Over the crackle of Skype, some two thousand miles from New York City, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in central Guatemala outlined the official response to domestic violence. When a female victim files a claim, she can begin the process of seeking redress at the local women's municipal office. The steps that follow involve judges, trips to the police, official documents, and stamped reports. A man in uniform will even escort the victim home to collect her toothbrush and a change of clothes. At all costs, they will protect her. At least, this is how it happens on paper.
In practice, the victim withdraws her claim and returns to the abuser. She has little confidence in the policemen and their likelihood to follow through, if they believe her at all. She fears her lack of financial independence and the possibility of retaliation by her abuser's friends and relatives. The Peace Corps volunteer, Devon Baird, knows this because she works at the Oficina Municipal de la Mujer, where these stories often unfold.
That same morning, Baird, who is stationed in Baja Verapaz, said she watched a segment on the local television news about a Guatemalan woman whose body was found in three separate bags. The perpetrators had cut off her arms and head and mutilated her breasts. Such brutal deaths happen with alarming frequency in the Central American nation, in domestic situations as well as on the street. Femicide, or femicidio, is the term human rights groups use for crimes that target women simply because they are female. And with some four thousand cases over the past decade, Guatemala's femicide rate is among the highest in the Western Hemisphere.
"These are issues that are no longer 'other people's' problems," said Amanda Martin, director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, a Washington, D.C.-based organization known as the GHRC. "With globalization and travel and immigration, these problems are now our problems."
It's hardly surprising that thousands of Guatemalans flee north every year, crossing first into Mexico and then into the United States. In 2009, Guatemala was the third highest source of petitions for U.S. asylum, after China and El Salvador. However, there is a vast distance between asking for asylum and the standard for it to be granted. Of more than three thousand Guatemalan applications, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security granted the request in under five percent of cases, or fewer than one hundred and sixty men and women, by estimates of the GHRC.
The disconnect between Guatemala's impressive human rights laws and their feeble implementation has left many of the country's females as vulnerable as ever. And when they come to the United States seeking refuge, our legal system offers little solace. U.S. judges, lawyers, and advocates struggle to fit these gender-based claims into the traditional criteria for asylum, which is like trying to treat depression with penicillin. To fail in an appeal means deportation for these women, and a return to Guatemala can be a death sentence.
Yet in New York, beyond the seemingly eternal hours asylum-seekers must spend waiting in law offices or outside of courtrooms, there is a strong network of support aimed expressly at serving their needs. Hospital torture units provide psychological rehabilitation and resettlement agencies help refugees find representation, housing, and work. Is it time for our laws to catch up?
Six years ago in Villa Nueva, a woman named Margarita—she asked that I withhold her surname—lost her husband to liver cancer. During the years before he fell ill, she said he subjected her and their six children to repeated bouts of violent abuse. Margarita once went to Derecho de La Mujer, or, Women's Aid, and then to the police, but neither helped her.
When his life ended, so did the cruelty, or so Margarita believed. For many women, "being victimized once puts you in a group of people that are likely to be victimized again," either by the same perpetrators or by others in the community, said Jodi Ziesemer, a senior migration counselor in New York who advises many Guatemalan women in asylum cases. "From that point on, they're known as vulnerable."
Margarita's oldest son returned home from school soon after to find fifteen to twenty policeman encircling their home. Among them were his deceased father's two brothers, policemen who worked in the local Zone Six precinct. The other officers came in support of the two men, as they pressed Margarita to sign the title to her house over to the brothers. They yelled at her, saying that she did not "deserve" the property and that she "never took care" of her husband. But as the home's rightful owner, Margarita refused to cooperate with their demands.
Undeterred, the brothers settled on a new tactic. They enlisted Margarita's oldest son, who was seventeen at that time, to help deliver a suspicious-looking package. He declined, until they threatened to hurt his mother and sisters. The brothers drove him to a doorstep in the crime-ridden outskirts of the city with instructions to leave the package. Assuming it contained drugs or cash, the son refused to do their bidding the next time they asked. "Be prepared to suffer the consequences," he recalled them saying.
