Three women from three different countries, struggling to provide the better life they hoped for while living as an undocumented immigrant in a country politically divided.
Roxanne is alarmingly pretty - feline face, all cheekbones - but her eyes tell a very different story than her perfectly slicked back black ponytail.
"I paid three coyotes, and two of them had left me on the trip by myself, and then one of them kidnapped me for two weeks," she recalled.
In the end, it would take her four tries with four different coyotes to get from Honduras to America.
Yaima, a very short and petite young woman from Tampico, Mexico, is a Dreamer - born in America to immigrant parents, but her father has been deported and is suspected to be working in a cartel.
"There's nothing really there, everything's corrupt, poverty everywhere," she said.
Lilian, a Brazilian woman in her late 50s, risked the lives of her family to travel thousands of miles to the States.
"I wanted to provide a better life for my daughters," she said.
All three women come from different countries with different backgrounds, escaping different circumstances.
But all three have the same story now - struggling to provide the better life they hoped for while living as an undocumented immigrant in a country politically divided on whether such immigrants are to be helped or to be demonized.
Life at Home
Roxanne is from Honduras where gangs and cartels have taken over.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice's report on Honduras, the Central American nation is "currently one of the most violent countries on the planet that is not at war. The violence is carried out by transnational criminal organizations, local drug trafficking groups, gangs, and corrupt security forces among other actors
The opportunity for work and a better life are slim to none.
“Everything's corrupt,” Roxanne admitted. “I wanted to come here for work, for a better life.”
Honduras is one of the most essential drug trafficking operation centers between South America and Mexico. Utilizing all of the branches of government, and armed forces plagued by corruption, Honduras has evolved into a transit nation in which criminal groups, protected by the political system, have developed the capacity to produce cocaine hydrochloride in local laboratories.
In 2021, Honduras was the second most dangerous country worldwide, with the homicide rate of 56.52 per 100,000 people living in the country.
Corruption and criminal activities are also rampant in neighboring Mexico,which has seen similar levels of crime, corruption and poverty.
Yamia’s family is from a small town in Mexico known as Tampico in the state of Tamaulipas.
The police in Tamaulipas are infamous for collaborating with organized crime. Ten years ago, the Mexican federal government simply disbanded Reynosa’s municipal police force, having come to the conclusion that the people are better off with no police at all.
“There’s nothing really there,” she recalled. “Everything's corrupt, poverty everywhere.”
The U.S. The Department of State deems Tamaulipas to be as dangerous as Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan.
Similar to Central America, the Brazilian country in South America is also known for serious crime, political corruption and torture.
Lilan is from Brazil, and she left in 2009 to come to America.
In 2009, Brazil was responding to a high incidence of violent crime and police brutality. In addition to being considered inhumane detention centers, torture is also a serious problem. Despite federal efforts to eliminate forced labor, forced labor still exists in some states. Indigenous people and landless farmers face threats and violence in rural conflicts over land allocation.
“Police violence, including extrajudicial executions, is a chronic problem. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, police were responsible for approximately one out of every five intentional killings in the first six months of 2008.”
“Growing up there, it was a poor city,” Lilian assured.
Police alleged that the killings resulted from confrontations with criminals, registering them as “acts of resistance”-- 757 police killings were registered in Rio de Janeiro, an average of 4 killings per day.
Torture remains a serious problem in Brazil. The multiparty National parliamentary commission of inquiry on the pentientry system found based on evidence collected from all 26 states in cluding Brasilia, concluded that the national detention centers is filled with physical and psychological torture.
In one instance, the commissioner received reports that “subjected female detainees to kicks and electric shocks, stepped on the abdomen of a pregnant woman, and forced another woman to strip naked.”
Today, Brazil is still filled with corruption by authorities, but now it is being brought to the attention of other countries so that these public figures can be charged. However, Brazil still has a lot of work to do. Since 2009, the country itself has improved slightly.
All three women came to America for a better life, fleeing the dangers they had at home.
While many Americans would argue that these women could have easily applied for citizenship, immigration attorney Louise Peacock says differently.
Peacock is an immigration attorney who prides herself in being a voice for those who are unable to be heard.
“Sometimes the media just looks at sort of the crisis situation where you’re seeing encampments at the border, and doesn’t really do a deeper dive to what some of those route issues causing those crises are,” she acknowledged, “like how our immigration systems need to be reformed.”
The Cato Institute found in 2018 that, “those who are applying for their green cards now will die before they reach the front of the line because so many applicants have piled up in the backlog since 1998.”
Peacock also emphasized that still in 2021 immigrants have to wait a long time to obtain any status upon entering the United States.
“The waitlist for people applying for visas from the northern triangle countries has gone from, you know, a few months to years, even for these vulnerable immigrant categories, like victims of crime, victims of trafficking,” stated Peacock.
