Sue Smith, executive director of Lucha Ministries, a nonprofit that serves the local Latino population, sat at the Community Health Center of the Rappahannock Region with a folder full of paperwork on her lap.
Inside was a stack of forms filled out for her clients—Lucretia, a K’iche’ indigenous woman from Guatemala, who is seeking asylum, and her elementary school-age daughter, Rose. They asked that their middle names be used and last names and identifying details be withheld out of fear of influencing their asylum case.
The only thing Lucretia brought to the appointment was her daughter’s birth certificate, inside a plastic shopping bag that was tied closed.
The birth certificate is worn, crumpled and dirty along the edges, because it traveled almost 2,000 miles from Quiché—a province in the central highlands of Guatemala—to Texas on Lucretia’s body. The birth certificate and Rose’s health records were the only papers Lucretia brought with her from home.
“[For many immigrants], the most important thing is to be able to prove their children belong to them,” Smith said.
Lucretia is one of an increasing number of immigrants from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—who are claiming asylum from poverty, food insecurity and violence in the United States.
According to the Department of Homeland Security’s 2017 Refugees and Asylees report, applications for asylum from these three countries increased 800 percent between 2012 and 2017.
In 2018, according to Customs and Border Protection, border patrol agents took custody of 42,757 people from Guatemala who crossed the border to apply for asylum—up from 23,067 in 2017.
According to a 2017 Reuters report, deportation orders are issued for asylum-seekers from Guatemala 72 percent of the time. Only asylum-seekers from Honduras have a higher deportation order rate.
Whether or not asylum is granted depends largely on where in the country the case is heard and by what judge, the Reuters report found. For instance, the immigration court in Pompano, Fla., orders deportation 97 percent of the time, while a certain judge at the New York City court allows immigrants to stay in the country 93 percent of the time.
At the immigration court in Arlington, judges issue deportation orders between 40 and 47 percent of the time.
Smith said Lucretia and Rose are representative of the type of immigrants Lucha is now working with. They are indigenous villagers who speak Spanish as a second language.
Smith said she is providing case management for about 15 families at the moment.
“These are really different folks from the earlier immigrants that Lucha worked with,” she said. “Asylum seekers are very different from earlier immigrants in their motivation for coming to the U.S. They’ve suffered some type of violence, trauma, etc., and it affects their ability to adjust, to trust, and to feel safe here.”
After having made the decision to leave behind everything and seek safety in a new country, they are often further traumatized at the U.S. border, Smith said.
Many also come to this country alone.
“Even if they have someone who has received them, they often don’t know that person well, and they feel like they’re a burden,” Smith said. “They want to work, but have difficulty finding and keeping jobs. They want to be independent, but it takes time.”
Much of Smith’s work with Lucha involves helping the families enroll their children in school—assisting with the paperwork, translating the necessary medical appointments, trying to help them understand the system.
At a computer check-in station at the health center, Smith helped Lucretia scroll through a long list of languages, looking for K’iche’, the Mayan language that is her native tongue.
It was not one of the options. Lucretia can communicate in Spanish, but Smith said there’s plenty that doesn’t make it through the translation process from English to Spanish to K’iche’ and back again.
“People who speak the indigenous languages are even more isolated here,” Smith said.
To the health center receptionist seated behind a sliding glass window, Lucretia presented the only forms of identification she has for herself and her daughter—the orange ID badges they were given at the detention center in Texas, where they stayed for two months after crossing over the border from Mexico.
‘YOU FEEL LIKE A CRIMINAL’
Lucretia wears a GPS-enabled ankle monitor, which Immigration and Customs Enforcement is using to keep track of her while her asylum case makes its way through the courts. She tries to keep it covered with her jeans, but it forms an awkward square bulge around her ankle.
The monitor can broadcast pre-programmed audio messages and must be charged every day. She said ICE told her she has to wear it for one year.
Claudia, another local asylum-seeker from Guatemala who was outfitted with an ankle monitor, said the devices are cumbersome and painful and opened her up to discrimination.
“You have to always keep it covered up because people look at you funny,” she said. “They ask, ‘What have you done?’ because they think only delinquents wear them.
“You feel like a criminal, just because you entered this country.”
Lucretia also gave the receptionist at the health center a statement from her husband’s employer, a real estate management company. It states that he works “on a contract basis” and receives “approximately $2,000” every two weeks, for “hauling away trash, cleaning resident properties, doing light yardwork and other tasks as required.”
