'I have never felt this safe,' says teen awaiting asylum ruling in the suburbs
The last leg of her pilgrimage to escape the violence of her hometown in Honduras found 17-year-old Alma, who never learned how to swim, clinging to a flotation device so she wouldn't drown. For nearly 30 minutes in the middle of the night, the current pulled her along the Rio Grande separating Mexico from the United States.
"I was really, really scared, but I had to do it," Alma says in Spanish translated by Jessica Alaniz, case manager at the Bethany House of Hospitality, a suburban charity founded by women from 30 religious organizations to house female immigrants who came to the United States as minors to seek asylum.
"It was really dark," Alma remembers of the nighttime river crossing. "We couldn't see people in front, but we were holding on to each other, like a chain."
Following her guides' directions for those in the group "to scatter and run" when they reached the U.S., Alma quickly was apprehended and spent about 24 hours in a holding facility known as the "ice box" because of how cold it can get. She was processed through a center for unaccompanied minors and sent to a facility in Chicago. On her 18th birthday, she was accepted into Bethany House.
That saved her from being transferred to an adult facility, which often is a local jail that has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The Daily Herald is withholding her real name and the exact location of the house because of the possibility of harm directed toward the asylum-seekers.
Before she got to that river, Alma had traveled more than 2,400 miles on foot, in buses and in the trunks of cars.
The National Immigrant Justice Center, a Heartland Alliance program in Chicago that provides legal aid and other assistance, says the majority of women understand the risks.
"On the journey you meet lots of people you don't know and you can't trust," says Alma, who knew the trip would be grueling and was willing to risk the threat of sexual assaults and other abuses along the way for a chance to escape the threats she faced in her hometown.
"It's better than the certain harm they will face in their home countries," says Ashley Huebner, associate director of legal services who oversees NIJC's Asylum Project and immigrant children's programs. "They come here for one reason -- to get safety."
Alma was 15 years old when her single mother moved closer to the city to give her two older brothers and her access to schooling and jobs. That also made her vulnerable to gang members. "They threatened to rape and harm me," Alma says.
Her story echoes fears of other female residents at Bethany House and from the young men who live in the similar Viator House for male asylum-seekers in the suburbs. An asylum officer at the border found Alma's fears of harm in Honduras "credible," but she's still waiting to get a hearing before a federal immigration judge who will determine whether she is granted asylum in the U.S. or deported.
"We have many clients who filed for asylum in 2015 who have not yet had asylum interviews," says Amanda Crews Slezak, a supervising attorney with NIJC's Asylum Project, where she represents adults, children and families seeking asylum and other relief before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Chicago Immigration Court.
While she waits, Alma says she is happy at Bethany House, even though the winter's snow and cold were something she couldn't imagine when she was growing up in Honduras.
"It was surprising to see the snow, but it's also exciting because here I can follow my dreams," Alma says. "I feel secure. I have never felt this safe."