The following afternoon, as Margarita waited for a bus, the brothers approached her again. "[One] pushed me against their car. He had a weapon and he hit my head with the weapon," she said. Then he grabbed her by the hair and forced her into his vehicle. In a moment of chaos, she thrashed about in the back seat, flailing and screaming until "somehow" she wrestled open the door and managed to escape.
Five years later, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the immigrant services section of Catholic Charities hummed with activity. Women in slingbacks and pencil skirts filed in and out of the office, their arms heavy with stacks of manila folders. It was late January 2011. The women smiled as they passed; one even greeted me in Spanish, assuming I was a client. While this non-profit organization performs various resettlement services, from ESL classes to job training and placement, it also has a legal department staffed with immigration counselors like Jodi Ziesemer. Although she was not at liberty to talk about individuals and doesn't know Margarita or her specific case, she was willing to share the insight she has gathered from a variety of women during intake consultations.
In Guatemala, Ziesemer said, "Women don't even bother to report or try to report any violence that happens against them. Especially if it's familial violence. They are often ignored by the police, or worse, re-victimized by the police because of this. I hear this repeated a lot." Other times, in more remote areas of the country, there may not even be an official authority. "There is no police presence, no military, nobody who would be able to take a report," Ziesemer said.
For many Americans, "Guatemala" evokes visions of lush coffee plantations, bright patterns of indigenous fabrics and angular Mayan ruins. Until recently, the U.S. mainstream media kept us horrified by the atrocities occurring in Mexico's Ciudad Juarez. Advertisements for a steaming cup of Starbucks' "Guatemala Antigua Blend" with its "subtle cocoa texture" was about all the "Guatemala" you could find.
Over the past year, however, this began to change as NPR, the New York Times, and the Atlantic extended their attention further south. In February 2011, PBS deployed a team to research Guatemala's femicides, and in March, produced a two-part series on their findings.
The special depicted Guatemala as "an epicenter of violence in Central America," where gang members and drug cartels target innocent women as a way to threaten their enemies. "Gangs often torture young girls with the goal of scaring entire neighborhoods, police, and even the justice system," PBS reported. On March 7, CNN and the BBC picked up an Amnesty International report, in which Amnesty implored the Guatemalan government to "stop the killing of women." Sebastian Elgueta, Amnesty's Guatemala researcher, was quoted as saying that women "are dying as a consequence of the State's failure to protect them."
Last year, there were six hundred and eighty-five murders of women in this country of just under seven million females, Amnesty reported. And since only two percent of cases from 2000 to 2008 have led to convictions, advocates see no end. "Authorities are both unable to pursue perpetrators, or just don't care," Elgueta said. "Perpetrators know they will not be punished."
The GHRC's recent report on femicide identifies the municipalities where the gender violence is most common. Among them is Villa Nueva, where Margarita is from, an area of approximately seven hundred thousand residents. The report adds that the Guatemalan National Police force is "understaffed, lacks training on how to approach female victims of violence, and is notoriously corrupt."
In an interview, the GHRC's Amanda Martin said that under these circumstances, "Women are afraid to go out at night, to go to the store, to buy bread or spaghetti— just daily things we take for granted here in the United States."
Advocacy groups are not alone in their concern. A newly obtained WikiLeaks cable from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala reported that the state is losing control to narco-traffickers in the northern region of Coban, as it has in six other areas, including Zacapa and Izabal. Coban's infrastructure "was never intended to deal with the kind of threats to public order that it now faces, and is collapsing," the cable said.
Advocates say Guatemala's tumultuous past laid a foundation for today's violence. During the 1950s, a C.I.A-backed military coup helped to destabilize the country's left-leaning government, and by the end of the decade, civil war broke out. The armed conflict did not end until 1996 and resulted in the death or disappearance of more than two hundred thousand people. During the war, soldiers often used the strategy of raping women to weaken their opponents.
