It’s 4am: time to get up.
Debemos dejar a las cinco.
Bleary-eyed, Cristel dresses herself and makes a sandwich for breakfast. She joins Keyla, who sits in the living room with her coffee. She checks the official notice again. It’s true, it’s today: February 4, 2015.
Modesto wanders around the rooms as the women prepare for the day. He turns the TV off and on again: nothing at this hour. Soon, he will leave for work. The family sits together, talking quietly and eating in the dark living room.
The two women leave the house and buckle up in the car. Modesto leans inside and kisses each of them on the cheek. As the car rolls away, he waves goodbye, barely visible in the dimly lit street.
On the ride up, both women sleep. Even for a workday, it is early. The sun rises as they arrive in Portland. In the cold morning air, they walk to the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, for their immigration hearing .
The building was recently renovated – the epitome of an energy-efficient, sustainable, solar-paneled Portland edifice. To Cristel and Keyla, standing at their 5’ 3” height before the building, the tall glass structure seems daunting and ominous.
They undergo an airport security-like screening process, and take one of eight elevators to the fifth floor.
Wandering the tall, empty halls, they search for the right room. Keyla slides her finger down a list posted on the wall. They locate the room with their judge, Andrea Sloan. Cristel pauses with her hand on the doorknob. With a nervous glance back at Keyla, she opens the door. They enter the courtroom.
“Toma mi mano,” Cristel says as they wait. Take my hand.
The robed judge sits before the American flag, looking out over her court. At her fingertips rest the documents that will determine their futures.
For half an hour, Cristel and Keyla watch defendants take the stand. Each has a legal representative, except for two kids – about eleven or twelve years old– who sit silently behind them, eyes wide.
The first defendant requires an interpreter,who speaks the language of K’iche, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala. Next is the hearing of an “unaccompanied juvenile” from Honduras, whom Cristel and Keyla recognize from Eugene. The judge pushes the boy’s next hearing to the end of June so that he can finish the school year.
Cristel and Keyla draw in deep breaths, clenching each other’s hand tighter. The judge calls their names together, as joint cases.
They take their seats and put on headphones through which they can hear the interpreter. The questions begin.
What is your relation to each other? Cristel is the mother of Christopher, daughter of Modesto, sister of Keyla’s son.
So, Keyla is…? Partner of Modesto, mother of Modesto Jr.
The two children, Modestito and Christopher, do not have to appear in court due to their age – ten and four.
Do you have a legal representative? No.
Have you called any of the attorneys on the list we gave you last time? Yes. We waited, and finally they said they were not able to help us.
Did you call the Christian ministries? Catholic services? Pro-bono attorneys? I can’t remember the name of the place in Eugene, but I remember the person’s name being Kathy.
An attorney is beneficial, but not necessary. The judge continues the hearing.
On June 28, 2014, did you receive documents in Texas that say you entered the United States without parole? Yes.
And are you citizens or natives of the United States? No.
Are you citizens or natives of Honduras? Yes.
Did immigration officers find you after you already crossed into the US? Yes.
Did you have visas or any documents that would allow you to legally enter the US? No.
“I find you removable from the US by law,” says the judge, her face both stern and sympathetic. With each question, she probes for any information that could reveal hidden stories that may strengthen their case, qualifying them for relief.
“Why did you leave Honduras to come to the US? Did you face any persecution directly?” she asks Cristel.
“Not exactly,” Cristel responds. “But in our town, it is violent.”
The judge turns to Keyla. Tears begin to run down Keyla’s face, who speaks quickly and nervously. “First, I apologize for entering your country without permission,” she bursts. Her voice shakes, but remains strong in the microphone before her.
“I came here for my family.”
She recounts family members who have joined gangs and became wrapped up in violence. “I don’t want the same to happen to my son.”
The room is stagnant and silent. The judge begins to shuffle through her paperwork.
“Okay. Um… well…” she sighs. She knows their cases are weak.
“I’m going to give each of you an asylum application,” she concludes. “Being afraid of crimes, gangs and even civil unrest is not enough to qualify for asylum. You somehow have to prove that you or your children would likely be harmed if you were to return.” It needs to be personal. Some characteristic about your family. Physical evidence.
She tries to help – give examples of what will make the application successful. They must return to court with the forms filled out on April 21, 2015.
The date falls into a silent courtroom. Two months.
“In English,” she adds.
“Do you have any questions?”
Keyla’s voice sounds meek through the silence. “Is there a way to do this in Eugene? It’s hard, coming to Portland.”
“There are buses – the Bolt bus is a good option…” The judge flounders for suggestions, but offers nothing the women want to hear.
But please, remember to show up. She stares intently at the women. “If you don’t, I could deport you.”
“Thank you very much, ladies.”
The judge sifts through her stack of paperwork, searching for the proper forms. Finally, she hands them asylum papers and Cristel and Keyla leave the room. They collapse onto a bench outside the courtroom, wipe their tears, and gather themselves.
As they leave, the door to the courtroom opens behind them. An attorney and his defendant exit from their hearing. The attorney looks at them, smiles, and holds out two business cards for the Christian Values Support Services.
“You need an attorney,” he says. “Call me.”