What exactly drives tens of thousands of asylum seekers to travel weeks, months, even years to come to the United States? Those who make the perilous journey north are often at the mercy of coyotes, police, and thieves as they trek through unknown territory by bus and on foot. For many, however, what’s behind them is worse than the unknown that they face: to return home simply means not to survive.
More than 160,000 people applied for asylum in the United States last year, seeking shelter from persecution in their home country due to their race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or political opinion. That number has nearly quadrupled in the last decade. Often they are escaping torture, gang recruitment, killings, extortion, and widespread violence.
Once asylum seekers arrive in the United States, they may be sent to Mexico to await their immigration court date as part of the Trump Administration’s “Migrant Protection Protocols.” Or they may be put in a detention center within the United States, where they will wait with other immigrant and nonimmigrant prisoners for a judge to determine whether they can be released into the country to await their court date.
In these cells, asylum seekers often wait weeks and even months to be released. Even then, however, safety is not guaranteed. While one in four asylum seekers were given sanctuary in the United States in 2010, today only one in 12 is afforded the same protections.
“Seeking asylum in the U.S. itself can be a trauma because of the systemic injustices clients experience in the immigration courts or asylum office,” says Hannah Cartwright, a supervising attorney who works with asylum seekers through the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Adult Detention Project. “[My] clients are often forced to reexperience traumas they suffered in their home country or during their migration journey.”
BorderlessMagazine spent the last year listening to asylum seekers who lived in a shelter run by the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants in Cicero. The shelter recently closed, a testament to the ongoing challenges community groups face in trying to support this vulnerable population with limited resources.
In their own words, here are the stories of six individuals we spoke to about what it means to seek asylum in Chicago today.
Kash grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, in Seaview Gardens, an area known for crime and gang violence. Homosexual acts are outlawed in Jamaica, and as a boy and young man Kash faced constant threats for his sexual orientation. Despite this harassment, he started writing about gay rights in local newspapers and became a leader in his university’s Rotaract club, a group for young adults sponsored by Rotary International. Six years ago he was attacked on the street by a crowd that beat him, threw stones at him, and ripped off his clothes. Even though there were witnesses, no one was ever charged for the attack.
I’m trying to find a place to call home. My own country refuses me on the basis of my sexuality. I am an unnatural thing, they say. I am a gay man in Jamaica, where there is intense hatred and violence against actual or suspected gay men. I have suffered public ridicule and beatings in my daily life because of my sexual orientation.
Growing up, I was too young to understand why I was different, but knew that I was not as masculine as my older brothers and other boys my age. I had no friends as a boy since the other boys insulted me and didn’t want to be seen with me.
I truly tried to be the “straight” person that Jamaican society expects me to be, but I had no control over my personality and voice. I often wondered if there was something wrong with me, and most of the time I would pray and ask the Lord to take away this desire I was having for the same sex. But those prayers seemed to go unanswered until this day. Once I even created a fake e-mail address and e-mailed my pastor at the time, asking him Why me?
I knew there would be consequences to face when I started writing those letters to the editor and getting involved with LGBTQ advocacy, but I had no other way to express myself. All I wanted was for people to understand that being gay isn’t a crime and that I am still a human despite my sexual orientation.
I still experience nightmares over what happened to me, with the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and trauma that I have experienced. However, I wake up and am thankful for having found real safety in Chicago. It was my hope that after so much abuse and mistreatment as a homosexual, and the prospect of even more abuse and mistreatment if I was sent back home, that I would be granted asylum in the United States. And finally, after months of waiting, I was.
Victor was a professional rugby player who represented Nigeria in a Rugby World Cup qualifier game. In 2018, Victor was forced to flee for his safety. As a bisexual man in a country that outlawed same-sex sexual activity, he faced prison or even death for his orientation. In February that year, Victor arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport with his family, intent on seeking asylum. But he soon learned that his wife and daughter would be held in detention as his asylum case progressed. So his wife took their daughter back to Nigeria while Victor was sent to a detention center in southern Wisconsin.
The first two months at the Kenosha Detention Center felt like a nightmare. You are so enclosed you don’t have the opportunity to move around. That’s how you start going crazy. That’s how Kenosha was for me.
The detention center was a mix of immigrants and actual criminals. We were in the same detention as criminals who’ve committed murders, gang bang, and stuff. You don’t have time to rest. You don’t have the pleasure of going outside to play or having social time—none of that. At the detention center, you don’t really have privacy. They are making you understand that you’ve come into America and it’s not all rosy.
After the first month or so, I forced myself to read books to pass the time. I read about the history of Native Americans. The Americans we see today are actually immigrants; the real Americans, which are the Native Americans, you barely see. So I felt empowered when I read books like that. It gave me the courage to say, Yes, I have a place here too.
I ended up staying close to four months in detention before I was released. It’s not been easy staying here in Chicago without family. I miss my little kid. I am trying to figure out how to get them here. I grew up without a father and I don’t want my little girl to go through the same process. Everyone says America is a haven and they see America as a paradise where everything works smoothly. But it’s a different story.