After the Guatemalan Congress passed the Femicidio law in April of 2008, known formally as the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women, officials expressed confusion as to how to to implement the legislation. But the number of convictions under the law is steadily increasing. In 2010, there were one hundred and twenty-seven guilty verdicts of violence against women. (Though estimates vary, most sources report the number of convictions to be just over a hundred). That same year, however, there were forty-six thousand registered complaints. Change will not be immediate.
"There is still a lot of 'Machismo' working in the system," Baird said. This mindset is "institutionalized" to the point that "people don't even think about it." As a foreigner looking in, Baird notices that civil participation is a "very 'macho' thing." During her trips to the local government office, the mayor is always there surrounded by his male friends. "It's an uncomfortable place for women to be," Baird said.
On October 22, 2006, the day after her attempted kidnapping, Margarita fled Guatemala on a north-bound cargo train. With neither passports nor a "coyote" paid to guide them illegally through a safe border crossing, she and her oldest son began the twenty-one-day journey to the United States. Margarita entrusted her other five children, ages two to fifteen, to her father's care, in hopes she would be able to send for them soon.
"We went almost ten days without food," Margarita's son said in Spanish. "Mexico was the most difficult part. There were lots of thieves. On the train there were no seats. It's not like the Long Island Railroad." At the U.S. border in Nuevo Laredo, they swam the Rio Grande, which, Margarita said was as wide as a New York City block and a half where they made the crossing. "It was night and I remember the men from immigration were nearby. We waited until we could no longer hear their footsteps, then we went into the water."
"It was freezing," her son interjected, his eyes wide. "Afterwards, we ran. But immigration caught us on the other side. They kept us in a detention center in Austin, Texas for three months. But they treated us very well. They gave us food. We felt safe." With the help of Margarita's sister who is married to a U.S. Citizen, she and her son found a lawyer to negotiate their release.
Since Margarita and her son were subject to removal proceedings after their illegal entry into the country, they were not eligible for a streamlined immigration process offered by the Department of Homeland Security, known as an "affirmative" asylum application. In this situation, the immigrant submits the required paperwork and then meets with an asylum officer for an interview. If approved, the case stays out of the courts.
Instead, Margarita has had to file what is known as a "defensive" asylum application, with her children as her dependents. "'Defensive' is a more formal process," explained Margarita's representative, Brian Mulligan, from the Brooklyn-based advocacy group, Central American Legal Assistance. "There's a government attorney trying to prove that you don't qualify, and you're trying to prove that you do before the judge."
Defensive applications are a crap shoot, but even affirmative applications can be a gamble. "Once you apply for a benefit like asylum," Mulligan said, "if you're not eligible, and they deny it, then they have that information that you're here unlawfully and can use that information to get you into removal proceedings."
In late November 2010, Margarita took a seat at the defense table in the immigration court in downtown Manhattan. Although she had made similar appearances no fewer than ten times since stepping off a greyhound bus in New York in February of 2006, she still dressed up for the occasion. A ponytail secured her sleek brown hair, and her skirt grazed the floor. In the next chair, her son, now twenty-two, adjusted his tie.
"I can fit you in on February 2, 2011. Will that work for you?" asked the judge, who was in her second month on the bench. Margarita's shoulders visibly relaxed as Mulligan translated the information. Her metal hoop earrings swayed as she nodded to indicate that she understood. At last, the court had scheduled her asylum hearing. If approved, she and her son would soon begin the path towards a green card, which in turn would make it possible for Margarita's five other children to join her in the United States. For these four-and-a-half years, their only communication has been over long distance phone calls.
On her defensive application, Margarita checked the boxes for persecution for "political opinion" and "membership to a special group." Here's where the complex reality of gender-based persecution collides with the rigid provisions of U.S. immigration law. Mulligan planned to argue that by refusing to give up her property, Margarita expressed a "political opinion" that challenged her brother-in-laws' authority as members of the police. He would also say that she belonged to the special group of "women who report official corruption to the authorities."
Margarita additionally applied for the less desirable withholding of removal under the Convention Against Torture, in which immigration officials cannot knowingly deport her and put her in harm's way. But such a ruling would not entitle Margarita's other children to come legally to the United States. "A lot of my clients lead divided lives," Mulligan said, shaking his head. "Some still have half their children back in their home country."