According to this statement, Lucretia’s family income is too high for her to qualify for free services at the health center. So she removed five folded $20 bills from her purse and gave them to the receptionist.
Smith said that Lucretia’s husband’s employer probably pays him in cash, so there are no pay stubs to prove what his actual income is. She suspects that it’s lower than what the statement says.
“Employers who pay in cash are often unwilling to provide any kind of statement because they don’t want to get in trouble,” Smith said.
Smith brought Lucretia and Rose to the health center on a July day so the girl could receive her school health examination. In August, she started first grade at a local elementary school.
Back in Guatemala, Rose attended school once for six months, but Lucretia took her out because she didn’t have money for tuition, uniforms and lunches—not to mention the funds families were regularly asked to contribute to fix the crumbling school.
Also, she said, children were being robbed as they walked to school each day.
Lucretia said one of their neighbors in a local town home community, where they rent the top floor of a town house, is teaching Rose English phrases.
“She learns fast,” Lucretia said.
English is the subject she is most excited for her daughter to learn in school.
“It is most important,” she said.
Smith has been working with Lucretia and Rose since they arrived in Fredericksburg this summer. From the detention center in Texas, they went first to another state, where Lucretia’s sister lives. Then Lucretia’s husband convinced them to come to him in Fredericksburg.
“He told me it would be easy to get a job,” Lucretia said.
But she isn’t allowed to work while she wears the ankle monitor, so she said she spends most of her time in her room alone.
‘NO WAY TO GET AHEAD’
Lucretia said her husband has been in the U.S. for several years. In Guatemala, they were farmers, growing chilies, peppers and beans, but they didn’t own land of their own and “there was no way to get ahead.”
Climate change has made farming in Guatemala harder. Farmers used to rely on a consistent rainy season, but the rains have been coming more erratically and sometimes not at all.
In 2014, Guatemala declared a state of emergency due to an extended drought.
“All the springs have dried up,” Lucretia said. “We reuse water. The water situation is very serious.”
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are located in the Central American Dry Corridor, which, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “has become one of the most susceptible regions in the world to climate change and variability.”
During the El Niño weather pattern, precipitation drops by 30 percent to 40 percent—and these windows of dry weather have been lengthening since the 1970s, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported in its 2017 Climate Change Risk Profile for Guatemala.
In Quiche, where Lucretia is from—as well as Totonicapán and Huehuetenango—two other majority-Maya provinces—70 percent of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition, USAID reported in a 2018 nutrition profile for Guatemala.
A 2017 study by the World Food Programme found that 80 percent of households living in the Dry Corridor are below the poverty line.
The study found that 65 percent of all emigrants from this area cited lack of employment or economic hardship as their reason for migrating. Half had been farmers before emigrating.
The World Food Programme study also found that 72 percent of migrants had already tried to cope with their food insecurity through other measures, such as reducing consumption, readjusting finances, taking on debt and selling assets and land.
“What increases concern is that none of the households had the capacity to apply less extreme ‘stress coping’ strategies, as they had already depleted such options,” the report states. “This reflects a concerning cumulative effect over time on food insecurity.”
Not owning any land of their own, Lucretia and her husband didn’t have that option. They decided that he would immigrate to the U.S., get a job and send money home.
“But he started drinking and found another woman,” Lucretia said.
She tried to find work in the nearby city of Santa Cruz del Quiche, but was unsuccessful. Finally, she decided emigration was her best option.
She paid a “coyote”—or migrant smuggler—about $7,000 to help her and her daughter through Mexico to the U.S. border.
She left her 3-year-old son behind with his grandmother. It was too expensive and too dangerous to bring him, too.
TRYING TO GET SETTLED
In Texas, Lucretia and Rose spent two months in the detention center. From there, they went to join Lucretia’s sister in another state and in June they joined Lucretia’s husband in Fredericksburg.
Smith said she’s been trying to help them settle in. In between taking them to appointments, she takes them to a local pool for some summer fun.
But Lucretia isn’t sure she and Rose will stay in Fredericksburg.
“Here, no one speaks Spanish, there is no work and I have no friends,” she said. “It would be better to be with my sister.”
At the health center, Lucretia had one question for the doctor.
“She wants to know why their hair is falling out,” Smith said.
The doctor didn’t have any definite answers. Maybe from putting it up in a ponytail. Maybe from chemicals in the lice treatment that was applied after they caught lice in the detention center.
Or maybe just from stress.