Gabriela*, El Salvador
When Gabriela moved into a new neighborhood in San Salvador, she became a target for both the local gangs and police. Fearing for her life and the safety of her three-year-old son, Kelvin, Gabriela fled to the United States to seek asylum. The journey to the border took her 17 days, but what came next devastated her.
On the journey, the only thing that mattered to me was my son. The first part of the trip was by bus, but as we got closer to the border, we were moved into an open truck bed with 135 people. We only had a little bit of water. The top of the truck was open to the sun, rain, and wind. I remembered people fainting around us, and I just held my son in my arms because he was so weak he would only sleep. When he would wake up he would say he wanted food, but I didn’t have any to give to him. We couldn’t even get off the truck, because the driver didn’t want to stop.
We reached the border in March 2018. But instead of feeling happy, I felt tormented. I didn’t know why.
We used a raft to cross the Rio Grande River at the border, but the raft had a leak. When we started to sink I grabbed my son. I was shaking because I hadn’t had anything to eat, but I put him up on my shoulder so he wouldn’t get wet and I grabbed a tree root to pull myself out of the river. Then I spent a half hour walking through rural Texas before Border Control showed up and took us away.
I didn’t know it then, but the worst part of this journey was still waiting for me. We were all wet, and once they got us I thought I would have clothes to change into because I was sick. They said they weren’t a hotel to give me clothes.
I was shaking because they put us in these freezing rooms where there was no room to even put your feet. First was the icehouse, hieleras (“freezers”), and then the doghouse, or holding cell. That’s what we called it because we were on top of each other like they keep the dogs. I got to a point where I couldn’t carry my son in my arms anymore. The only spot he could lay on was under a trash can. I dumped out the trash and put him under it. It hurt my soul to do that, but I wanted him to be comfortable and my arms couldn’t hold him up anymore.
Afterwards, I was called to have my picture taken with my son. When I was returning to the cage, I waved at one of the immigration officials so he would come over to me. I didn’t realize that you cannot look or speak to them. He got very close to me and said, “I am not a dog for you to speak to me that way. Because you talked to me that way, I won’t open the door for you. You’ll have to wait there.”
I was holding my son and shaking from exhaustion and fear, with tears rolling down my face.
On the third day, the immigration officials called me and told me, “Ma’am, you have a criminal file in your country.”
I said no, I’ve never been imprisoned in my life.
“Have you had trouble with the police?”
I said no.
“Yes, you have,” they told me. “You are a threat to your son. We are going to take your son.”
In that moment, I wanted the earth to swallow me. It was the worst moment of my life.
First they took my son’s birth certificate, and then they called us and brought us to a small cage. It was just me and my son and two immigration agents and a woman. My son had been vomiting and had diarrhea at that time, and I told them that, but they didn’t care. They told me to give my son to the woman.
I begged them, I said no please, please don’t take him from me! Instead, just send us back. They told me at that point if I didn’t hand him over, they would take him by force. I held him tight and whispered, forgive me.
The woman grabbed my son and the first thing he did was say “Mama.” When I tried to hug him, they pulled me away. The official said that they would deport me to make sure I would never see him again if I didn’t let go. As I was led out, I heard him say “Mama” over and over but I had to turn my back.
Later, I could see that my son was sitting alone on a metal bench looking around for me. I asked the immigration official to please let me hug him one last time, and he said he couldn’t do that. Then I asked where they were taking me. “You’re going back to your country.”
When he told me that I cried even more because I thought, How can I leave my son here? I was put in a line of people, and I asked where we were going and they said, “We are being deported.” I looked all around and thought, if they take me to the airport and they want to put me on the plane I will throw myself on the ground and I will not go unless they give me my son.
I spent four days in Laredo Processing Center, and I didn’t hear anything about my son. Then an official came. He said, “Listen, I’m not immigration, I’m not ICE, I’m not asylum. I want information about gangs in your country.”
I said, Why would you ask me that? Where is my son? He told me that my son would stay, but that I would be deported because I’m a threat to this country. “We don’t want you in this country. We want to take you out as soon as possible. What are you going to do in my country? Ruin it,” he said.
I told him, But how am I coming to ruin your country with my son in my arms?Is it ruining your country looking for work to get ahead in life or to protect my son? Is that ruining your country? He told me that I couldn’t stay in America and that the asylum officer wouldn’t give me asylum. They would do the interview as soon as possible to get me out of here and send me back to El Salvador.
The next day an asylum officer interviewed me and told me that my case was credible. I didn’t know what that meant. I got to the dormitory and many people asked me, What did they say? Aren’t you happy? At that moment, the only thing that would make me happy is if they had given me back my son. Nothing else mattered to me.
Two weeks passed and I hadn’t heard anything about my son. I was called to see a judge. An immigration official told me that I wouldn’t be getting bail because I was a big gang member and that I wasn’t wanted here. It frightened me so much that I was afraid to speak to any of them and I didn’t have a lawyer. I was only connected to a lawyer through my son. They had visited him and got to know him, and then learned about my case.