Along with political beliefs, asylum law also gives the applicants the chance to prove persecution for race, nationality, religion, or membership to a "particular social group." Courts tend to rule in favor of narrowly-specified categories, and while the criteria for asylum does not explicitly include or exclude gender, in recent years, several landmark cases have helped to expand the prevailing notion of a refugee. Female Genital Mutilation is one such recognized form of gender-based persecution. Transgendered males in Mexico have also made successful claims. And when a government won't protect a female victim from domestic violence, she may also be eligible, as decided in the 2010 matter of "L.R.".
Last summer, a case in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals garnered national attention when the applicant, a native of Guatemala named Lesly Perdomo, proposed a rather unusual persecuted group: "All Guatemalan Women."
As a teenager in the early 1990s, Perdomo left Guatemala and traveled to the United States to join her mother, who had filed for U.S. asylum on the grounds that her husband had been stabbed to death in Guatemala City. When a judge refused her claim—the incident was clearly a crime, not persecution—the Perdomo women stayed in the United States anyway. Lesly Perdomo attended high school in Reno, learned English, and remained undocumented until she filed her own asylum application after she came into her maturity at age twenty-one. She told the immigration judge that she feared future persecution, were she to be deported to Guatemala, since women in her home country are "murdered at a high rate with impunity." The judge denied her application, too, arguing that Perdomo had not proposed a "cognizable social group." The Board of Immigration Appeals affirmed that the group was indeed too broad, "a mere demographic division of the population rather than a particular social group."
But Alan Hutchison, Perdomo's immigration lawyer, thought his client had grounds for a solid argument. In the mid-1990s, an Indo-Fijan man petitioned for asylum after suffering persecution in Fiji for his Indian roots. Ethnic Fijans account for one half of the island's population, and Indo-Fijans the other. "I argued, if an ethnic group that makes up fifty percent of the population is entitled to asylum, then a particular social group that makes up fifty percent of the population is as well," Hutchison said. Though ultimately the board rejected the Indo-Fijan man's claim, the courts said group size was not the reason.
When Perdomo's case reached the Ninth Circuit, widely considered to be most liberal in the nation, the three appeals court judges unanimously instructed the board to reexamine the ruling. They wrote that the decision was "inconsistent" with its own precedent and with the Ninth Circuit's case law. "What the board will do, I don't know," Hutchison said. "In the majority of cases, the Board of Immigration Appeals seems to side regularly with the government, even reversing immigration judges who found in favor of the respondent."
Shortly after the court remanded the case for review, National Public Radio invited Hutchison to go head-to head with Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Services. The two sparred about the decision's potential impact on other Guatemalan women. Krikorian called it "breathtakingly irresponsible," and thought it would "open the floodgates" to hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan women seeking refuge in the United States. He said that ultimately this would undermine public support for asylum.
In reality, even if Perdomo prevails, her case would only apply to women facing removal in the Ninth Circuit. "I'm not sure how many women and their lawyers even know about the Perdomo case," Hutchison said in our subsequent interview. Though an applicant in a different circuit could certainly mention the case in court, there is no legal imperative for the judge to consider it. As of April 2011, the Perdomo matter remained under review.
A shower of freezing rain slicked the streets on the morning of Margarita's hearing in early February 2011. Mulligan and I sat in the waiting room at 26 Federal Plaza to anticipate his clients' arrival.
If one could assign a color to the feeling of "subdued anxiety," it would surely be the maroon of the carpet beneath us, scuffed and faded under the passing of many lawyers, immigrants and family members from all over the world. The new upholstery of the chairs was a darker maroon. We might call this shade "acute anxiety."
In hushed voices, Mulligan and I considered Margarita's situation. He felt sure that she would win her claim under the torture convention, but was less confident about asylum.
Apart from the specific details of a case, there are other factors that can influence an applicant's fate. The most obvious is merely having legal representation in court (which our government does not provide). Having an advocate or lawyer gives a petitioner three times the likelihood of success of someone who goes at it alone. This statistic appeared in Jaya Ramji-Nogales' 2009 book, Refugee Roulette.
