by Christal Smith

Picture a group of well-intentioned but completely-out-of-their-comfort-zone Angelenos primarily from the entertainment and sports worlds on a day trip to Tijuana to better understand the immigration crisis and the needs of the thousands of Central Americans, Africans and Europeans who populate the cities’ shelters awaiting their ICE appointments, backed up at the border. They were there to witness the banality of waiting and suffering that mark their days and I was there to witness their experience for a radio piece.

She was clearly running for her life.

El Jardin de Mariposas (the garden of butterflies), is the only shelter in the city specifically serving LGBT migrants and it's where we met K, who had just escaped from Honduras where she was kidnapped, tortured and raped following her rebuff of a gang member’s advances. K was visibly shaken yet still willing to sit in front of this group to share as best she could what she could no longer endure. She was clearly running for her life. It wasn’t until her final immigration court hearing eight months later that I heard enumerated and dissected all the brutal details of how gang members singled her out for being gay and for months made her every day a living hell.

As a journalist and as an activist who believes in challenging the status quo I am rightly enthralled with the power of stories, but I have to say I had a lot of doubts about how any of this power was manifestly helping this exact storyteller. It’s quite possible that there are stories that don’t need to get out. (See this article in the Journal of Human Rights Practice.)

K and others at El Jardin de Mariposas

Academics of storytelling aside, all I could see was someone who looked so lost that I took off my reporter’s hat and did something that as a journalist I could never do. I hugged her. I told her we had similar names and that if it was ok,  I’d like to keep in touch and be of support. So that’s what we did. She had a cell phone with WhatsApp which allows messaging and calling for free and is available on phones all over the world.

So K and I were able to talk and text, just checking in as the months went by, waiting for ICE to call her number to be interviewed. Neither of us had a clue how to get her safely and legally into the states. Without a friend or family member to sponsor her, nor the funds for an attorney, K was completely on her own in a system exponentially closing in on itself, making it more and more difficult, costly and less and less likely to get a fighting chance of starting a new life here.  

I should pause to mention one beautiful thing that came out of that day in Tijuana.  Nate Burkus the designer (of Oprah fame) was also there and later that same day donated enough money to buy a bigger shelter for the organization so 30 people wouldn’t have to share 3 bathrooms. He also paid for all of their food for the next year. On the bus ride back to LA I  tried to interest him in making a home makeover show featuring the shelter - because pop culture shines a spotlight like none other on these kinds of issues. (More on that below. Let’s just say I’m still working on that particular angle.)

We were both staggered with the enormity of somehow finding pro bono legal representation ...

K was finally able to turn herself in at the border in August and she called me from the detention centers where she was sent, first in Arizona and then in Adelanto California. I won’t go into all the details of dealing with the prison industrial complex, the fees I had to pay just to send her money to make outgoing calls, the sad visits where she still looked so terrified - this time of the process itself. We were both staggered with the enormity of somehow finding pro bono legal representation when so many other deserving migrants she was housed alongside were looking for the same.

As Mr. Tom Petty reminds us, the waiting is the hardest part; but the hardest part of the waiting for K was the not knowing, the fear of missing something that would help her case to stand out. It felt like we were flailing most of the time. On my end reaching out to any and every immigration law firm and advocacy organization I could find. Printing out human rights reports of abuses suffered by LGBT youth in Honduras to support her asylum case and to document the credible threat she was fleeing. Navigating the labyrinthine system for getting mail to her (the books she requested were turned away we were never told why), trying to secure some funds in the hope that she might be “bonded out” or granted parole rather than having to live behind bars making $1 a day working in the kitchen in the midst of a mumps outbreak.

Thanks to Elsa at This is About Humanity, the group that organized that original bus trip,  I was able to connect with the superhero attorney Nicole Ramos of Al Otro Lado, whom I befriended and berated into finding representation for our girl. In trying to get her attention I mentioned I file stories for NPR and would like to use K’s story to illustrate the agonizing process for migrants with no family or sponsors to lean on. I  was rightly scolded as Nicole reminded me that K was not my story to tell and the transactional nature of my desire to help left, well, something to be desired. (See again the article above.)

But it ultimately worked. Nicole asked one of her colleagues, Regina Ramirez,  to look out for K on her next visit to Adelanto. And although she did not have the bandwidth to take another case, once she met K and saw the same spark, the same fierce courage that I had, she left determined to help her.

Then - even more daunting - was trying to find a sponsor for K. Why couldn’t we sponsor her ourselves? Many reasons: the commitments in terms of time (it’s a two-year minimum), housing (you must have lived at the same address for a certain length of time) and resources, were more than I could take on.

A newly-freed K with her sponsors

I reached out to every LGBT and immigration nonprofit I could find online. I filled out forms and one of them was for an organization called Asylum Seekers Sponsorship project. The day I heard from Laura Coleman that she had identified a family for K was pure joy. And meeting Brandi and Nate  (and their dogs) telling them about K and hearing how willing they were to welcome her into their lives was a moment I won’t soon forget. There we were on a group call, Laura in Tennessee, Brandi and Nate in Oregon and myself in LA talking about a young woman we barely knew, who didn’t even know all the plans that were being made for her to have a safe landing after all this waiting. Because Brandi and Nate did all of the paperwork and letter writing in support of K’s release she had a fighting chance! And so it was on December 3, after the court initially denied her asylum, ICE made a decision to release her to her sponsors. We don’t know how it happened, why the decision was reversed, but we didn’t ask questions. We happily packed a dazed K into my car, brought her home for the night and then took her on her first plane ride to meet her new family.

I should mention the final four of the amazing organizations that made this story possible: Freedom for Immigrants, which coordinates and manages volunteers who want to visit and support migrants in detention centers and carved a niche as a clearinghouse for info and updated court schedules that allowed me to track Krizia’s progress and hearing dates in the courts. Through FFI I’ve met so many dedicated individuals willing to do the hard work of tracking and finding migrants who have no other visitors who then spend time with them and do their best to help them navigate the system. The pop culture aspect I mentioned earlier is at play here as FFI started an immigrant rights hotline offering legal assistance that was actually written into a final season plotline of Orange is the New Black, which was great except it led the department of Homeland Security to shut down the hotline. Well, in December the organization filed a federal lawsuit to reinstate its National Immigration Detention Hotline! (Editor's note: in a big victory for FFI, on February 11th, a federal judge demanded that ICE temporarily restore the hotline.)

I want to honor the groups that were instrumental in paving the way for this messy yet worthwhile odyssey to get K safely to her new life, including Freedom for Immigrants, Al Otro Lado, This is About Humanity and Asylum Seekers Sponsorship Project.

It’s all been a bumbling messy scary 8-month journey. There aren’t too many lessons you can learn from what we did because every case is different and if K didn’t have a special something - something I can’t describe but will have failed to convey if it doesn’t come through in this writing - then there are many many places along the way she would have become hopelessly lost in the system. We are now trying to help her best friend, M, someone she met behind bars that she had to leave behind. A volunteer who was there just this week told me that people are freezing cold, with paper-thin long sleeve shirts to wear under their jumpsuits and very limited medical attention.

I speak with K almost daily. Yesterday when I asked how she was doing,  I learned a new word in Spanish: pesadillas. It means nightmares.

Christal Smith is a journalist and activist living in Los Angeles California.

Cover graphic by Alec Dunn