At 2 a.m. on the night Antonia de la Luz* escaped to the United States, an unmarked van glided into her garage and cut the motor. She and her four daughters threw themselves on the floor of the van, arranged like puzzle pieces to fit among suitcases and seats. Gas fumes and fear brought nausea. But the airport was more than 100 kilometers away, and De la Luz could not afford for anything to go wrong. To ask for asylum, she needed to reach the States first. There were only two options now: Escape, or be killed by her husband.
As the van sped along a highway through the dense jungle of the Guatemalan interior, De la Luz’s husband was back in her town, drinking at a party. If she stayed, the violence would continue. For 20 years, he had beaten and raped her whenever he felt like it, and—when she tried to leave him—sent gunmen to open fire on her house. When she was pregnant, he choked her; when he was tired of his daughters, he tried to drown them. Recently, he’d made death threats. But visits to the police did nothing, and neither did visits to any of the other dozen government offices she petitioned for protection. “No official wanted to help me,” De la Luz says. “In my country, no one listens to a woman.”
Human-rights activists say dire situations such as De la Luz’s are common across the region—propelling an estimated thousands of Central American and Mexican women to seek U.S. asylum in the past decade. They hope that the States will protect them when their own governments haven’t, by giving them special permission to stay as asylees. But under current laws, most women like De la Luz will lose their cases and be sent back home.
Last year, about 40,000 people from all over the world applied for asylum in the United States; one in four were granted protection. But Latinos are far less likely to win asylum: On average, for the more than 3,000 Guatemalans that apply, 95 percent are turned away. For Salvadorans, 97 percent are sent back, and for Mexicans only 2 percent actually win asylum.
While no one knows exactly how many of these asylum-seekers are women, some experts say Latinas may have an even harder time winning refugee protection than men. “Judges here in the Unites States will still say, ‘Oh, this is a domestic dispute, it’s a personal problem,’ ” says Simona Agnolucci, De la Luz’s attorney. “They say, ‘It’s not like they are going after her because she’s Catholic or a communist.’ ”
To read more, pick up the new issue of Latina, on newsstands November 16, 2010