By the time she was 14 years old, Monica had heard about the gang violence in her home country of Guatemala: Girls like her were being kidnapped, raped or killed.
But then she saw it for herself. A young girl who went to her school, grabbed against her will, right in front of Monica's eyes.
And the kidnappers saw Monica watching.
"Those people saw that I saw them," she says. "Then after that, they were looking for me. And I was scared for my life."
That's when Monica, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, decided she needed to flee Guatemala and try to find her parents, who'd left Guatemala years earlier and landed in Spokane.
She gathered up what money she had — money her parents had sent her over the years as she lived with her grandparents — and made her way to the United States border. The journey itself was traumatizing. She joined up with other migrants making their way to America. Some of the men in the group took money from her and took advantage of her, she says.
Still, she had something to look forward to: a life with her family, far away from whatever horror she was sure would find her in Guatemala. Her voyage to Spokane was successful, and she settled in with her parents, hoping the U.S. would grant her asylum.
That was seven years ago.
Today, Monica, 21, is still awaiting a decision on her citizenship. And the COVID-19 pandemic has once again delayed a hearing on her case until at least 2023.
Stories like Monica's are "incredibly common," says Vanessa Mathisen, an immigration attorney in Spokane who is representing Monica in the asylum case. Gang violence in Central America is forcing people to seek refuge in the U.S. Many asylum seekers are children, like Monica was, making these journeys to avoid being kidnapped, trafficked or killed.
Others, meanwhile, are LGBTQ+ asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Central American countries. Natalia, a transgender asylum seeker who also asked to use a pseudonym, made the journey to Spokane last summer at the age of 18. She tells the Inlander that in Honduras, where she's from, the transphobia made living there unbearable. Even her own family hurt her, and, in her words, "see her dead."
"For two years I slept in the streets with no one, and I wasn't able to go to school or find a job because of the transphobia I experienced," Natalia says through a translator.
Yet it can take years for these cases to resolve in normal times. And now, due in large part to the pandemic, severe backlogs are causing them to take even longer.
"It puts their lives in limbo, where you don't know if you're going to stay here, stay safe, and grow and build a life here. Or are you going to face a scary situation going back to a country where you're at risk?"" says Jennyfer Mesa, co-founder of Latinos en Spokane, an organization providing guidance and resources for the Latino community.
When Monica arrived in the United States, neither she nor her parents had much money. She lived in a two-room trailer with six people.
Within two weeks of her arrival, she started the seventh grade without knowing how to greet her classmates in English. During group projects, she felt like nobody wanted to deal with her because she couldn't speak English.
Monica had to work "10 times harder" than the other students just to keep up, she says. Yet at the same time, the other students her age seemed immature to Monica after what she had seen in her life.
"I didn't feel like I was a part of them," she tells the Inlander.
One educator in the West Valley School District, Margarita Plascencia-Janes, took Monica under her wing and tutored her. Soon, she was taking Advanced Placement classes.
Still, the uncertainty of her situation loomed over her. She wanted to get a job to help out, but she was ineligible for a work visa. When she was 16, she learned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services wouldn't grant her asylum application, due to a lack of proof of the conditions she had fled, and referred the case to Immigration Court, where it remains awaiting a hearing today.
Mathisen, who wasn't Monica's attorney until last year, says it's difficult for asylum seekers to have proof beyond their testimony.
"People don't tend to bring paperwork with them when they're fleeing for their lives," Mathisen says. "You don't grab everything because you're in a crisis."
Meanwhile, as Monica made her way through high school, she heard about a girl in her neighborhood back in Guatemala who had been raped and killed. She and her attorney started gathering evidence of gang violence, and Monica found evidence of other girls' bodies near her old house.
Last year, in 2020, she graduated from high school. She enrolled at Spokane Community College. She hoped, too, that her asylum case would be resolved soon.
"Being done with that, it'll end a lot of stress that I have," she says. "It's something that will bring peace to my life."
DONATEMonica and Natalia need help with the cost of legal fees. If you would like to help, you can donate directly to Latinos en Spokane, which is raising money for these two women and other asylum seekers in Spokane. Donate at latinosenspokane.org.
The pandemic changed those plans.
It forced the closure or partial closure of many U.S. Immigration Courts, delaying her case until at least 2023 as the courts saw a huge reduction in overall cases heard per month.
In February 2020, asylum decisions reached a peak of more than 10,000 per month under the Trump administration. But in April 2020, they'd dropped to under 2,000 decisions, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research center founded by Syracuse University. Since then, the number of monthly decisions has not come close to pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, the number of asylum seekers from Central America continues to soar, and cases are stacking up. The average wait time for cases in the backlog is nearly four and a half years.
