When I first met Araceli Velasquez back in July, it was a typical day in sanctuary for her and her three sons — Jorge Jr., 5, Christopher, 3 and Kevin, 18 months. They were playing in the courtyard, Araceli tossing the ball to Jorge while his two younger brothers looked on as they ate their snacks. The courtyard in the center of the church is the only space where Araceli can spend time outdoors with her kids. I use the term outdoors loosely, as it is a small space with four, multi-story-high brick walls surrounding it. And while there are a couple of trees, some shrubs and a few flowers, the only way to see mountains is if the right-shaped cloud floats by overhead and you use your imagination. The courtyard also boasts a good number of ground-level markers with names and dates of death. Araceli says she doesn’t tell her kids what the markers mean as it would likely detract from one of their favorite play areas. She’s correct, of course, and a good mom.
The next day, the family, including Araceli’s husband, Jorge Sr., were gathered upstairs by their favorite bank of windows, one of which was open. Araceli was making jewelry, her only way of generating income to support the family, while Jorge and the kids listened to live bagpipe music, an all too familiar form of entertainment on the weekends. The piper was standing directly below the open window squeezing out his haunting tunes. The kids were obviously enamored with his instrument that reminds them of an octopus. The bagpiper, as he often does, was playing to greet those arriving for a funeral service at the church. I didn’t bother to ask the kids if they knew the music that had them spellbound and occasionally giggling was being played because someone had died, but I had to wonder.
Living 24/7 within the walls of a religious facility is not remotely a normal existence.
While most of us have at least some memories from inside the walls of a church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship — think weddings, funerals, weekly services, etc. — imagine yourself in the position of trying to weave your life around all the weddings, all the funerals, all the formal services, all the choir practices, all the prayer meetings, all the everything all the time. Now double that and you can start to imagine what it’s like to be the Velasquez family.
I say “double that” because Araceli and her three small children have taken sanctuary in Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah in Denver, Colorado. This single location in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood serves Christians and Jews as both a Church and a Temple. In other words, twice as many funerals, weddings, services, etc.
But don’t get me wrong; no one is complaining as the alternative for Araceli and her young boys is simply unimaginable. If she were to be deported back to El Salvador, the country she fled for the U.S. in 2010 to escape violence, she says the outcome could well be the complete annihilation of her family.
“I strongly believe that if I return to El Salvador I will either be kidnapped or worse, killed,” she said via an interpreter. “I think now it’s even worse, the threat is even more difficult, because now I’m a mother. I have my three boys, and I know that the people I fled in El Salvador understand that the best way to hurt a mother is through her children. And any harm that they would do to me would not just be a harm to me but to my boys.”
No, there is nothing even remotely normal these days about the life of the Velasquez family, but they are truly thankful to be right where they are… for now.
Araceli fled her life in a small rural village in El Salvador when she was just 19 because of domestic violence, gang activity and political unrest. She was certain if she stayed she’d be killed. And there was no place for a young woman to turn for help in her home country.
According to an American Friends Service Committee petition prepared on her behalf, “El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in the world, and miscarriage is punishable by 30 years in prison.”
Despite the difficult circumstances of her late teens, she says she still has many fond memories from her earlier childhood.
“I think of [my life in my village] with a lot of love because I think of my parents, and I had a really beautiful childhood as a young girl. But I also think of it with a lot of sadness because I haven’t been able to return and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to return there,” she told me.
“My parents and my uncles and aunts all still live in El Salvador,” she continued. “But it’s been very difficult for them, these last two years. In 2017 my cousins were killed and the elders have to live like they’re imprisoned. They can’t show that they have any support from the U.S. or any money because it’s possible they’ll be kidnapped or ransomed or killed. It’s been very difficult these past years for my parents and for the elders and for the community.”
She says much of the violence in El Salvador derives from a combination of government ineptitude and corruption combined with the prevalence of gangs and a challenging economy.
“If the government was functioning or wasn’t in bed with [the gangs], there wouldn’t be these problems,” she said. “They’ll put people in jail for six months, a year, for having done horrific things, and when people leave these prisons they’re even more animals than when they went in. I feel like some of the people who are members of those gangs are almost not human anymore. They don’t even have their own name anymore by the time they leave prison, they become so deeply involved and show the same love for their species that some animals will show one another. It’s very scary and out of control.”
Araceli’s decision to come to the U.S. was one of practicality. She says it was the only thing she could think of that would keep her from being killed. Still, it was a hard decision as she was the youngest child and a daughter, a role that traditionally would have made it her responsibility to remain at home and take care of her parents and elder relatives. But the domestic abuse, gang violence and political unrest changed all that. She had family in the U.S. who could help her if she could only get here. That would prove easier said than done for a young woman traveling alone for the first time outside her local region.