Thank God I had these lawyers. They were able to contact a group of lawyers through the National Immigrant Justice Center that were experts. After a lot of investigation and compiling 353 pages of evidence, my case went to a federal judge who said that there was no argument against me. I was told that the judge asked why they had done that injustice to me and my son, a boy of that age, only three.
The judge ordered that immigration officials had to reunite me with my son. They said they would reunite me with my son at the Laredo airport because he was in Chicago and they were going to bring him from there. When that day arrived, they brought me to an immigration office. I was in one of those dog cages, handcuffed. I was wondering why I was handcuffed because I was supposed to be free.
The order said that my son had to be released to my arms, and yet the official goes and tries to pick up my son without me. They locked me up in an icebox while I waited. It was extremely cold, and I was shivering. I said that I was cold, and an immigration official came and gave me a piece of paper and said, “Cover yourself with that.” I really broke down at that moment.
One hour passed, then two, and my boy still didn’t show and neither did the official. I asked another immigration official and the official says, “They haven’t told you anything? The thing is, we aren’t going to reunite you with your son.”
The next day, they took me out of the detention center and said that I would be going to another detention center, and I immediately started to cry. Finally, I got on a bus with a woman and her little girl. The bus driver tells me, “We are going to a family detention center to drop her off, so maybe your son is waiting for you there.”
I could hardly bear it. I saw behind the bus that there was a car following us. I watched as we arrived at the detention center and the car kept following. I thought, my son must be in the car, and he was.
He looked very scared, and then he saw me and he said “Mama!” and he ran to me and I hugged him. That moment was the most emotional moment of my life. We had been separated for nine months.
But the truth is that the U.S. government gave me back a son that is completely different from the son I had. The first couple of days we were back together, anytime I would get close he cringed like he thought I was going to hit him. He goes to the bathroom on himself and his social worker and teacher say he acts at the same developmental level as a two-year-old even though he’s four. When they told me that, it was a huge shock. He wasn’t like that before, so why now?
They told me it’s going to be hard for him because he was very little for all the trauma he endured. In the end, I just have to be patient.
When CH arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015, he had walked for 12 days straight surviving on just coconuts. His journey had begun an ocean away in Pakistan, where he had narrowly escaped with his life.The government had constructed a dam in CH’s village in 2013 and displaced many people from their homes. The villagers were promised compensation for their lost property, but the village leaders took the money. Cheated out of his ancestral land and denied the compensation that was promised to him, CH protested and gathered the support of others who had lost their homes. It was then that one of the village leaders decided to put an end to CH’s insubordination.
I decided to leave Pakistan in 2014 after a leader in my village made a third attempt to murder me. I saw an advertisement for getting a visa from Brazil outside of a travel agent’s office in my village. Leaving seemed like the only option as the men continued to harass me and my family. Selling my flourishing car rental business, which I had built from the ground up, was not the hardest part. Leaving my elderly parents, wife, and three kids was.
In São Paulo, I worked at a chicken export factory. But things got worse. I couldn’t handle the degree of violence in the city. People were murdered in broad daylight, and it felt more dangerous than Pakistan. Seeing all this violence brought back memories of the time I was attacked in Pakistan and was left to bleed on the roadside. The local police refused to file a report of the attack, and the hospital denied me treatment without a police report. They were all under the village leader’s control.
I heard the system in the U.S. is just and that everyone gets a fair chance here. I decided to come here to live freely. I was picked up by Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015. I was transferred between prisons in California and Louisiana, and I didn’t know how things would work out for me.
In California, they barely let us sleep and kept the air-conditioning on at extremely cold temperatures. Every hour an officer would wake us up and take attendance. It was torture.
In Louisiana, things were better. I started working in the kitchen at the detention center for four hours a day. I wasn’t working for money. After cleaning the kitchen, I got to go outside to throw out the garbage. In those brief moments, I got a glimpse of the outside world. Trees, a police car: there was a reality beyond the four walls. This daily reminder kept me going. While I was there, I spoke on the phone with my ailing father in Pakistan and told him imaginary stories of my newfound freedom in the U.S. I was a safe and happy man here.
My first asylum case hearing was in August 2015. A lawyer agreed to represent me just days before my court date. But the time was too short for him to fully understand my case. On his request for more time, the judge gave me a court date for March 2019.
I was shocked. Almost four more years before I could earn my freedom. Four years of a life in limbo, without a work permit or much else to do. You see, asylum seekers can apply for a work permit if the court does not reach a decision on their case within 180 days. But when my lawyer asked for more time and my hearing was postponed, the clock stopped for me. I started crying out of frustration. The lawyer was apologizing profusely, but I knew it wasn’t his fault. I told myself it was God’s will.
