JOHN CARLOS FREY: In this hillside slum in Honduras, 19-year-old Lilian is hiding from her ex-boyfriend. She says he beat her and raped her for years.
LILIAN: “He would go out with his lovers to drink away his money, have fun, and I would complain. He would punish me, hit me with a belt or whatever he could.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Their relationship began six years ago, when they met in her rural village in eastern Honduras. He was 22. She was only 13. Days before her 15th birthday, she gave birth to their son, who is now four and lives with her.
When Lilian met her boyfriend, she had quit school after third grade and could barely read and write. He promised opportunities she had never imagined.
LILIAN: “He offered me better things. He offered to let me study — that he’d take me to the city and other things.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Instead, she says, he ordered her to work in the fields, cutting lumber and cooking. There was no school…no trips to the city.
Lilian says the beatings worsened after she gave birth. When she refused to have sex with her boyfriend, she says, he forced her.
LILIAN: “It was pure hell day and night, fighting with me. When the baby was born, he would argue because of the baby. Fighting about the baby, that it was his, and that if I left and took him with me, he’d kill me.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: She wanted to run away, but had no job and no means to do so.
LILIAN: “If I told my mom, she would support me. But my father? Never. I also never wanted to bring my brothers into the problem, because they wouldn’t like it. Also he, my ex-boyfriend, is a very violent man and would tell me if I told anyone I was suffering he would kill me. He’d show up with a gun and point it at me. What was I to do?”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: How did he point it, I asked. Like this?
LILIAN: “Like this. To the head and threatened me with it.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: A pistol, here on the head, and he raped you?
LILIAN: “Yes, and he put it like this to my head. Loaded.”
GLADYS LANZA, WOMEN’S MOVEMENT FOR PEACE AND VISITATION PADILLA: “Every thirteen hours, a woman is murdered in this country.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Gladys Lanza runs a group working to stem the rising tide of violence against women in Honduras. She says ninety-six percent of domestic abuse complaints are never resolved.
GLADYS LANZA, WOMEN’S MOVEMENT FOR PEACE AND VISITATION PADILLA: “Ninety-six percent. That is the degree of impunity that exists in this country. Since there is no punishment, since there is no investigation, since the responsible assailants are never found, then there’s this permanent situation of crime and violence in the country. It’s a permanent state.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: In the past decade, the number of violent deaths of women in Honduras has risen 260 percent – from 175 in 2005 to 636 in 2013, according to the most recent data.
MARIA MERCEDES BUSTILLOS, CHIEF SPECIAL PROSECUTOR FOR THE PROTECTION OF WOMEN: “We feel impotence. We feel frustration.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Maria Mercedes Bustillos is the country’s chief special prosecutor for the protection of women, appointed by the Honduran president. Her office receives 20,000 domestic violence complaints every year. But only a fraction are prosecuted, because so many women fear testifying.
Lilian has no official documentation of her abuse — no medical or police records. Mercedes says that’s the case for many victims in Honduras.
MARIA MERCEDES BUSTILLOS: “The victims suddenly retract their cases because of the cycle of violence. And that’s where the weakness of the system lies, of not being able to reach them once the complaint has been made.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Mercedes says even when women seek help, there aren’t sufficient government services to assist them.
MARIA MERCEDES BUSTILLOS: “A victim needs a shelter to go to with her children — a place to eat, to bathe, to sleep before the legal process continues. The government doesn’t have any shelters.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Lilian says her boyfriend became increasingly dangerous after he got involved with a Mexican drug cartel called “Los Zetas.”
After the baby was a year old, Lilian managed to escape for months at a time and support herself — but each time her boyfriend tracked her down. Lilian felt she had nowhere to turn for protection.
LILIAN: “He’d threaten me if I spoke to the police or made charges against him. He threatened to set fire to the house. Since I was a little girl, I was really afraid. I was afraid of him for a long time.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Last year, an uncle in Texas offered to pay smugglers $4,000 dollars to help Lilian flee to the United States without a visa…a risky trip that thousands of other women opted to undertake as well.
Her uncle had only enough money for Lilian, so she left her son behind with a relative, hoping to send for him once she arrived.
Just 18 and alone, Lilian met smugglers in Guatemala and began the week-long trek through Mexico.
