A Triangle Resident Says if She’s Sent Back to Honduras, Her Ex Could Kill Her
Editor’s note: For their protection, the names of the asylum seeker and her family members have been changed.
One afternoon in September 2016, Carmen sat in the dimly lit living room of her home in Olanchito, Honduras, picked up the phone, and learned that her oldest daughter was running away.
The forty-seven-year-old seamstress had been working on a large order of dresses for a parade. When Carmen first got the commission, Isabel, her earnest and diligent twenty-six-year-old daughter, had agreed to pitch in, just like always. Now Carmen needed her help, but Isabel was nowhere to be found. That wasn’t like her. A few days earlier, Isabel had told her mother that she was taking a quick vacation to the coast, but she hadn’t checked in. That wasn’t like her either.
So Carmen called. When Isabel picked up, Carmen laid on the kind of maternal guilt that transcends borders: “You left me alone here with all of this work. What’s going on?”
Isabel hesitated. The two were close. They lived together. But they had their differences: Isabel was demure, with a slight build and nervous affect; Carmen was squat, opinionated, and fiercely protective. She’d raised four kids as a single mom in a rough neighborhood, struggling to make ends meet. For years, the only pieces of furniture in the living room were four plastic chairs and a matching table.
To support the family, Carmen sewed relentlessly, once finishing forty-nine dresses in two weeks. Isabel—even though she had her own job selling food products to stores in Olanchito—had become Carmen’s dutiful assistant, her “right arm.”
But then she wasn’t anymore. Because Isabel, her mother learned, wasn’t actually on vacation.
Instead, Isabel said, she was somewhere in Mexico with a coyote and her four-year-old daughter, Karla, preparing to cross the border into the United States.
“Mom,” she said through tears, “we’re not coming back.”
Carmen was incredulous. It wasn’t like Isabel to joke about things like that, but she couldn’t believe this was happening. Carmen unleashed a string of logistical questions, to which Isabel responded in a patient, measured tone. Slowly, the reality sunk in. Her daughter was really leaving.
Later that afternoon, Carmen called back. She told Isabel that her ex-boyfriend and Karla’s father, Manuel, had learned she’d left, and he had something to tell her.
“He sent the message that it was better for me not to return,” Isabel later recalled. “Because if I came back, there was no telling what might happen to me.”
In February, I flew to Honduras to visit Isabel’s hometown and see the country she had left behind. From the congested streets of San Pedro Sula, I wound my way along a twisting road about five hours east to Olanchito, a city of one hundred thousand that sits beneath a rolling blue mountain range that looks close enough to touch. The city is weathered and picturesque. Downtown, a bone-white church rises across the street from a leafy park, zig-zagging with blooming aisles of bushes.
Carmen’s house is a short drive away, on an unpaved road that juts off of a sloping, dusty street. She raises chickens in the backyard, cooks in a brightly painted kitchen, and works in a living room piled with fabric. She set up a sewing station near the window and sometimes labors into the night.
Her erratic work schedule is born out of anxiety—fear of robberies keeps her on edge, and her sleep has suffered. She goes outside only when she has to. If night falls and she’s missing an ingredient for dinner, she prefers to go hungry rather than walk to the corner store, just a few doors down.
That pervasive sense of danger extends beyond her neighborhood. It’s seen, in fact, as a major factor in the recent wave of migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle to the U.S.
Over the past several years, hundreds of thousands of people have left the region, which encompasses Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and sought refuge in other countries. According to the United Nations, more than 294,000 people from the Northern Triangle applied for asylum or refugee status worldwide in 2017, a more than 50 percent increase from the year before, and sixteen times the number of people who applied in 2011. Many are fleeing violence, political unrest, and poverty.
In 2014, Honduras had the world’s highest murder rate; although it has declined since then, it still ranks among the five most violent countries in the world. That violence, coupled with political and economic instability—Honduras is also one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and has been in political turmoil since a 2009 coup ousted the country’s democratically elected president—has fueled an exodus to the U.S. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of Hondurans seeking asylum in the U.S. has increased nearly sevenfold, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review, from 1,552 to 10,818.
The region’s violence frequently targets women. In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees interviewed more than 150 women seeking asylum from the Northern Triangle and found that they were subjected to “extreme levels of violence on a near-daily basis.” For Honduran women, that can mean murder. Between 2005 and 2013, the number of violent deaths of women in the country swelled by 263 percent. As of 2016, the country had one of the highest femicide rates in the world.