The day Brother Michael from the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants rescued me from the detention center in October 2015, I had given up on the idea of freedom. Lying in my bed, I decided never to talk to anyone again. It had been more than five months since I was handcuffed and put into detention. As I lay there, an officer kept saying, “Wake up, Ali, it’s time to go home.” I didn’t understand English, and I kept thinking she was asking me to go to the kitchen for work. Then an Indian inmate translated what she was saying. An organization in Chicago that shelters asylum seekers had decided to take me in.
I reached Chicago in a short-sleeve shirt and pants, without much else. I’d never met Brother Michael before, but he recognized me by my garments. “Who would be in Chicago in October wearing a T-shirt?” Brother Michael told me later.
Over 1,500 detained immigrants came and went before my eyes at the shelter. Maybe more. When I came to Chicago, I didn’t understand the systems here; I was uncertain even about the crosswalk signal. My housemates helped me figure out my way around the city. So I tried to help the newcomers in the same way.
When my asylum hearing finally came in March, I was very nervous and started crying. I wasn’t able to understand what was going on. My lawyer came along with my case manager and some of my housemates; I had the support and encouragement of so many people.
I was interviewed for three and a half hours with only a ten-minute break in between. The judge asked me the same question in different ways. Memories of the first time I was attacked in Pakistan came rushing back and I kept crying. Even when the judge was interrogating me, I was crying. All of those memories of how my family suffered and how our house was taken away flooded my mind.
When the judge announced that my asylum application was approved, I couldn’t believe it. I think the judge was very sad after listening to my story and believed me wholeheartedly.
I am happy that I could get justice here. My heart is filled with gratitude for Brother Michael and the good people at ICDI. They and my lawyer have been so very kind and supportive to me. My lawyer even did my case pro bono. He recently filed the paperwork so that I can bring my wife and kids here, and they should be here soon. I finished a two-month-long hospitality diploma at Heartland Alliance. I want to work in a hotel or restaurant downtown and am looking for a job.
I have started believing that my life is finally safe and secure.
Aciel’s problems began with a corrupt cop demanding monthly bribes in exchange for keeping his music and movie shop open in Havana. But when Aciel couldn’t pay, the cop sent people to destroy his store. Forced to close his business and under constant harassment from the police, Aciel left Cuba in 2016 hoping one day that he’d make it to the United States. The journey ultimately took him through 13 countries by plane, boat, bus, and foot.
The thing you have to understand about trekking north to seek asylum is that you have to pay each step of the way. Nothing is free. My dream had always been to leave Cuba for the United States, so I sold my house and business and left Cuba with a few thousand dollars, the clothes on my back, and a bag. That’s it.
Guyana allowed Cubans to come visa free, so that was my first stop. There, I met up with some Cubans who were also afraid of living back home, and we decided to go north to the U.S. together. We caught a bus to Brazil, and in the first town I went to change my money into Brazilian real. It was then that I found out that half of my money was fake. Now I only had $2,500.
Because I didn’t have enough money for the trip, I had to stay behind. I stayed in Brazil for three months, working and living on the street. I slowly saved up and bought myself a supermarket cart that I’d use to cart people’s groceries to their cars. I met a Cuban who had a friend in Brazil that owned a restaurant. He let me stay with him as long as I cooked in his restaurant. After three months, I saved up enough money to make the next part of my journey.
I went to Peru by boat on the Amazon River. I saw pink dolphins. They were so beautiful. There’s also a part of the river where the water is two different colors because of the plants in the water. One side is yellow, the other blue.
When I crossed into Peru, I took up restaurant work again for two months. I’d do anything, like cleaning dishes, preparing drinks, salads, just to make a little more money to keep going.
Then I left and went on the Amazon River again for another week. On the boats, the Peruvian police would ask you for money, so you had to give money if you wanted to keep going. A big part of making it to America is paying corrupt police every step of the way. Once I got to Lima I worked for six months in a car wash, first washing and then vacuuming cars, and eventually I became the manager of the car wash. The owner really trusted me and let me stay for free with him.
But my friends told me that I could make more money in Chile, so I left for Chile. I found a job in a bus repair shop, would work every day and I wouldn’t even rest on Sundays. All the while on this journey, I sent money to my mom. I was working without papers for the entire journey. Everything was illegal, but there was no other way.
Thank God, even with everything that happened, there was always someone that would help me. If you are a fighter and a hard worker, there is always someone that will give you a helping hand.
From Chile, I went through Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia by bus and ended up in Panama. I was lucky because the police never stopped me, but probably it was because I look white.
In Panama, I met up with a big group of 20 people from all over the world, even Africa. The coyotes took us into the jungle where we met with Indigenous people who showed us the way for four days of walking through the rain. Then we got to the main highway in Panama: the Pan-American Highway that goes to Panama City. When we got to the highway there were lots of police. So we hid until they were gone. That night it was raining, so a woman offered to let us all sleep on her porch.