LILIAN: “Sometimes it’s 24 hours in a bus or walking. There are times that you’re locked up alone in a place without food.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Last May, Lilian arrived near McAllen, Texas, where US border guards questioned and detained her.
Did you tell them your history, I asked. That you had a boyfriend who was going to kill you?
LILIAN: “I didn’t tell them, because I thought that the government here or that he would find out. I explained about the baby. The most terrible things I didn’t explain there.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: University of California-Hastings law professor Karen Musalo represents women seeking asylum — a legal mechanism that allows people fleeing persecution — or fear of persecution — to live and work in the United States.
KAREN MUSALO, UC HASTINGS COLLEGE OF LAW: “From my own experience working with Central Americans and knowing what they know and don’t know and what their perception of the process is, I would doubt they have a sophisticated or clear or even correct understanding of what happens when they arrive in the U.S.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Musalo says migrants who enter the US seeking asylum are screened to see if they have a “credible fear” of returning home.
KAREN MUSALO, UC HASTINGS COLLEGE OF LAW: “If they don’t indicate right there at that initial interview that they left because of some kind of fear, they could be immediately returned.”
Lilian’s initial reluctance to tell her whole story – to prove a “credible fear” – led immigration officials to send her back to Honduras.
LILIAN: “I was deported and had to go home with no money, with nothing.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Stephen Legomsky – a former attorney for the US government’s Citizenship and Immigration Service – says the fear of violence is not always enough for someone to qualify for asylum.
STEPHEN LEGOMSKY, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: “If, for example, you were in danger of being killed because someone had a personal grudge against you, or even because a youth gang is angry at you for refusing to join their ranks, the present case law is that you generally would not qualify for asylum.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Asylum applicants must also then prove persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Women who face violence may or may not be recognized as a social group, depending on each individual case.
Back in Honduras, Lilian says her boyfriend contacted her at least three times after her return, threatening to take her son away. Last fall, just four months after being deported, Lilian tried to escape again – this time with her son.
With the child, you thought you had a better chance, I asked.
LILIAN: “Yes, with the hope not to be detained, I thought.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: In October 2014, a family friend paid smugglers $6000 dollars to help Lilian and her son again make the weeklong journey.
They crossed the border near Hidalgo, Texas, and presented themselves to immigration officials. This time, Lilian told her full story – and later presented sworn affidavits from two witnesses saying she and her son were in danger.
One wrote Lilian “was mistreated by her former partner, and he continues to look for her and claims to kill her when he finds her.” Another person in Honduras wrote of Lilian and her son: “their lives are in danger in this country.”
Like thousands of other migrants from Honduras – and Guatemala and El Salvador last year – Lilian and her son waited in a family detention center in Texas.
STEPHEN LEGOMSKY, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON: “The immigration judges and the Board of Immigration Appeals who decide most of these cases are notoriously understaffed. They for years and years have asked Congress for more resources so they can decide cases both fully and expeditiously. And thus far, Congress has not been willing to provide those resources. So there’s a long, long backlog.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: This June, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a plan to reduce the backlog of cases and to wind down family detention, saying “long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued.”
After eight months in detention, Lilian learned her asylum request was again denied. She also says her boyfriend, who’d been working with the Zetas drug gang in Mexico, was sent back to Honduras.
LILIAN: “Then when I spoke to my mom, she told me the baby’s father had been caught by Mexican immigration, and he was back in my country.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: In June, immigration officials put Lilian and her son on a plane back to Honduras.
Lilian now has a lawyer in the US working on an appeal, and a new legal precedent may offer her a pathway to asylum.
In August 2014, the highest immigration court in the u-s – the Board of Immigration Appeals — granted asylum to a domestic abuse survivor from Guatemala — saying she was part of a particular social group under U.S. asylum law.
Though there’s no official count, advocates say anecdotally a handful of cases have been won using that precedent, but former immigration official Stephen Legomsky says the bar is still high.
STEPHEN LEGOMSKY, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: “Even with this Board of Immigration Appeals decision, and even assuming the woman is able to get here in the first place, she still faces a number of tough hurdles.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: And of course an immigration judge has to believe Lilian’s story.
LILIAN: “I went to them with my case that is credible before God, above all things, and I swear that everything I told you and everything I told them is true. It is the truth and nothing but the truth.”