"Everything's backlogged. It's horrifying," Mathisen says. "It's really frustrating for attorneys that are working with these immigration agencies. I understand they've probably got a lot going on trying to figure it out and trying to get cases adjudicated, but it's been a mess."
Judges, often handling thousands of cases at a time, say they need more staff and fewer bureaucratic obstacles in order to clear the backlog more quickly. In August, the Biden administration proposed a rule that would allow U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers to adjudicate asylum cases, meaning cases would not have to go to an Immigration Court judge. The change could help address the massive case backlog.
Even if Monica's case gets heard sooner, however, there's no guarantee it's the news she will want to hear. The Trump administration drastically increased the number of decisions per year, but it also had much higher denial rates in asylum cases — a peak of 71 percent — than the Obama administration did. Biden's administration, meanwhile, denied 51 percent of cases in the last few months of 2021, according to the TRAC research center.
And cases like Monica's can be particularly tricky, Mathisen says. In order to qualify for asylum, you have to be outside of your country of origin and face a well-founded fear of persecution by the government or an entity that the government cannot or will not control because of your race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular political or social group. But it's difficult to prove that gangs are such an entity, Mathisen says. Plus, some judges worry that granting asylum due to gang violence will result in more people rushing to the U.S.
"Cases like Monica's are very difficult because they're not often granted," Mathisen says. "They're taken on a case-by-case basis, and in general, the U.S. does not like cases related to gang violence."
Natalia always felt like a girl. But where she came from in Honduras, being transgender wasn't acceptable. Not even in her own family.
They turned on her when she became a teenager, noticing her body mannerisms, the way she spoke, the clothes she wore. Her family had priests come to the house and try to "exorcise the demons" out of her. At school, she was bullied and beaten up.
Honduras, meanwhile, has one of the world's highest transgender homicide rates, according to statistics compiled by trans activist and research groups.
"I knew I was going to be eventually killed," Natalia, now 19, says. "Over there being transgender, you're seen as a sickness. ... For them it's better for a transgender person to be killed than to live."
In November 2020, she heard of a caravan that was going to travel to the U.S. Some friends told her she would die on the journey, but she saw hope.
"At that moment, I knew that there was hope and opportunity. I wanted to come here and be able to smile again. I didn't know what was going to happen," she says.
Natalia crossed the border into San Diego, and a law firm helping transgender people connected her with a Spokane sponsor with the Asylum Seeker Sponsorship Project. She got to Spokane in August 2021 and met her sponsor, with whom she lives, before connecting with Latinos en Spokane. She began the process to apply for asylum with Mathisen as her attorney.
Here, Natalia says she feels more free to be herself.
Mathisen says cases like Natalia's can be more straightforward because it's easier to prove that Honduras is complicit in violence against trans people — this summer, for instance, the Honduras government was found responsible for the 2009 murder of a trans woman.
It will likely be years before a decision is made on her asylum either way.
The good news, however, is that the chances of a case being decided are much higher with legal representation. And those cases with representation are more likely, by about 20 percentage points, to have their asylum accepted.
"These particular cases, the two that we're talking about, these are young women who are in grave danger of being killed if they're sent back to their countries," Mathisen says. "My job is to fight for them and do everything I can in my power to ensure their safety."
Mesa, with Latinos en Spokane, points out that many asylum seekers do not have access to an attorney and must face immigration judges without counsel. Private attorneys can cost thousands of dollars, and asylum seekers often don't have any spare cash. That makes the work of organizations like the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and other local organizations so important, she says.
"You get to Spokane cold, already in debt and can't work because they don't have a work permit," Mesa says. "There's just so many layers of complexity as soon as they touch the soil here."
While they're still unsure about their legal future in Spokane, both Monica and Natalia have big plans for their lives in America.
Natalia says it would be "magical" to be approved for asylum, and if that happened, she would want to give back to the community.
"I would like to be able to one day create my own organization to help others learn more about different cultures," she says.
Monica, currently attending Spokane Community College, wants to be a lawyer, specifically working in immigration law.
"I want to help other people that are in my situation," she says.
In the seven years she's been waiting for a decision — a third of her life — she's put herself right on track to achieve those dreams, building a life here that she couldn't have in Guatemala.
She just hopes it's not all taken away.
"These young women are fighting for their lives," Mathisen says. "And they're working with a system that is not particularly sympathetic to them or others like them." ♦