The next morning, a coyote said that we would walk 45 minutes and then get on a bus. But it wasn’t true. It was three hours walking in the jungle and then we were at a hotel. From there a different coyote said we had to wake up at 5 AM to take a bus because if we caught a later bus the police would catch us. So we did what he said and we took the 5 AM bus to Panama City. Thank God, I still had $500 left. In the jungle is where you spend the most money because you have to pay the Indigenous people, the rancheros, the native women who will show you where to go, everyone. Every time one part of your journey stops, you pay one coyote and that coyote takes you to the next one. They communicate with each other. That’s how it goes. It goes on and on like this until you reach the U.S. border.
Everyone takes advantage of us migrants. Everyone. In the jungle, they will tell you one price and then they take you deep into the jungle and they tell you another, and you have to pay it because they have guns and you’re in their territory. But at least they show you the way. Some are a bit better and they help you. It’s a business.
In Panama City, we got on a bus to Costa Rica. We went across all of Costa Rica in a bus to Nicaragua. From Nicaragua we were going to take a boat to Honduras. It cost $150 and we had to pay the coyotes in advance. But they let us get caught by the police in Nicaragua.
It was the most unsafe country I passed through on my entire journey, with the worst immigration police. They would touch the women in our group and look through all your things to see where you had money hidden. Those police were very bad and they stole a lot of money—like $600 from someone I knew and $800 from another.
The coyote paid the $150 fine to have me released from jail. Even in this chaos, there is still some accountability, because I will tell the next Cuban trying to pass to not to use that coyote. He doesn’t want to mess up that opportunity because I might give him 15 more people.
Once I was in Honduras, my mom sent me money and I took a bus to Guatemala. We then crossed a river on a raft to get to Mexico, where we landed in Tapachula, Chiapas. We waited in Mexico for 20 days. I didn’t have any money again, so I walked around until I met a woman and I explained my story and she said I could work in her house and stay there for free. I filled her water and cooked and did chores like painting. I called a friend in Spain and he sent me $50, I called another and he gave me $40, and another gave me $30.
The woman who gave me shelter took me to the airport, and she gave me some money so I could eat on the last part of my journey. From there I took a plane to Mexico City and then a plane to Reynosa, near the U.S. border. There I walked across the bridge and turned myself in to Border Control agents. They kept me there for five days and from there they brought me to a detention center.
After eight days they put us on a plane that took us from Texas to New York to the Kankakee detention center in Illinois. When I got to Kankakee the first thing I saw was other Cubans. They told me people were usually imprisoned there for three to four months. After such a long journey, my time in Kankakee went very quickly for me. My three court dates happened in one month, and then I was granted asylum. My journey was very, very long and very stressful with little money, but thank God my asylum process was very quick. That hardly happens to anyone.
Yassel fled Cuba by raft, floating for 15 long days on the Gulf of Mexico. Storms battered the raft and at one point a pack of dolphins swam aside it, as if protecting the passengers. When a storm destroyed the raft and it began to sink, Mexican authorities rescued the group. After spending time in a Mexican jail, Yassel headed north to Nuevo Laredo to cross the U.S. border and turned himself in to Border Control agents in Laredo, Texas. They sent him to Dodge County Detention Facility, a county jail in Juneau, Wisconsin, that is part of a broad network of detention facilities across the country that house ICE detainees.
The hardest part of coming to America was being held in a detention center for six months. The first thing you feel when you enter a detention center is this wave of sadness, and when you start to see how everything functions inside a prison, everything hurts you there. The guards treat you like animals. They hurt you psychologically.
When they would bring us to immigration court, they would tighten our handcuffs until our hands hurt. Immigrants don’t matter to them. You can tell that they feel they are just doing their jobs. But it feels to us, those who are detained, as if they don’t have hearts, as if they aren’t humans inside.
I knew that to enter the U.S. you have to go to prison as an asylum seeker and then to court to explain why you came. But you never know what that is like until you are locked up inside a place. You don’t know the psychological torture or that if you’re sick, they don’t give you the medical care you need.
I thought about leaving mostly while I was there. I was desperate and I didn’t care where I would go. Even if I would be living on the street, that would be better. I couldn’t handle one more day inside the prison, and the food was terrible. They feed you lots of potatoes without even a sauce. It was like food for animals. No, I think even animals eat better than the prisoners there.
I was granted asylum during my last court date in September 2018. When I left detention and came to Chicago, I felt like joy returned to my life. I was reborn after I left detention.
I want the government in this country to give asylum seekers a helping hand. People come here because they or their families are in danger in their country. Or maybe they are hungry and don’t have anything to eat, and the only opportunity for them to survive or to make a better life for their children is to try and come here. There’s a lot of need, a lot of hunger, and a lot of sickness from so much need. At the end of the day, this country benefits from all the people who come with a hunger to work, and when they work the country grows.
*Name has been changed to protect her safety.
Contributing reporting by Aqilah Allaudeen and Carly Graf.
Kossi* hadn’t planned to leave his home in West Africa that day. His wife was pregnant with their second son, and he owned a successful shop that sold the colorful swaths of secondhand clothes from Europe and China that were so popular among his country’s youth. But when an anti-government demonstration broke out nearby, and soldiers came into his shop and started arresting his customers, he knew he had to find safety.