Due to the backlogs and new restrictions on immigration from new administrations, many immigrants would rather risk their lives to cross the border illegally than wait for their lives to be taken in their home countries
At the age of 20, Roxane took matters into her own hands and paid coyotes two separate times to get her to America. Both times, she was left in the desert.
“Two of them had left me on the trip by myself,” she said.
Roxanne was left in the desert wandering with no food, no water, in the scorching heat as vultures would start circling her as days continued, smelling death upon her. When she almost felt she could no longer go on, ICE picked her up and brought her back to a detention center, where she was deported back to Honduras.
Yaima’s father was previously in the States. Her mother migrated when she was pregnant with Yaima and her older sister. Her mother received tour visas; she had to lie and say she was a single mother so they would allow her to come with her daughter.
A couple of years after Yaima arrived in the States, her father was pulled over because of a broken tail light on his car, and shortly after, he was deported.
“We don’t talk anymore,” Yaima said. “He has a new family in Mexico, he has sons, and last I heard, they were involved in cartels now."
Lilan also paid a coyote to bring her and her daughter to the United States.
"If you didn't keep up with the coyotes, they'd just leave you behind,” she recalled, adding that one woman was left behind with her two kids because they couldn't keep up. “They wanted me to leave my daughter behind because she was a little bigger and unable to keep up. Once they threatened to leave my daughter, she made sure she stayed in front of the men for the rest of the journey."
The journey Lilian described as "a lot of thirst and hunger" the coyotes only helped them get to a certain point, then they were left wandering the desert when ICE found them, and she asked for asylum.
Roxanne's third attempt was in the middle of last spring.
“I paid another coyote to get me across, and then he kidnaped me for two weeks; I was held in an abandoned house by the river.” Roxanne said, her voice trailing off; her eyes looked at the ground as if her entire body was growing smaller with each memory that pounded back into her mind.
"I was lost for two days after I escaped, crossed two rivers, immigration got me, and I was sent back to Honduras and held in a camp there," she said.
Roxanne paid $500 to get released from the camp, something she could do thanks to a corrupt system.
“The government is very corrupt there and can be easily persuaded if you have the money,” she said, adding that the fourth attempt she was able to pass. “Immigration never got me, and I went into the back of a truck from Houston to here."
Despite heat exhaustion, almost dying from not having any food or water, being kidnapped and brutalized, a fourth attempt was still worth it to Roxanee.
“It goes back to the media and to politicians selling this notion that we have a very limited pie and we have to hoard what we have and that to me is just kind of a poverty mentality and doesn't celebrate the ingenuity and the human resources and the commitment to innovation that immigrants bring to this country you know,” Peacock sighed, “nobody walks across three countries because they want to commit a crime you know?”
Living in Fear
Roxanne and Lilian are two women in different life stages; however, they live with the same fear of being deported back to their home country. The fear of being brought back to cartels, abuse, poverty.
Lilian still has check-ins with ICE since she is here on asylum; however, that does not mean she's closer to becoming a citizen.
"You have to keep checking in with immigration and people I know did that, like I'm doing, sometimes they will randomly deport them, and they told me I have a high chance of randomly being deported during one of my check-ins as well since it's not a sure thing."
Even though Yaima has been granted DACA since she was born here, she is also living in fear.
"I'm in immigration proceedings right now, and my court date is in April. My lawyer says if we don't get a hold of what DACA is, then I stand the chance of being deported because DACA is no longer a sure thing anymore in Immigration court.
"You just don't know how the judge is going to feel. I've had four different judges, and my proceedings have kept getting pushed off because of Covid. I was supposed to have it a year ago, but they keep getting pushed off; I just don't know what's going to happen."
Peacock stated one of her major frustrations is with what is happening with DACA recipients.
“Look at what the opportunities DACA recipients have taken and they don’t even have permanent status, they live with the constant threat of being deported and they’re becoming doctors, lawyers, and involved in our government in their communities,” she continued. “They have huge levels of entrepreneurialism and have made huge contributions to our tax base and our GDP and it’s just like we have constant examples of how opening up immigration benefits our country yet for some reason we’re still unable politically to make those changes, it's frustrating.”
But what these women miss most about their countries, are the things that remind them of "home."
"I miss the life I had over there. I miss my nieces." Roxanne
"I miss my mom. I talk to her everyday." - Lilian
"I miss my father sometimes, but I try not to think about it." - Yaima
All three women sacrificed their lives and left family members behind to come to a country where they didn’t know the language. Now they’re constantly living in fear of the police, of people they work for reporting them to ICE. The women say that in times of fear, they make it through by listening to music or cooking tortillas.
"Whenever I'm having a bad day, and I don't want to work or am feeling sorry for myself, I listen to my music and start to dance, and I feel better,” Roxanne said. “I know I'm okay, healthy, and happy, life isn't so bad.”