But the perpetrators of gender-based violence are rarely held accountable. According to the women’s rights organization Centro de Derechos de Mujeres, or CDM, Honduran authorities investigated just 3 percent of the more than four hundred cases of femicide in 2016, and only two cases led to guilty verdicts.
The state “keeps sending out the message that it doesn’t care about violence,” says CDM attorney Damicela Mayes. “So, because they don’t have other options, the majority of women make the decision to leave the country. Many of them are afraid that a man will kill them if they don’t leave.”
When Isabel departed Central America’s Northern Triangle to resettle in North Carolina’s Triangle in 2016, she joined that group. She left Honduras reluctantly, to escape an increasingly unstable situation with Manuel that had deteriorated when they separated after about four years of dating. She says he’d been verbally and physically abusive, called her names, showed up unannounced at her mother’s house, told her he was taking Karla, and once slugged her in the head.
He was unwilling to accept the separation, Isabel believed. She worried that he could kill her or take her daughter.
“We were in a terrible situation,” she says. “I was afraid that he would attack me. I felt that I had everything to lose—that he could come at any moment, and I would not be able to do anything.”
There is limited data available to indicate how many asylum seekers in the U.S. fit Isabel’s profile. Documents obtained from the Executive Office for Immigration Review show that 150 Hondurans applied for asylum in Charlotte’s immigration court, which handles cases from North and South Carolina, in fiscal year 2016; just 22 of those applications were approved. The others were abandoned, withdrawn, or denied. (EOIR does not track gender in its database.)
Additional records received through a Freedom of Information Act request, filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, show that the number of Honduran women applying for asylum has steadily increased since fiscal year 2014, when 763 women filed asylum applications. In fiscal year 2017, 3,152 Honduran women applied for asylum. About 17 percent of those applications were granted by USCIS, and 23 percent were referred to an immigration judge; it’s unclear what happened to the rest.
That sliver of data seems to back up reports that rising numbers of women from the Northern Triangle are following Isabel north, some escaping what human rights activists call an epidemic of gender-based violence.
Yet when they get here, they face a formidable foe: an administration intent on shrinking the asylum system, part of a broader push by President Trump to curb the flow of migration into the country.
In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a sweeping order that largely eliminated both domestic violence and gang violence as grounds for asylum. The decision has the potential to wall off the asylum system not only for people fleeing gang violence but also for women seeking refuge from domestic abuse. It drew fire from immigrant and women’s rights groups, which criticized the administration for adopting an old-school mentality—in which domestic violence was seen as a private matter between partners, as opposed to a broader human rights concern.
Karen Musalo, the director for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, says the decision was “like dragging us back to the dark ages of women’s rights. The fact that violence against women is a private or personal matter and not a matter that’s of concern for human rights or refugee rights is just flat-out wrong.”
For Isabel, the specter of violence was a persistent companion in Olanchito, a beast lurking around the edges of daily life. It showed up during an evening stroll with her high-school boyfriend when a wild-eyed man with big red shoes robbed them and placed a machete at the nape of Isabel’s neck, threatening to cut off her head. He ordered her to kiss him and groped her body as her boyfriend sat quietly beside them.
It appeared again a few years later, when Isabel was accosted by a young man while she walked from church to her apartment, where she lived alone. The man trailed her on his bicycle and tried to attack her as she unlocked her door. She was a few paces ahead and managed to slip through the door before he muscled his way in. But he lingered outside, and Isabel, peering through the window, saw a flash of his gun.
“I know you live alone,” he told her.
Isabel bolted the door, held her breath, and waited. The man eventually left, but the encounter weighed on her.
“I thought, what could have happened if God hadn’t given me the courage to get to my house and lock the door on time?” she says. “That man would have raped me, killed me, would have left my body. He could have done what he wanted to me, and no one would have realized.”
In 2012, Isabel moved in Manuel when she was seven months pregnant with his child. The two fought intensely. Manuel called Isabel a “bad woman” and told her he regretted loving her. His anger boiled over, and he would call Isabel and other women putas, or whores. Isabel worried he would beat her if she spoke up for herself.
“He treated me really badly, he looked at me repugnantly, like I was disgusting,” she says. “I felt like the worst woman in the world.”
Isabel says she was too ashamed to tell anyone about her situation; besides, in her community some people accepted domestic violence as a normal part of life. Even so, her mother picked up on what was going on. Carmen remembers running into Isabel’s room once after hearing a fight and finding Manuel choking her against a wall.