“I crossed all of Guatemala. I was hungry much of that time,” she recalled. “There were difficult things that happened along the way. I crossed all of Mexico, and I was hungry for a lot of that time in Mexico. It’s really difficult to leave the country that you know and get ready to cross two countries that you’ve never been in, that you know nothing about. You don’t know if your life is going to end [trying to] get to the U.S. or if you’re going to be able to survive the journey and continue on. There were many difficult and challenging things that happened, but I feel really grateful to God because I feel like there were good people all along the way who helped me. And I had more good people crossing my path than people who were negative or harmful. So, I feel blessed in that way. Part of the reason I survived that journey all the way to the U.S. was because of people I met in Mexico that helped me, that saw me and helped me.”
Of all the people Araceli credits for helping her survive her perilous journey to her new home in the States, there was one particular young man whose memory is never far from her mind.
“When we were getting ready to cross into the U.S.,” she said, “[the coyotes] put all of us into an abandoned, almost barn-like structure in the middle of a marsh. It was in the middle of nowhere. There were no bathrooms, and at first it was all men and I was the only woman. There were men there that wanted to take advantage of me, to abuse me and assault me, but there was a young man who decided to pretend he was my boyfriend and he protected me. I’ve always felt that he was like God personified in that moment, because he had no reason to help me, we didn’t know each other and he just stood up for me and protected me. When we crossed the border and we were caught by border patrol, we were separated. I’ve never been able to find him again, but I felt that in that moment when we were caught and separated that God was saying to me, ‘You’re going to be safe now. I’ve protected you to this moment, and it’s going to be OK.’
“[I’ve] looked all over social media for him. I’ve looked all over for him, but never been able to find a trace of him. I would so love to be able to thank him for what he did and to tell him what that meant to me.”
After being apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers as she crossed into the U.S., Araceli was immediately placed into detention.
Unlike most of those crossing the southern border, she wasn’t sent back to her country of origin because she was from El Salvador, a country with Temporary Protective Status (TPS).
Congress created TPS as part of the Immigration Act of 1990. It’s a humanitarian program that suspends deportations to countries that have been hard hit by wars or natural disasters. In January and February of 2001, El Salvador was rocked by three devastating earthquakes, which caused the U.S. government to grant TPS to people from El Salvador.
However, the Trump administration has recently announced that TPS for Salvadorans will end in the fall of 2019. This termination will directly impact 200,000 people, including Araceli’s husband, Jorge Sr., who has been living and working under TPS in the U.S. for the past 17 years. The Trump administration also recently announced that domestic violence, even in cases where a woman being returned to her country of origin would likely result in death, is no longer being accepted as a justification for seeking legal asylum. In short, the Trump administration is wreaking havoc on the Velasquez family and their simple dreams of living in safety together in their Denver home while they watch their children — all of whom are U.S. citizens — grow up and contribute to their community and country.
Araceli admits the U.S. has not always been as she had hoped it would be.
“When they detained me,” she explained, “I spent about three days in what we call the freezer. During those three days I didn’t have a blanket. Once they brought us a sandwich, but it was a frozen sandwich that cracked and that you couldn’t eat, and a piece of fruit. Sometimes at night they would bring you one more pieces of fruit or another one of those sandwiches. They put you, 10, 15 people in a room and you have to use the bathroom where everyone else in the room can see you. The bathroom is right there in the room with you. There aren’t any mattresses or places to lay down, there are just concrete benches and that’s where we slept.
“This was in McAllen, Texas. They call it the freezer because it’s super cold.
“And then,” she continues, “every couple of hours immigration agents come and take you out of the freezer to interrogate you, to ask you where you’re from and what’s happening and what your name is. They just repeatedly do that, trying to get you to talk and asking lots of questions. The most incredible thing to me is that when they attend you, to talk to you, they put on gloves like you have some kind of sickness or you’re less than human, that if they might touch you with their actual skin they might catch something.”
Araceli says after her experience in the “freezer,” she was moved several times to different facilities along the border. “They put you on a bus and they just move you. You don’t know where you’re going, and they move you again, until I got to the third place, and then that’s where I stayed until they released me.”
Once she was out of detention, the 19-year-old had to decide where to go in a vast nation she knew almost nothing about. Her brothers lived in New York and she had female cousins in Colorado. In the end, she says she chose Colorado because, after what she had lived through in El Salvador, she didn’t think she would do well in New York where she only knew men, who had mostly male friends. That would have been tough for a survivor of domestic abuse.
Initially unsure of her decision, Araceli would eventually come to see her choice of Colorado as another blessing in her life straight from God’s hand.
“At first, I felt like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know if I made the right decision,’ because Colorado and the U.S. weren’t what I had been expecting and things hadn’t been going the way I thought they would. But when I met my husband, everything changed. I had never thought I would get married or that I would have three children. And I never thought that I would meet someone who was so understanding, who was so patient. Someone who would fight next to me every day and always be there for me. I never thought that I would meet someone like that. So, I felt really grateful to God that I came and that I met him and that we built the life we have together,” she said.
In a perfect world, it would have been the fairy tale ending to her difficult story. But, unfortunately, no immigrant in the United States at this time could mistake Trump World for a perfect world.
In what has become a recurring theme within this ongoing national project on people living in sanctuary, Araceli’s original legal representation was… let’s just call it “disappointing.”
