I have another update on Maria (whom I originally wrote about using the pseudonym of “Alexa”), the 23-year-old Guatemalan asylum seeker who has been in immigrant detention, separated from the six-year-old niece whom she has raised as a daughter from infancy. It’s truly heartbreaking news, but sadly, a story that is all too common in this time of senseless cruelty.
To recap: In a series of incidents over time, a gang in Guatemala killed Maria’s father and mother, her sister, and her partner, and shot at her as well. Knowing that her days were numbered if she stayed—she says, “They are looking for me to kill me”—she took her sister’s daughter, “Flor,” whom she has been raising since her sister’s death, and made the dangerous journey to the United States to seek asylum—her right under US and international law.
Upon crossing the border, Maria asked for asylum. In the bizarre logic of the current protocols, Flor was considered “unaccompanied” because Maria isn’t her biological mother and has no custody papers, and so they were separated. Since then, Maria has been living in horrendous conditions in immigrant detention—read: prison—in Arizona; Flor was sent to a foster shelter in New York. Maria has repeatedly asked to be released for the duration of her long asylum process (a practice that used to be common) so she could be with Flor. But in spite of her best efforts and those of many supporters, including over two hundred US faith leaders and two dozen Arizona state representatives, her request has been repeatedly denied by the authorities.
All of which brings me to my sad update. A couple of days ago, I learned that Maria has given up and agreed to be deported back to Guatemala. This will most likely enable her to be reunited with Flor, who will probably be sent back as well, though it may take months. (I use qualifiers like “most likely” and “probably” because there’s no telling for sure in this crazy, Kafkaesque labyrinth what the authorities will ultimately decide.)
This is truly devastating. Though I have not met Maria and cannot know her thought process, her decision echoes those made by many migrants who have been separated from their children at the US border: The pain of separation is so great that people are willing to risk death to be reunited with their children. We cannot sugarcoat it: There is indeed a real likelihood that Maria and Flor will eventually be killed by the people whom she herself says are looking for her to kill her. This happens frequently; in fact, a recent Human Rights Watch report on US deportations to El Salvador (a country with conditions similar to Guatemala) shows that many deportees to that country are killed or violated in other ways when they return.
Why would Maria return to such a situation? As unlikely as it is in these times that she would get asylum (however much it is merited in her case), wouldn’t it be better to wait out the process, however painful it is? Not being in her shoes, I am in no place to judge. It might be tempting to call Maria a “bad parent,” a label I’ve heard many people apply to migrants making the perilous journey north. But I am with Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries, who says, “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” And my question is this: Why do so many of us who have it so much easier insist on adding to their burden?
As the person who has been giving me these updates put it, this is “Heavy stuff.” I send love and God’s blessings to Maria and Flor as they take the next steps of their journey. May the God Who loves us all lighten their heavy load and awaken our compassion for those who carry burdens far greater than I can imagine.