Another potential courtroom advantage? Gender. Ramji-Nagles and her co-authors discovered that when a female judge hears an asylum case, the applicant's chance of winning is forty-four percent higher than it is in a case assigned to a male judge. Having children or a spouse can also strengthen an applicant's petition. Even having one dependent will increase the grant rate, their studies show. The authors suspect that asylum seekers with children may seem more credible, or that judges might be more sympathetic when there are close family members who also need protection.
Margarita has legal representation in court, a female judge, and children both here and back in Guatemala. But until receiving the final ruling, no outcome was certain. We gathered in the small, closed courtroom, an hour past schedule, ready to begin. Mulligan and the translator joined Margarita on one side, next to an American flag hanging limply from a pole. Across the room, the government-appointed attorney, a stern and slightly frazzled-looking woman representing the Department of Homeland Security, sat hunched over a mountain of legal briefs.
At first, Mulligan, the judge and the attorney struggled to coordinate affidavits, reports on country conditions and other supporting documents. Margarita waited patiently with her back erect, staring at the table, her hands in her lap. She looked professional: the chiffon scarf knotted at her neck matched the black of her blazer. In the pews beside me, her son fidgeted until it was time for him to return to the waiting room. While his mother gave her testimony, he was not allowed to be present.
With the aid of the translator, Mulligan asked Margarita to relive—in finite detail—the traumatic events in Villa Nueva more than four years earlier. To build a strong case, she needed to tell the judge everything.
Margarita's voice quivered and her eyes filled with tears. She gave dates and names of places, a minute breakdown of her life with her husband up until the pivotal hours before she fled. She told of the sexual and physical abuse of her and her children, her futile attempts to get help, and the threats from her brothers-in-law.
For many asylum seekers, testimony can be the most challenging part of a challenging process. "Immigrants often come from worlds where customs on dress, behavior, gender roles, food, expression, communication, et cetera, are so dramatically different than ours—never mind language differences—that interacting can be complicated," said Aliza Kaplan, an associate professor of legal writing at the Brooklyn Law School. Kaplan also represents asylum seekers. "In order to bring a successful claim for asylum, clients need to tell all the details of... a very difficult period that may include torture, abuse, emotional and physical pain." Kaplan emphasized how tough this can be for anyone, especially if one is from a culture where discussing such matters is not the norm.
Halfway through Margarita's hearing, the judge paused the court record and beckoned Mulligan and the attorney up to the podium. The judge told Mulligan that she wanted to help Margarita. She said that she thought it was clear the woman had suffered horrible abuse. But she didn't see how her case fit under the law.
Mulligan responded that the corrupt policemen targeted her because she stood for the rule of law (political opinion) and because she belonged to the group of "Guatemalan women who report government corruption." The judge raised her eyebrows. She said she thought this might be more of a criminal case, but agreed to continue.
During the cross examination, the government attorney set out to challenge the credibility of Margarita's testimony. She grilled her on specific details and asked questions that at times, when translated into Spanish, prompted responses that didn't quite answer the attorney's questions. After more than three hours, with all parties visibly fatigued, the judge adjourned. She postponed Margarita's son's testimony until the following month.
For an asylum applicant, it is vital to distinguish between "persecution" and the general crimes that plague a country. After all, one could argue that Guatemala isn't just dangerous for women, it is dangerous for everyone.
But advocates tend to respond by pointing to the extreme brutality of the femicides, as well as the innocence of victims. When Baird, the Peace Corps volunteer, told me about the grizzly news report she had seen the morning of our Skype interview, she thought the fact that perpetrators had cut off the woman's breasts was particularly telling. "That's not just killing someone to kill someone," she said. "That's a hatred." Coupled with a government that is unwilling or unable to control the situation, crime crosses over into the realm of persecution.
