Salvadoran sisters Zelda and Rosa del Carmen both fled their country’s wars; twenty years apart. The civil war of the 1980s propelled Zelda to the US in 1989, and the gang war against El Salvador’s people forced Rosa in 2009 to the US border. They both sought asylum in the US. Their reception as asylum seekers has parallels, and both those similarities and differences are instructive.
Rosa del Carmen Ayala and her two boys, Lucas, age 14, and Gilberto, age 12, from El Salvador, walked over the US border from Mexico one September morning in 2009, and were arrested immediately by US Customs and Border Patrol. They were detained at a checkpoint for about twelve hours while CBP checked their identity documents, and listened to their story about fleeing the murderous rage of a criminal gang in their neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital. Rosa, a small woman with curly black hair usually covered by a knitted cap, looks much younger than her 35 years, and is shy. She has a way of ducking her head and looking upward towards those with whom she is speaking, then ducking her head again. The effect is charming. Maybe that was part of the reason that she and the boys were released after only a few hours, and given a notice to appear in court to present their asylum claim.
Rosa gave the ICE officer her sister Zelda’s address, in central Washington State, and the officer sent notice to the immigration court in Seattle to schedule the first hearing for asylum. Then Rosa and the boys boarded a bus for the trip from Texas to Seattle. Zelda told them to ask for a bus to Wenatchee when they got to Seattle; she would pick them up there. Zelda lived in a small town about 20 miles north of Wenatchee, in the Cascade Range of the Rocky Mountains, with her 20 year old son and his wife and new baby. Rosa had work within two days of her arrival at the fruit packing company where Zelda and her son and daughter in law worked; it was minimum wage and no benefits, but there were bonuses for packing faster. Experienced packers made up to fifty percent more than newcomers. The boys went to school in Wenatchee, taking the bus there and back every day. They were in English classes with other children of fruit packers. The house that Zelda rented was packed with six people and a baby, but Zelda was strapped financially, and Rosa would be helping with the rent.
Zelda is the oldest sibling in the Ayala family. When she was a young woman in the 1980s, her small town three hours from the capital was contested ground during El Salvador’s twelve- year civil war. The government suspected that the town was a guerrilla stronghold, supplying arms and supplies to rebels in the capital, and imposed martial law. Soldiers occupied houses at will, and behaved with impunity. Zelda was raped by several of the soldiers who had taken over her house. The army captain in command declared that Zelda was a guerrilla sympathizer, and when her husband protested, he was murdered, along with their two toddlers. Zelda fled on foot with a friend, Beatriz, whose husband and child had also been murdered; neither of them believed they had anything left to lose.
Very few women victims of war left El Salvador alone as they did; in almost all cases, women stayed in place, despite horrific violence. It was the young men who fled. But Zelda was unusual. She had gone to high school, the first and the last in her family to do so. She was a community educator in her neighborhood’s Christian base community, the movement of the Latin American Catholic Church that electrified poor communities throughout Central and South America with its “preferential option for the poor.” The communities met to study the Bible in the 1970s and 1980s and to seek to apply its message of radical social equality in their lives and in their communities. From the beginning in El Salvador, these groups were suspected by the government of socialist leanings, and their meetings were disrupted, their churches desecrated, and their members jailed. When the civil war broke out, the government engaged in wholesale roundup and murder of those involved with Christian base communities, so as to wipe out any possibility of support for the leftist guerrillas.
Zelda and Beatriz walked at night, moving north, hiding in the day, and made their way through Guatemala’s civil war, and then through Mexico on foot. They had no money, and lived on food and water they found and the kindness of strangers. It took them five months to walk to the US border in Brownsville, Texas. They were arrested and detained in an old YMCA gym that served as a stop-gap detention center for the unprecedented floods of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans fleeing their civil wars. The gym/detention center with its blankets and pillows scattered on the gym floor, its three meals a day, and its high roof were a comfort to the women, and they were reluctant to leave after their hearing with an immigration judge who accepted the applications for asylum that a volunteer legal worker from Houston had filled out for them. Zelda didn’t know what asylum was, but the volunteer, who didn’t speak Spanish well, said it was a way to stay in the US. The judge told them they were free to go until their next hearing on their claim for asylum. He said that the notice about the next hearing would be mailed to them at their addresses.
They had nowhere to go. They had given the immigration officer at the detention center the address of a person in Seattle who they didn’t know; it was a common practice in the makeshift detention centers in those years for refugees to help one another like this: if one had an address, he or she would share it with another, so that they could be released. Without an address to which the next hearing notice could be sent, the system would flounder, detainees would be stacked to the ceilings. If the immigration officers and judges knew that the addresses were shams, they didn’t let on.
Zelda and Beatriz walked the ten miles from the detention center to Brownsville, and found a refugee shelter where they were given a meal, $20 each, and two bus tickets. They chose Seattle since it was the only name of a city they knew, and rode in what seemed to them deep comfort for the six days it took to arrive at the Greyhound station in Seattle. They stayed in a downtown women’s shelter for a few days, long enough to hear about farm work in the Yakima Valley, picking apples, and got two more bus tickets to Yakima. It took less than a day for them to find a farm labor contractor and to start picking apples that September in 1989. They slept in a worker’s camp and used their daily pay to buy food from a woman who cooked for migrants.
Zelda didn’t hold out much hope that she would win asylum in the US. She had heard that a tiny percentage of Salvadorans fleeing the war since the early 1980s got asylum. But she wasn’t tempted to avoid the immigration court, either; she was determined to make her stand and speak out against what was happening there. So she wrote the court with her new address, a migrant workers’ program office in Sunnyside, outside of Yakima. She had asked one of the workers at the program office for a description of what asylum meant, and this is what he gave her:
Asylum is legal protection against deportation. It is the status sought by non-US citizens who enter the U.S., either legally or illegally, asking for refuge based on claims of persecution or fear of persecution in their home country.
In a couple of months, the apple picking season ended. Beatriz left the migrant camp and moved in with a labor contractor and his four children; she was to receive pay for taking care of the children and the house. The contractor offered to let Zelda sleep in the living room for rent, but Zelda declined. The camp was closing up for the winter, but she didn’t like the man; she suspected he would sleep with Beatriz and consider that it was payment enough for her labor. She heard that there was a company north of Yakima in the small town of Wenatchee that was looking for fruit packers to work through the winter. The company provided barrack housing to workers who needed it. She thought she’d work there until her asylum hearing. She wasn’t sure what would happen if she won asylum, but she imagined that her life would open up with possibilities, with perhaps even a chance at a good job as a social worker for migrants.
To be continued...