Seven years before, he had been taken by the same sort of soldiers and tortured for days, interrogated about his role in a student protest against his country’s dictatorship, and left unconscious in front of a hospital. The soldiers let him live, but left him with a thick, quarter-inch-wide scar that ran six inches down his arm. Next time, they told him, he would not survive.
Kossi ran out the back of his store, scaled a wall, and jumped in a cab that was passing down the street. He told the driver to take him to a neighboring country, a three-hour drive during which his mind flitted from the soldiers to his wife to flashbacks from his time in a military prison.
It was only when he found shelter in a church that the reality sunk in: he could never go back. He was adrift now, and he wouldn’t be safe until he found a new place to call home.
When Kossi arrived in the U.S. in the fall of 2012, just a few weeks later, he had only $50 to his name, money given to him by the priest who had sheltered him when he first fled. Separated from his wife and sons, he was physically and emotionally traumatized. One of his first stops after arriving in Chicago was at a 30-year-old nonprofit located on the far north side.
“It made me feel like I had a home again,” says Kossi.
The Kovler Center brings together lawyers, doctors, and social workers trained in trauma care to help survivors of state-sanctioned torture overcome unimaginable trauma and establish a new life here in the United States. In the last fiscal year, it served more than 400 individuals. Like Kossi, most of its clients are seeking asylum in the United States and coming from sub-Saharan Africa.
Local Chicago immigrant-advocacy and service organizations like Kovler in Rogers Park are vital to providing individuals with legal and social services to help those seeking asylum begin to feel safe again. Kovler offers free forensic exams, psychological evaluations, and counseling, and works with its partner organization, the National Immigrant Justice Center, to get the asylum seeker free legal assistance.
There’s really no easy way to land in American society when you’re coming from a different culture, says Hannah Cartwright, a supervising attorney who works with asylum seekers through the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Adult Detention Project.
“There is a huge need right now for culturally sensitive, trauma-informed care, and it’s extremely hard to find,” Cartwright says. “That’s why partners like Kovler are so important to accompany the legal services that we provide.”
During the asylum application process, applicants like Kossi are constantly asked to talk and think about their persecution, often by officials like immigration judges and asylum officers who are not trained in detecting trauma. This can be a harrowing process made even more traumatic by the uncertainty of whether they’ll be allowed to stay or be forced to return to the country where that persecution took place.
In 2018, 48 percent of all asylum seekers who went before Chicago’s immigration court were denied relief in their applications, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. But nearly all of the torture survivors the Kovler Center helps ultimately receive asylum status, says Marianne Joyce, a licensed clinical social worker who serves as Kovler’s social services manager.
Kovler has a unique holistic approach to care. As survivors go through the asylum application process, they are supported by a “care team” that provides physical and emotional treatment along with legal services.
Unlike in criminal courts, there’s no right to legal counsel in immigration court. Hiring a lawyer to represent you during an asylum case can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000—money that most asylum seekers do not have.
“A lawyer can help an applicant navigate the legal requirements for asylum, which are often daunting and difficult for an individual to handle on their own,” explains Lauren McClure, a Chicago immigration lawyer who represents up to 20 asylum seekers a year at Kriezelman Burton & Associates, a private law firm downtown. “It is challenging to prepare and ask an individual to testify who has suffered substantial trauma.”
To be successful, the application of a tortured asylum seeker requires a wealth of details like injury descriptions, specific anecdotes, and precise time stamps. Recalling such information can retraumatize survivors and make them feel their entire life story is reduced to their torture and the events that led up to it, according to Maggie Hunter, a licensed social worker and counselor at Kovler. So the care team provides asylum seekers with therapy to make that process easier.
“Just learning how to speak openly about what happened was the hardest part,” recalls Kossi. “Now I can do it, but then, it was fresh in my body and soul and spirit. Every time, I felt like I would relive it all over.”
Treating both the legal and psychological needs of asylum seekers also allows survivors to become more than their past.
Hunter and other counselors at Kovler begin sessions by letting the individual take control of the recovery process. She asks them to talk about whatever they’re feeling, even if it has nothing to do with violence and survival. Often, Hunter says, people want to skip talking about torture and focus instead on the obstacles they’ve faced in the asylum process or their frustrations with having to wait for years to be heard in court.
Other times, though, Hunter’s clients want to talk about even simpler things, she says.
“They can share about their diet, their favorite Netflix show, or just something that irritated them with a coworker,” she says. “Imagine if someone made you talk about the worst thing that had happened in your life over and over again.”
Beyond therapy, Kovler helps asylum seekers establish a new community in Chicago and build new friendships here. Staff members host weekly activities like cooking classes, dance workshops, and field trips. Clients can cook with friends, watch TV, or joke around the dinner table.
“It allows them to feel like their old selves again,” Hunter says.
Kovler staff believe treatment is best delivered in a place where asylum seekers can reconnect with a community through the center’s cadre of volunteers, whether a therapist or a translator.