In late January 2010, Maria Belair sat in a wooden armchair in her office in Astoria, Queens, jotting notes on the clipboard in her lap. Outside her windows, a passerby buried his face in his scarf as the wind whipped fresh snow into the air. But indoors, at the Refugee and Immigrant Fund where Belair serves as director, the space is warm and inviting. A swath of blue African Batik fabric hangs over one wall, while Indian saris adorn another. In the main office, where Belair meets with clients, she's cultivated a "lighthouse" theme: dry starfish, shells, and photographs of seascapes stand out on the white plaster wall. A hallway full of potted plants opens up into another airy space where clients can sit and visit. In the summertime, they like to gather around the picnic table in the backyard for lunch.
"I've noticed that a lot of the social agencies are not very welcoming," Belair said. For this reason, her non-profit organization, which is dedicated to aiding and advising those who have suffered persecution in their home countries and seek asylum in the United States, strives to remain small. "We really don't believe in a waiting list. When people call, we try and see them within less than two weeks—it's a rapid response when people are in a high state of anxiety," she said. "The first goal is to alleviate that anxiety."
Applying for asylum, with all the paperwork, legal jargon and filing deadlines can be daunting for even the most agile lawyers. Since Belair first meets with clients before they have found representation, she believes in simplifying this process. "We try to make it a user-friendly information session," she said. "They need someone who isn't using too technical terms that they're not going to understand, or that they're too afraid to ask about."
Moments later, a West African woman walked into the center for her scheduled consultation. Maria welcomed her and offered the empty armchair across from her own. In French, the two began discussing the possibility of an asylum claim. But only a few minutes into the conversation, the woman smiled sadly and nodded her head. "Thank you," she said to Belair in English. Then she walked out into the winter morning.
When the door clicked shut, Belair turned and lowered her voice. "I didn't say to this lady that she was crazy for trying to make an asylum case, but I tried to explain to her that she was really putting herself at risk." The woman had not actually suffered persecution. She just really wanted to stay in New York. About twenty percent of those who come to Belair do not qualify for asylum. In these instances, she refers them to a trusted lawyer who can help determine other potential immigration avenues.
During resettlement, Belair thinks it's vital to establish a "human contact" to help decrease the isolation. Her intern, Allison Grossman, a Barnard student who sat busily typing at the desk beside us, glanced up and added, "One of our clients lives near [Columbia's campus]. I've been meeting with him up there, and he loves to talk about politics and international affairs. He goes to his English class, and then he's by himself all the time. It's a lonely place to be." Belair nodded her head in agreement and said, "I find sometimes this is more valuable than saying 'go to a mental health professional.'"
Still, the mental health professionals are doing their part. Last year, on the east side of Manhattan, the Bellevue/NYU's Program for Survivors of Torture provided services to more than six hundred people from seventy countries. Their program is known as the city's "only comprehensive torture treatment center," and has staff for mental, medical and social services, as well as legal advocacy. On top of the normal difficulties surrounding transition, many asylum seekers also cope with varying degrees of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, grief and depression. The Bellevue/ NYU program works to determine the form of treatment and therapy most suitable for the individual client.
Somber grey clouds filled the sky on the morning of March 16, 2011. The air felt thick and damp, and the peaks of the skyscrapers around the immigration court vanished in the fog. Mulligan waited for his clients in the hallway of the twelfth floor with one arm wrapped around Margarita's thick case folder. The top sheet, wrinkled and torn, had a list of her past court appearances, dating back to 2007, scrawled down the front in pen. When Margarita and her son arrived, we returned to the maroon chairs for what everyone hoped would be the last time; Mulligan expected that the judge would give her decision that afternoon.
Three days earlier, I received an anxious text message from Margarita's son: "I'm so nerves [sic] about the court this Wednesday," he wrote in English. Today, he had taken special care with his appearance: hair neatly combed out of his face, clean slacks, a shirt and tie.
Back in the courtroom, he took the stand. Mulligan guided him through his memory of the events with a series of carefully worded questions.
"He doesn't like to talk about these things," Margarita had told me earlier that morning. "His world is here now."
In the cross-examination, the attorney asked the son if he had ever been arrested. "Yes," he said. A few years ago in Huntington, Long Island, where he and his mother currently reside, police caught him in a bar. He was still underage and pleaded guilty to "disorderly conduct."