Araceli says her original attorney never even bothered to ask her the details of her life in El Salvador or the reason why she had come north. In 2012 she had an asylum hearing and was told to meet her attorney there. She was scared and nervous and had no idea what to expect in court. No one explained anything to her and she says it was clear once proceedings began that her attorney was not familiar with her story. In 2013, she found out that her attorney had filed an appeal so at that point she began to believe that she would be denied asylum.
“Now I have a different lawyer, a lawyer who reviewed my case. I can see and feel the difference,” she said. “[This attorney] asked my details down to the very tiniest details of what happened to me. She asked me really hard questions. Nobody has ever asked me so many questions about all of the things that happened in El Salvador, in this whole process I can see the difference. There was no way that in this appeal with the lawyer who never even sat down with me was going to win. The asylum was denied, and then what they started asking for was stays of deportation. Every time they filed this stay of deportation it was $7,000. And this stay would only last for a year, and supposedly they were going to ask for an appeal when this stay was pending. So, the third time they got ready to file this stay of deportation, we had just sold a car a few days earlier. We had other plans of what we were going to do with that money for our family, when the lawyer said, ‘We need the money again to file for another stay.’ And my husband said, ‘We have to give them the money, we need for you to be able to still stay here.’ So we gave them $7,000, and that $7,000 lasted them just two weeks. Two weeks of legal work. At the end of two weeks, they called us and said, ‘We need more money because your account is at zero,’ and we just felt so much rage and frustration and impotence, like what happened to all that money, what did they do with all that money? What could we do?”
Anyone who has been covering immigration court proceedings has heard countless stories such as this. Immigrants have always been a vulnerable population, but perhaps never so much as today. Critics claim that some firms are carrying far too many clients to be able to properly represent each one. It’s become like an overloaded public defender’s office at some firms. Sure, lawyers may file the proper paperwork at the proper time, but their clients are getting the bare minimum of legal representation. But unlike the publicly funded public defender’s office, some of these firms are making millions of dollars off hard-working immigrants and their extended families who have to pick up the tab.
Many of these folks, like Araceli, are literally fighting for their lives, and some within the legal profession seem to be exploiting that desperation, charging high flat fees for simple procedural filings, knowing their clients’ language barriers and lack of familiarity with the U.S. bureaucratic immigration system make it nearly impossible for them to question fees or the quality of their representation. It is a system ripe for exploitation and it is, no doubt, being harvested.
The last 10 years have been a long, hard road for Araceli, from her physical abuse in El Salvador to her death-defying migration to her failed legal defense in the face of a hostile, racist, openly anti-immigrant U.S. government, to her one year and two months living inside the walls of a church in sanctuary.
When I spoke with her in July, she told me the hardest part about her life these days is “watching my sons live day in and day out in sanctuary with me. I think one of the things that’s hard about it is that I don’t have the freedom to care for my children and take them to parks and take them to the library and do the things that we used to do before sanctuary. They go with volunteers, who take them places and care for them and I feel very afraid because of the things that I’ve been through… and I just feel like it’s so hard to let them go away from me and to not feel totally confident that they’re going to be treated the way they should. Many of the volunteers are incredible people who I’ve come to know really, really well, and at the same time, how do you really know, all the way to the core, another person? And trusting my kids with other people is not something I would be doing at this age if we were at home.”
Spoken like a good mom who has been forced to surrender control over her own children’s lives to others. I can’t imagine.
And yet, despite a decade of challenges that most of us cannot fathom, she still says she is blessed and that God continues to bring more kind people across her path than those who would do her harm. That, no doubt, includes Jorge, her supportive husband and loving father of her children, as well as all those who have made it possible for her to keep her family together in sanctuary through these challenging times.
And last but not least, that young man who risked his life on the border eight years ago, pretending to be her boyfriend in order to prevent a group of men from sexually assaulting a scared 19-year-old girl who was already fleeing abuse. If he’s out there and happens to stumble across this article one day, I hope he’ll give me a ring. I know someone who’d like to say thanks.
To see other essays in this series or to find out more about the Windows, Walls and Invisible Lines project click below:
Women of Resolution
Sunday, Oct. 14, 2-4 p.m.
eTown Hall (1535 Spruce St., Boulder)
Motus Theater is collaborating with Boulder Weekly to bring to the stage Women of Resolution, based on interviews of the four Colorado women forced to seek sanctuary in their fight for immigration justice, and to stay with their families. Their stories will be read by members of the Colorado State Legislature — including Reps. Jonathan Singer, Leslie Herod and Joseph Salazar — followed by a poetic response from national slam poet winner Dominique Christina, and a panel of sanctuary movement and faith leaders including Jeanette Vizguerra.
Tickets to the live performance are on sale now at etown.org. You can also join sanctuary leaders including Ingrid Encalada Latorre to watch the free livestream at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Boulder (5001 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder). Or contact Motus to get the livestream link and host your own watch party: firstname.lastname@example.org
More information at motustheater.org/event/undocuamerica-women-of-resolution.