Chicago has welcomed over 3,600 Latin American asylum seekers in recent months. Much of the news coverage has centered around how the City and other organizations are meeting short-term needs via donation drives and what it will take to provide long-term stability. Yet while it is vital to uplift these efforts, the individual stories of immigration can get lost in the mix.
The South Side Weekly was able to connect with a student living in the South Chicago neighborhood who immigrated to the United States in 2019. Estafany, originally from Honduras, graciously shared her and her family’s journey with the Weekly.
Estafany grew up in San Pedro Sula, Honduras with her mom, dad, and younger sister. One of her fondest memories growing up was celebrating New Year’s Eve with her family. She enjoyed a tradition of spending the evening with friends at the park and then running home right before the new year rang in. She would join her family at home where they would pray together as a family and share with family members the wonderful things she wished for them in the new year.
These lovely traditions were overcast by rampant violence, police corruption, and crackdowns on freedom of expression in Honduras. According to the Human Rights Watch, “violent organized crime continues to disrupt Honduran society and push many people to leave the country.” Estafany and her family were some of the people who elected to leave Honduras due to the ongoing violence in the country.
Estafany said the journey from Honduras to the United States took a total of nine days. She began her journey on May 2, 2019 in San Pedro Sula, in northwestern Honduras. The first stop her family made was in Corinto, Honduras, approximately a two-hour bus ride from San Pedro Sula. Corinto sits directly on the border with Guatemala. There, Estafany was able to comfortably make it through customs with her passport and knew “she wouldn’t have any problems with Guatemalan authorities.”
Once in Guatemala, it took two days for Estafany and her family to reach La Técnica, a small village that sits on the Rio Usumacinta, the river border with Mexico. Her family stayed at the Técnica Peten, an agricultural and archeological cooperative that also serves as lodging for migrants looking to go into Mexico.
It was at this point in her journey that Estafany began to fear that her family would be deported back to Honduras. Once in Mexico, Estanfany said that “we [slept] in a hotel … we were very afraid that [the] people who lived there would hand us over to Mexican authorities.” In the following days Estanfany’s family rode in buses across more than ten cities before finally arriving at the Mexico-Arizona border. In Mexicali, Mexico Estafany’s family turned themselves over to United States border authorities.
The family was taken to the Yuma, Arizona Border Patrol station where they immediately had to hand over all of their belongings and were separated by gender. The women in the facility were all on one side while the men were kept on the other. All of the migrants at this facility were housed outside and were given a small thermal blanket to protect them from the rain and cold. At night, Estafany would join her and her sister’s blanket to give her sister more warmth.
In addition to subjecting people to difficult housing conditions, the facility lacked basic healthcare and hygienic services. Estafany’s sister had asthma and was worried that if her sister had an asthma attack, they would not have access to adequate care to help her.
According to Estafany, there were fewer than five bathrooms available on her side of the facility, which housed around one hundred women. This was a major sanitary concern as none of the migrants were able to brush their teeth or bathe. Some of the migrants had been there for over a month without any access to hygiene products.
Everyone at this facility was waiting for their information to be collected. Estafany said that the officers would come outside to call people’s names and collect personal information for their asylum application. But it was easy for people to miss their names being called due to language barriers and the mispronunciation of names, leading officers to move down the list.
Estafany’s family also found out that the officers wanted to send them to the hieleras—or ice boxes. Hieleras are infamous facilities where immigrants are in freezing rooms with only small blankets. In 2016 the federal district court in Tucson, Arizona released photographs of the Tucson Border Patrol facility which showed people sleeping on wooden benches and concrete floors, and one shows several men sharing one thermal blanket.
The hieleras had worse hygiene conditions than the facility Estafany and her family were staying in. One person testified that in their room, “there was one sink but no soap or towels. Most people had spent time in the desert and were very dirty, but it was impossible to wash your hands or clean yourself … the conditions became disgusting with so many people packed into a cell this way.” Her family were not moved to the hieleras because of her sister’s asthma and the likelihood of an asthma attack.
Once Estafany, her sister, and her mother gave their information, they were able to make contact with her aunt who lives in Chicago. Their family’s stay at this Border Patrol location was relatively short-lived—they stayed there for three days and two nights before flying to Chicago on May 11, 2019. Without having a relative who already lived in the States, Estafany said that “the decision to immigrate to the United States would not have been an option.”
Estafany and her family have established themselves in the South Chicago neighborhood, where she says her family is “very comfortable.” But it took a lot of acclimating to get to this point. She pointed out that learning a new language, American culture, and the change in climate were her biggest struggles in settling in Chicago. Despite all the change, Estafany said that she was grateful that she had her family to lean on while they were going through it together.
Since coming to Chicago, Estafany has enrolled in the Basic Nurse Assistant (BNA) program offered at the South Chicago Learning Center, a satellite campus for Olive-Harvey College. Estafany looks forward to completing the BNA program to “help my new community and be able to contribute a good deed to the country.” Estafany and her family have had the opportunity to get to know many of their neighbors and were shown their generosity. Many of their neighbors have helped her family by providing clothes and food, and Estafany says their generosity and grace have helped her focus on her studies.
Estafany and her family were granted permanent asylum in the United States in November 2020. The process of applying for asylum was not easy and required Estafany’s father to reach out to an organization of lawyers who helped immigrants coming into the country. Seeking asylum does not begin and end with turning yourself in to border authorities. Individuals seeking asylum must first submit an application for asylum, which must be completed within the first year of the asylum seeker(s) entering the country. In the next stage of the process, the credibility screening, border officials determine whether or not an individual has a credible reason to seek asylum in the U.S. An individual has a credible reason to seek asylum if they are “seeking protection because they have suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion”. If deemed not credible, removal proceedings begin, and the asylum seeker(s) can appeal their case through the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Estafany’s family was fortunate to have their case for asylum approved by United States Customs and Immigration Services. As of 2021, approximately sixty-three percent of asylum seekers are denied their cases and are inevitably deported back to their home country. According to the American Immigration Council, “in many cases, missing the one-year deadline is the sole reason the government denies an asylum application.” Navigating the immigration system is nearly impossible without the assistance of a lawyer that is experienced with asylum cases.
Estafany’s experience is just one example of a simple reality: it is not easy to pick up and move to an entirely new country. In Honduras, her family faced rampant violence that urged them to seek a better place to raise their family. They trekked by bus across Central America, lived in overcrowded and unsanitary Border Patrol facilities, and had to navigate the immigration system to solidify their place in this country. Their battle continues as her family is currently trying to secure their residency permit. All the while, Estafany is studying at the South Chicago Learning Center to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) amidst a healthcare worker exodus. Their resilience and bravery are values that Estafany has embodied and looks to spread throughout her community in the future.
Monet Thornton (they/them) is an African-American Studies teacher living in Bronzeville. This is their first story for the Weekly.