During his testimony, several small discrepancies emerged early on. In one such instance, Margarita testified that her brother-in-law hit her with his weapon before pulling her into the car, while her son omitted the detail.
In an asylum case, giving credible testimony is an applicant's best defense. The trouble is, a grown woman and her adolescent son could experience, and thereby remember trauma, "through different lenses," according to Dr. Archana Leon-Guerrero, a psychiatrist who is specially trained in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In a phone interview, she explained that in high stress situations, especially when people have been threatened or told not to say certain things, the fear "will stay with them" long after the incident. After two policemen in Guatemala victimized Margarita and her son, new situations involving agents of the law in New York, even in court, could cause them to "re-experience" old trauma. Ultimately, it is up to the judge to consider this possibility, or risk the consequences that Margarita and her son may face if deported.
During Mulligan's closing remarks, he retooled his argument. He said that Margarita belonged to the social group of "Guatemalan women who resist police corruption," as well as "Guatemalan women who are viewed as inferior to men due to their position in a domestic relationship." The brothers-in-law were able to "pick up the mantle" when her husband died without fear of repercussions, Mulligan argued. He concluded that because government corruption is so pervasive, Margarita's refusal to submit was indeed a political opinion, held in opposition to the Guatemalan government.
In turn, the government attorney responded that the groups Mulligan proposed were "too broad." She said she saw a criminal case, or a domestic dispute, but not political persecution.
Over the long term, helping to treat the causes of the violence in Guatemala may prove more straightforward than tackling our laws. Amanda Martin thinks the U.S. government has already taken the first step, with the International Violence Against Women Act, or, "I-VAWA." The U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan bill in December 2010, which requires "comprehensive, five-year individual country plans for five to twenty countries with high levels of violence against women and girls," among them, Guatemala. The bill will also will help to implement programs for humanitarian relief and peacekeeping. However, it must still make it through the House of Representatives before becoming final law.
When we spoke over Skype, Baird had not heard of I-VAWA in her work at the women's office. As for any additional funding it could earmark for Guatemala, she was skeptical. "I could see it working if it's only given to U.S. organizations. But if they give that money to the [Guatemalan] government, there's no way we're going to see any of that," she said.
At a local level, Baird and her colleagues at the women's office continue to organize programs in their area. Last year they did a series of leadership conferences aimed at helping women to elect their own municipal commission. That way, these women would have representation in the city council. Their office also holds workshops to teach about voting, legal rights, and reproductive health.
On a federal level in Guatemala, females are also increasingly present. In December 2010, President Alvaro Colom appointed a new Attorney General, Claudia Paz, making her the first woman to hold the position. She defeated the five other male candidates Colom had under consideration.
The life Margarita and her son have made in Huntington Station, Long Island, includes her new husband, an undocumented Guatemalan man she met here, and the couple's two-year-old son. By filing an asylum application, both Margarita and her older son acquired work authorization. He began as an attendant at a car wash, logging hours five days a week from seven a.m. to seven p.m. His most recent job was as a busboy at an Argentine restaurant.
Back in November 2010, before Margarita gave testimony for the first time, I asked her what she would do if the judge denies her application. She thought for a moment, then looked down at her open palms. "Going back isn't an option," she said firmly in Spanish. "But I know, thanks to God, people here have listened to my story and have helped me. I respect the law here and if I have to, I will leave—but I will not go back to Guatemala."
The Judge will give Margarita and her son a written decision by July 12, 2011. But as we left the courtroom, no one felt optimistic. We reached the hall, and Margarita rubbed away the tears on her cheeks. "I guess I don't belong here anyway," her oldest son said in English. He gave a shrug and stuffed his hands into his front pockets.
Author's note: In early July, the judge denied Margarita's application for both asylum and the Convention Against Torture protection. She found that Margarita was not credible based on discrepancies between her and her son's testimonies, as well as discrepancies between her testimony and her application. Brian Mulligan will help Margarita to appeal the ruling.
Isabella can be contacted at