In the spring of 2016, Isabel finally left Manuel. But even then, she says he struggled to accept that it was really the end—especially the idea that Isabel could marry another man. Isabel moved in with Carmen; Manuel lived nearby. Sometimes he showed up at her house unexpectedly, provoking arguments. One time, after he brought Karla home late, they fought. He shoved her phone into a glass of liquid, breaking it. Isabel got mad. Manuel pummeled her in the face, knocking her down.
“With just one blow to my head from him, I was seeing stars,” she says. And she worried that things could get worse.
“When we were arguing and he hit me, I saw how bad things could get when things are out of control,” she says. “I was always afraid. I thought, my God, if I end up fighting with this man, what will be the result? Is this man going to kill me? He could be capable of anything.”
Isabel never filed a police report. Like many Hondurans, she didn’t have faith in the cops.
“In my country, there is no security and no ability to trust the police,” she told me. “The police are never there when you need them. They get there late because they are accomplices to the criminals.”
Isabel had good reason to be wary: The country’s police force is notoriously corrupt. According to the website InSight Crime, which covers organized crime in Latin America, Honduras is home to one of the most crooked police forces in the region. Officers have been accused of an extensive roster of criminal activities, including “corruption, sharing information with criminal groups, allowing drug shipments to pass unchecked, and reportedly participating in, and even directing, violent criminal operations.” Last winter, a secret government document obtained by the Associated Press revealed that the national police chief helped a cartel leader deliver a tanker truck containing nearly a ton of cocaine in 2013.
But corruption is just part of it. Experts who work with domestic violence victims say women are often hesitant to come forward because of the obstacles they face before and after they report. A big concern is fear of retaliation, particularly from abusers tipped off by the police.
“Women make complaints about violence, and the abusers find out about those complaints due to information leaks,” says Mayes, the CDM attorney. “There is a lack of confidence in the system.”
Under Honduran law, the penalty for domestic violence that rises to the level of criminal prosecution is between two and four years in prison. For injuries that don’t reach that threshold, however, first-time offenders only face up to three months of community service and twenty-four hours in jail for abusers caught in the act—which, critics argue, isn’t much of a deterrent.
As a judge who oversees domestic violence cases in Olanchito told me: “Making offenders sweep the streets is not going to solve the problem.”
Advocates say women are also disinclined to report because there is limited space for them at domestic violence shelters. According to the Módulo de Atención Integral Especializada, or MAIE, a unit of the public prosecutor’s office set up for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, there are just four government-run domestic violence shelters in the country of about nine million people. Those shelters have finite resources: The shelter in San Pedro Sula, a city of about seven hundred thousand, has room for between fifty and one hundred women, an employee at MAIE told me. A 2016 State Department report concluded that the “government did not provide enough financial and other resources for these facilities to operate effectively.”
Had Isabel gone to a shelter, her closest option would likely have been in the coastal city of La Ceiba, about two hours by car; if it didn’t have room, she could have tried the shelter in San Pedro Sula, a five-hour drive.
But Isabel decided that she couldn’t risk staying in in Olanchito, or any part of Honduras. She believed Manuel would track her down wherever she went. And so, in September 2016, about six months after they separated, Isabel decided to leave—a choice she came to out of necessity, she says.
“I never had a desire to go,” she says. “Some people were always wanting to go to the United States, but not me. I had my job, and really, it was a good job in Honduras. When I decided to come, I felt there was no other choice.”
In Honduras, I heard a similar refrain in the stories of a bleary-eyed group of deportees filtering through the gates of an airport outside San Pedro Sula.
This hodgepodge crew, some empty handed, others clasping the necks of drooping trash bags, had all been sent home after entering the U.S. without authorization. Some were excited to be back. “I’m home, and we’re going to make food!” an impressively coiffed man exclaimed on the phone to his mom. He bought a bag of orange passionfruit juice, tilted his head back, and drizzled it into his mouth.
Alberto, a friendly guard eyeing the steady flow of deportees, recognized many of them from previous attempts. Some he’d seen three times. Sometimes, he told me, he becomes emotional seeing young men hobbling back with limbs lost to la bestia, the notoriously dangerous train that migrants often ride through Mexico to the U.S. Though the ride is treacherous, known for kidnappings and robberies, Alberto understands why they take the risk.
