DETROIT – A woman who embarked on a dangerous journey to escape her home country won her asylum case in Detroit.
The 27-year-old woman from Nicaragua spoke only with Local 4 about her path to asylum, using the alias "Elena."
Elena says the civil unrest in her country was mounting late last year.
"The country became terrible because of a civil war in my country. The government kills people like they are killing an animal," she said in Spanish.
Elena was vocal about the unrest in her country, and participated in several demonstrations. Elena believes she was on the government's radar.
"At my job, 12 men came looking for me, but I was not at my job. I was at an office working, and if I was there, I believe I would be dead," she said.
Elena believed she would not survive another day in her country, and made the difficult decision to escape Nicaragua. She walked and hitchhiked to Texas, traveling 3,400 miles.
"It was a long trip, uncomfortable, very uncomfortable at times. I was tired, and at times, hungry. It was also dangerous, very dangerous. There were traffickers who walked around with guns and drugs," she said.
She made it to the Texas border days later.
"When I arrived at the border, I asked for asylum because, obviously, I could not stay in my country," she said.
She was placed in several detention centers before she was sent to the Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek to wait for an answer in her case.
"I believe that we traveled one complete day to get here [Battle Creek] by plane and bus," she said.
Elena said dozens of other women seeking asylum were in the jail with her, and they would study English and try to comfort each other.
"Imagine all these women seeking asylum in jail without having anyone to help them," she said.
However, Elena and some of the other women did receive some unexpected help. The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Ann Arbor worked on several cases.
"At one point, it was up to 80 women that were here in Calhoun that had been transferred from the Mexican border. Not only have these women come seeking for protection from the U.S. government after having experienced these traumas, but they were also transferred over from one area, one geographic area [Mexican border] to another completely different area (Michigan)," said Tania Morris-Diaz.
Morris-Diaz went to the Calhoun County Jail to conduct "Know Your Rights" presentations for the women.
"The presentations I put together basically let them know what they could expect in detention. Any and everything I thought I could think of that these women might have questions about, I tried to include in the presentation, just so they at least knew what to expect," said Morris-Diaz.
The organization also connected the women to resources.
"We connected them to pro bono attorneys. We connected them to local universities that take on these cases, as well," said Morris-Diaz.
One of the universities was Wayne State's Law School in Detroit.
"I immediately saw this as a great opportunity to try to help as many people as possible, and that the students would be able to be a big part of that effort," said Sabrina Balgamwalla, the Director of Wayne State's Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic.
Balgamwalla received a call from the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and told them she had students interested in taking on bond hearing cases. Five of her students worked on six cases.
"We get photographs. We get articles, we get letters written by family members, and then we can sometimes translate them and then pass them along to the women at the jail so that they can include it with their asylum applications," she said.
Lauren Pereny was one of the students working on some of the cases. One of Pereny's clients won her asylum case.
"To be able to work on these cases, and have real life experience is special, since we're at the beginning of our legal careers. It's really exciting to do what we can to get them out so they're able to lead full and safe lives in the United States," she said.
The student who fought for Elena's case was Rachel Lerman.
"My lawyer, Rachel, told me it was going to be hard on top of all of my problems. The problems in my country are awful. What is happening there [Nicaragua] is the worst thing that can happen to another person. I feel that the journey and the jail stay was hard, but what is happening in my country is worse," said Elena.
Elena said she is very grateful to Lerman for helping her through the asylum process.
"When I would talk to Rachel [her student attorney], I told her I was afraid that we weren't going to win, and she said we can only have faith and confidence because we are gong to fight and do everything we can that's in our hands," said Elena.
After waiting in jail for nearly five months, Elena was set free. She won her asylum case in Detroit.
"I couldn't believe it! I was discouraged because everyone who went to court [for asylum] was told no," she said.
Elena is now living in Metro Detroit with a sponsor. She often works seven days each week at a local restaurant, and is learning the little things.
"Everything is different. The television control to use the internet is still difficult. It's not normal cable," she says jokingly.
Elena is very grateful for her journey, and believes God led her toward asylum.
"In jail, God gave me strength, nothing else. Only God. I believe that (without God), I would not have been able to do it," she said.
Elena worries about the rest of her family living in Nicaragua during the political unrest, and keeps in contact with them as much as she can to make sure they are safe.
She wants to pursue a career in construction in the United States, and is hoping to soon get her driver's license.
Elena will be eligible for a green card in one year.
ICE uses the Calhoun County Jail, Monroe County Jail and the St. Clair County Jail to house undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.
- The United States recognizes the legal right of asylum for individuals as specified by international and federal law.
- People seeking asylum must pass a “credible fear” interview. Credible fear is a part of the U.S asylum law whereby an individual must demonstrate he or she has “credible fear” of going back to his or her country, and therefore cannot be subject to deportation from the United States until the person’s asylum case is processed. Elena passed her credible fear interview, and won her case months later.
- More information: https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/asylum
Below you can see statistics from ICE that show how many detainees have been kept in each jail. Local 4 obtained this information through a FOIA request.