Acupuncturist Hillary E. Catrow holds free walk-in sessions once a week in an open room. “Humans are social beings, and in order for us to feel social, we need to feel safe. The only way we can engage in community is through feeling safe, and that’s done inch by inch, interaction by interaction, and that’s what we do here,” she says.
Catrow adds that it’s important to break down the walls between authority figures and asylum seekers through care.
“There’s a repair and restoration that happens when you start to build trust through dismantling power,” Catrow says. She says that even small things like allowing clients to decide whether they have one needle or ten and where they want to sit or how they want to position their chair in the room can make a big difference.
For Veronique Amouzou, who comes regularly for class with Catrow every Wednesday, acupuncture is a healing tool she’s used for more than 30 years in addition to yoga and tai chi. She says it has given her a sense of calm and relaxation, particularly during the challenges she faced while seeking asylum. Originally from Togo, Amouzou had heard through a friend that Kovler was a place that could be trusted. Almost 15 years later, she still feels safe at the north-side center.
“Inside these walls, you feel special again,” says Amouzou. “The staff is always watching out for you to make sure you are well. If you don’t have food at home, you can come and they will make sure you have groceries. Or if you feel alone, you can find a community here. It’s a place where you feel connected to others.”
It’s a connection that Kossi still seeks years after his asylum case was approved. When he applied for asylum in 2013, his application was greenlighted in less than two months. Today, the uptick in asylum applications has led to a backlog of cases and increased the wait time to years rather than months. As the rate of application denials has increased, the uncertainty of a pending asylum application is even more grave.
In the Trump era, life for asylees feels much harder, Kossi says. The president has made many attempts to limit the number of refugees and asylum seekers who enter the United States, and most recently announced that he will cap the number of refugees that the United States will accept next year at 18,000, the lowest in history.
When he first came to Chicago, Kossi had a hard time trusting people, including the government officials processing his case. “Every time I meet with friends from West Africa, I can see the fear in their eyes. Imagine fleeing your home and coming here to this situation where you are terrified of losing your case and being deported,” he says.
“The most detrimental aspect of the asylum process to people’s mental health is the interminable wait time,” Hunter says. “How do you convince someone who’s been waiting for an interview or a court date for four years that it’s not personal when all they want is to move on?”
Sitting in the room where he had his first intake interview four years prior, Kossi now looks relaxed in his beret and button-down shirt.
“Kovler Center was the first place in this long journey where I felt safe to speak out and share my story,” he says. “It helped me learn how to tell my story for the asylum process, but also to heal as a person. They know that they’re dealing with someone who is broken and has survived trauma.” In the time since his arrival in Chicago, Kossi has settled into his new home. He now lives with his wife and sons on the city’s north side. He has dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer and helping others like him.
*His name has been changed due to security concerns.
On a frosty day in February, Dr. Nora Rowley sat on the floor of the mustard-yellow playroom in the Marjorie Kovler Center in Rogers Park helping five-year-old Oscar* push a dump truck around the room. The boy had recently come to the city with his mother from Guatemala, and Rowley asked him what he thought of his new home. Oscar said he didn’t like the wind and winter here.
Was there anything he didn’t miss from his old home? she asked.
“The bad guy,” Oscar said.
“Who is the bad guy?” Rowley asked.
“My daddy,” Oscar replied. “He hit mommy and me.”
When Rowley examined Oscar she found scars all over his body from being abused by his father, a gang member.
Oscar and his mother had fled the violence and sought asylum in the U.S., hoping to find safety far from the gangs of their home country. Last year, 97,000 people sought asylum in the U.S., a nearly 20-fold increase from a decade before, driven in large part by destabilization in South and Central America.
The U.S. government is required by international treaties to evaluate all claims of asylum to determine if they have a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Immigration judges deny most of these claims, rejecting 65 percent of cases last year, the highest denial rate since the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse began collecting data in 2001.
But asylum seekers like Oscar and his mother who undergo medical exams as part of their case are more than twice as likely to be granted asylum as those who do not, according to a study that compares the asylum grant rate among U.S. asylum seekers from Physicians for Human Rights. Asylum seekers often have to find forensic evaluation providers on their own or are recommended by lawyers to evaluators who might offer services pro bono. By matching the stories of asylum seekers to the trail of evidence hidden on their bodies, forensic evaluators like Rowley are able to show judges that people have endured harrowing persecution and violence and should be allowed to stay in the U.S.
Trained as an emergency room doctor, the 57-year-old has sewn sutures, reset broken bones, and seen all forms of physical trauma. Rowley says that many of the people she’s treated over the years have been tortured by the state and military in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, eastern Europe, and Central America. She has frequently examined patients for criminal evidence collection in cases of rape and abuse. In 2009, during a stint with Doctors Without Borders in Myanmar, Rowley was moved by witnessing torture of Rohingya Muslims and underwent training from Physicians for Human Rights to document the injuries of asylum seekers.
In the last ten years, she has evaluated 185 people, ranging from children like Oscar to senior citizens seeking safety in the U.S, conducting almost all of them as a volunteer. She gets cases through the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago and volunteers extensively at Kovler, a torture survivor center located in a restored former convent tucked away on a tree-lined side street in the heart of Rogers Park.