“They go there because there aren’t opportunities in this country, not out of bad intent,” he said. In his estimation, 80 percent of the people who are deported try again.
Consider a twenty-one-year-old with a string-bean build. He came to Honduras by way of New Orleans, where he’d lived for nearly eleven years. Would he try to come back to the U.S., I asked? “Yes,” he responded before I finished the question. He has a three-year-old son in New Orleans, and lots of family there. Here? His eyes scanned the parking lot and he shook his head.
Why keep trying? A few reasons: poverty, unemployment, violence, political instability. In 2009, a military coup ousted the country’s left-leaning president and carted him off to Costa Rica at gunpoint while he was still in his pajamas. Human Rights Watch described the coup and its subsequent violence as “the most serious setbacks for human rights and the rule of law in Honduras since the height of political violence in the eighties.” More than 120 activists have been murdered in the country since 2010, making Honduras one of the world’s deadliest places for human rights defenders.
The unrest escalated last November, after Juan Orlando Hernández, a conservative U.S. ally, won a second term in an election marred by allegations of voter fraud, sparking widespread protests. Between the election and the end of December, according to the Honduran human rights organization COFADEH, 30 people were killed, 232 people were wounded, 1,085 people were detained, and one person was disappeared.
In the weeks after the inauguration, when I visited Honduras, evidence of discontent could be seen across San Pedro Sula. The expression “Get out, JOH” was scrawled in graffiti on walls throughout the city, including on the charred skeleton of a tollbooth that was torched during a post-election protest. It wasn’t uncommon to see trucks loaded with heavily armed military police cruise down the streets of San Pedro Sula, or young police officers swaggering in front of police stations with large guns.
One activist who was kidnapped for a week by the military in the eighties said she feared a rising tide of repression: “In the eighties, I wasn’t as scared as I am now,” she told me.
Among the most prominent issues for many activists is the plight of women. Human rights groups have argued that the 2009 coup coincided with a rise in violence against women. The country’s militarization, they say, has exacerbated an already hostile environment for women. Femicides increased by nearly 50 percent between 2008 and 2012, and the impunity rate for those crimes hovered at more than 93 percent, leaving at least 2,036 murders of women unpunished.
Since 2012, government reports have boasted a reduction in overall violence, including gender-based crimes and femicides, but human rights groups have flagged inconsistencies in the data. One report by CDM compared government data on homicides from January–June 2014 with media reports of femicides during that same period, and found forty-five separate instances in which femicides were reported in the news but were not categorized as homicides by the government, which instead registered them as accidental or unresolved deaths. CDM’s analysis concluded that 17 percent of total femicides during that time fit into this category.
“We do believe that there are murders that are being classified wrongly,” says Neesa Medina, an analyst with CDM. “As a result of that, the murder rate is decreasing. We can’t prove that this had been done on purpose, but we have denounced this, and we had asked formally to have an organization to look at this protocol of the police, but no one cares. We know that there is no political will to see this as a concern.”
Some officials told me they were committed to solving cases of violence against women, but institutional barriers stood in the way. A police officer who investigates femicide cases in San Pedro Sula looked demoralized when I asked him why the femicide impunity rate remains so high.
“We don’t have enough resources and technology to investigate properly,” he said. For example, he said that forensic samples in femicide cases had to be sent to a laboratory in Tegucigalpa, more than 160 miles away, because an equivalent didn’t exist in San Pedro Sula. (One was under construction, he said, but he didn’t know when it would be finished.)
Officers’ hands are also tied by the legal system itself, he said, particularly for domestic violence cases.
“The major difficulty is that the law doesn’t protect these women,” he told me. “When they file a report, the law only states that men have to be separated from their homes and maybe enforce a security measure like a restriction order. If it happens again, then the man can get arrested. Women have to go through all of that for a man to be put in jail. The process is too slow, and women get killed during it. Some men lose their temper when women file a report, and they kill them.”
Isabel and Karla arrived in the U.S. after about ten days of traveling. They traversed three countries—Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico—before crossing into Texas, near Hidalgo. After they crossed, immigration officials apprehended them and brought them to the South Texas Family Residential Center, an immigration detention center in Dilley.
After a few days, Isabel was allowed to give her credible fear interview, one of the first steps in the asylum process that determines whether applicants have a “credible fear” of persecution or torture on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group if they go back to their home country.
