helps): just someone with an open heart, some extra time, and a desire to see mothers, young women, and children refugees resettled and safe, and able to live in dignity.
Sometimes being a Vicarious Nomad is about sharing the stories of other travelers, and as in all journeys, finding our a common humanity. I am glad that my home is a safe stopover, with a warm bed and breakfast for travelers on journeys like these.