During her interview, Isabel discussed her history with Manuel. She told the asylum officer that she feared for her life in Honduras and described the police’s blasé attitude toward cases involving women. The officer concluded that Isabel did have a credible fear of return, allowing her to proceed with her asylum case. After being released from detention, Isabel and Karla moved to the Triangle. There, she found an attorney and had her initial asylum hearing in Charlotte last winter. The judge set a final hearing date for the case in October.
While she awaits her day in court, Isabel has been adjusting to her new life. She began a new relationship with a man; they had a baby last summer. Her days are filled with the responsibilities of motherhood: taking care of Karla, who enrolled in school and is learning English, and her new baby. She likes it here. The street she lives on is quiet most of the time. When she has more time, she says, she’d like to find a job, and maybe a therapist.
“I’m happy when I’m walking, I begin to think about how different it is here,” she says. “Now that I’m here, I don’t want to go back. It’s so different.”
Carmen’s life changed after Isabel left, too, but not for the better. She became sick after her daughter’s departure, fell into a deep depression, and had a nervous breakdown. Sometimes, she kept herself up at night, wondering: Will I see her again before I die?
Carmen described these changes in anguished detail when we met at her home in Olanchito. She waited for me at the corner of two unpaved roads, hands perched on her hips, black hair knotted up into a ponytail. All around her, the neighborhood was groggily waking up: motorcycles rumbling, lifting clouds of dust; roosters squawking; men trudging down the street. A group of wolfish teenage boys huddled nearby.
Carmen walked quickly to her house, which is filled with tributes to her kids—their names and ages spelled out in rainbow magnets across the kitchen refrigerator, a gift from Isabel after she began earning a steady paycheck. Previously, Carmen had very little furniture. Today, there are three couches, two comfy beige chairs, a TV, and a few small tables draped in white cloth that hold pictures of her children in the living room.
“I would tell my kids, I don’t have things because the money I make is to raise them,” she told me. “Now my life is different. When Isabel began to work, she bought me furniture for Mother’s Day. She gave me was a stove, then she bought a refrigerator. I didn’t have anything. Nothing.”
She sunk into the couch and began railing against the neighborhood. A few days earlier, she told me, a burglar had killed one of her neighbors—shot him to death after stealing his motorcycle. As Carmen talked, she jumped from one thought to another like she was hopping across a pond, each stone a different idea: delinquency, her precious children, Manuel. She discussed Olanchito’s past nostalgically, her childhood memories filled with the sepia-filtered recollections of youth. “Now it’s different,” she said—a town compromised by lawlessness, crime, and gang violence.
She told me she hated being so far away from Isabel, but she also believed that Manuel posed a real threat: “Here in Olanchito,” she said, “it wouldn’t be the first time that a man killed a woman in a rage.”
Even before Jeff Sessions’s announcement in June, the odds were already stacked against people like Isabel.
Between 2012 and 2017, nearly 80 percent of asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras lost their cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, with Guatemala close behind at nearly 75 percent.
Asylum applications in North Carolina, like Isabel’s, go to the Charlotte immigration court, one of the toughest in the nation. In 2016, a group of immigration advocates called the court one of five “asylum-free zones” in the U.S. in written testimony to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing that it displayed “bias against Central American gang and gender-related asylum claims.” That same year, Charlotte’s immigration court granted asylum in just 17 percent of cases, compared with the New York City court’s 85 percent.
Domestic violence and gang claims in particular face additional difficulties because their place in the asylum framework is not well-defined. The modern asylum system was developed after World War II, amid consensus that nations had failed to protect Jews and other groups fleeing Nazi oppression. That gave way to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, which defined a refugee as a person fleeing persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
That definition has formed the basis of the system used today to evaluate asylum cases. Under U.S. and international law, asylum seekers must prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country on account of one of those five categories—race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a particular social group—and that their native government is unable or unwilling to protect them.
“Membership of a particular social group” is the most ambiguous of the five. It is defined as a group of people with a “common immutable characteristic” that they cannot or should not have to change. Notably, gender does not have its own designation like race or religion, but women seeking asylum on gender-related violence claims have qualified as members of a “particular social group.” Legal scholars often interpret the absence of gender as a matter of historical context. When the definition was developed, crimes against women, including domestic violence, were not broadly recognized as matters of public concern or government responsibility.
Public opinion evolved in the decades that followed, and clearer guidelines developed about gender-related claims. In a landmark 1996 decision, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that a woman fleeing female genital cutting was eligible for asylum, recognizing for the first time that a woman escaping gender-related harm could be eligible for asylum in the U.S.
But domestic violence as a basis for asylum has been mired in controversy almost ever since. In 1999, the BIA denied protection to a Guatemalan survivor of domestic abuse, opening the door to more than a decade of legal wrangling.
In 2014, the BIA weighed in decisively in favor of domestic violence victims. The case—the Matter of A-R-C-G—established that “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” could constitute a “particular social group.” Though significant, the ruling was narrow, legal scholars found, giving judges discretion in how they evaluated domestic violence cases, and, as a consequence, a wide degree of disparity in how they ruled.
A 2016 analysis by Blaine Bookey, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies’ co-legal director, found that in the year after A-R-C-G, “arbitrary and inconsistent outcomes have continued to characterize asylum adjudication in this area of the law.”
Even with the decision on the books, some immigration advocates and attorneys found that claims could be undermined by a hostile environment—a judge, for instance, who doesn’t respond positively to the way an asylum seeker presents herself in court.
Hila Moss, an attorney who represents domestic violence asylum seekers with the U.S Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in North Carolina, says a case could fit every statutory definition required for asylum—a “slam dunk”—but if the asylum seeker doesn’t project fear during the trial, a judge could rule against her.
“A lot of these judges hold the fact that these women have low affects and sluggish demeanors against them, saying, ‘You don’t care about your case. You’re just sitting there talking monotone. You’re not being demonstrative or showing fear or even crying; therefore, it shows that you weren’t really a victim,’” Moss says.
In one exchange, she recalls, when a client who experienced years of sexual abuse sobbed during her testimony, the judge remarked: “I just want to make note that the respondent is sobbing audibly, but there are no tears coming out.”
In June, the challenges for those seeking asylum on domestic violence grounds became even more pronounced when Sessions reversed a ruling by the BIA that granted asylum to a Salvadoran abuse survivor in a case known as the Matter of A-B. The next month, the USCIS instructed asylum officers that domestic violence and gang-related claims would, “in general,” not establish the basis “for asylum, refugee status, or a credible or reasonable fear of persecution.”
The possibility that domestic violence survivors could be almost uniformly denied safe haven has generated bipartisan pushback. In June, a House committee including U.S. Representative David Price, a Democrat who represents Orange and Wake Counties, rebuked Sessions, voting to block the Department of Homeland Security from using its funds to implement the decision. A month later, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and the ACLU sued the Trump administration over the USCIS guidelines; the CGRS continues to represent the woman at the center of the A-B case.
Although it’s hard to say definitively, some immigration attorneys have estimated that Sessions’s decision could invalidate tens of thousands of pending asylum claims.
“Most of the Central American cases involve either some form of domestic violence or gender violence or fear of gang,” says Musalo of the CGRS. “And then [there are] lots of cases from other countries around the world—gender violence and domestic violence isn’t only a phenomenon of the Northern Triangle countries.”
Despite Sessions’s decision, Isabel’s hearing is still pending. How she feels about the looming date depends on her mood, she told me this spring. Sometimes, it feels tantalizingly close; other times, somewhere in the hazy distance.
Sitting inside her home in North Carolina, Isabel winces at the thought of going back to Honduras. It’s just past noon, and she’s preoccupied with lunch preparations, shuffling between the living room and kitchen in black platform sandals. Every so often, she’ll spring up and brusquely walk to the kitchen to stir a pot simmering on the stove. The food is ready for her boyfriend when he comes home on his lunch break. He walks up to the baby’s crib and affectionately cups her left foot in his hands. She’s battling a cold and is bundled up in fuzzy pink pajamas.
The pink color palette is all over Isabel’s daughters’ room, too—pink curtains and a dresser filled with plastic toys, pink crocks, a playhouse. One of Karla’s favorites is a fake kitchenette, which Isabel stores with real cans of food in a pantry at the bottom. Throughout the house are Post-it notes with pictures of animals her daughter drew: a bear, a dog. Karla has also taken to practicing writing in English on a dry erase board in red marker. She often drags her polar bear stuffed animal around the house.
Just beneath the surface of this calm, homey scene, though, there’s a churning well of uncertainty, and Isabel knows it. Her new life is precarious: It relies on decisions, lawsuits, and political calculations far outside of her control. And so does the life that could await her back in Honduras.
“If we went back there, only God knows what might happen,” she says.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.