Mario Gonzalez, Kovler’s senior director, who himself immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala, has been treating torture survivors and survivors of post-traumatic stress disorder since 1989. He says many asylum seekers are unsure which documents are necessary to win their cases and are often left to fend for themselves throughout the immigration process. “Not many asylum seekers know how important the forensic medical exam is, and many cases are lost because of the lack of evidence to support their claim. It is sad but true,” Gonzalez says.
Most asylum seekers at Kovler make their way to the center by word-of-mouth or through referrals from the National Immigrant Justice Center, however, a handful of survivors have been sent directly from immigration court. “There are a few judges who see that the case is being misrepresented from a lack of evidence, and they’ve said, ‘You should get your papers together at Kovler. It’s free,'” says Gonzalez.
The soft-spoken doctor begins each evaluation with a conversation. Interviews can last a few hours. Many asylum seekers feel immense shame and even grow upset while recalling what happened to them in their home country, so Rowley has to ensure they feel comfortable throughout the process.
“[She] takes the time to be warm and gets to know them before diving into explaining what she’s going to do,” says Marie Shebeck, a senior case manager at Kovler.
Rowley carefully encourages her interviewees to be specific and vivid. She asks for details of their attack so she knows what to look for during the exam. “Some people don’t have any visible scars,” says Rowley. “Like if only one of their lateral eyebrows is thick. A punch to the eye can definitely do that. But it can be easily missed.”
After the conversation, Rowley gives the asylum seeker a full medical exam and records any physical evidence she finds in an affidavit that is shared with the court. She takes photos of injuries as well, which she puts in PowerPoint presentations for the judge, circling any evidence she has found.
The work can be overwhelming. “Within my first two years at Kovler, I had a woman who had been serially raped every day for a year and a half in her captivity as a political prisoner,” Rowley says. “That day, after the evaluation, I went home, and it was an hour later I realized that I had been lying in a fetal position on the couch.”
Despite the difficulty of the work, Rowley cannot imagine turning away from the asylum seekers she helps, especially when the need for her evaluations is so great. According to Physicians for Human Rights, there are only two other medical professionals trained by them in forensic evaluations for asylum seekers in Chicago, and the waiting period to get an evaluation from PHR can be up to 12 weeks.
At Kovler, the waiting period depends on the asylum seeker’s deadline for document submission. The center typically has 180 patients per year waiting to be examined. “There are hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, so it is difficult for clinicians to keep up with the demand,” says Kathryn Hampton, a network program officer with Physicians for Human Rights. “Donors do not fund forensic evaluations at the same levels as legal services provision.”
The tremendous need for low-fee and pro bono representation of asylum seekers coupled with a backlog of nearly one million asylum cases nationwide has left direct legal service organizations, like National Immigrant Justice Center, stretched thin. “Our ability to provide consultations for new asylum-seeking clients is extremely limited, to the point that our asylum intake hotline has been paused for much of the past two years,” writes Alejandra Oliva, a communications coordinator with the National Immigrant Justice Center, via e-mail.
Yet in a political climate where asylum seekers’ stories are being challenged, forensic evaluations can make the difference between being granted asylum and being sent back home. In April, President Donald Trump claimed that Central American asylum seekers arriving at the U.S. border were making up stories of violence. “It’s a scam. It’s a hoax,” Trump said. “Our system is full.”
The president’s claim doesn’t match up to Rowley’s experience with asylum seekers. In her ten years of work evaluating nearly 200 cases, Rowley says she has only seen two cases where some aspects of a person’s stories did not match their scars. But even in those cases, she says, the trauma endured by the asylum seeker may have been to blame for the discrepancies. Trauma can affect an asylum seeker’s memory and make it difficult to recall things consistently in detail, according to research published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
In March, five-year-old Oscar and his mother were summoned to Chicago’s downtown immigration court at 525 W. Van Buren for their asylum hearing. Rowley was called to testify if needed. While she waited outside the courtroom with Oscar, the judge asked his mother and their attorney questions and looked over the evidence Rowley had prepared.
After 90 minutes, the attorney called Rowley and Oscar inside the courtroom. Oscar and his mother had been granted asylum and would be allowed to stay.
“They were so nervous with the possibility of being sent back,” Rowley says. “Now they can start to heal.”
Two things immediately come to Alejandra Aranda’s mind when asked about her hometown of Iguala, Mexico, in the north-central state of Guerrero. The first is its scenic nature; how El Tehuehue hill serves as a beautiful backdrop to this city, home to more than 100,000 people. The second is the relentless bullying she experienced there, much of it from those closest to her.
Aranda, 48, is a trans woman, and though she transitioned only after leaving Iguala, she says she always “looked like a girl.” Her femininity made her a target for abuse from her peers and family, especially her father, who she says was one of her worst bullies, describing their relationship at the time as “abusive.”
Aranda left Mexico in 1990 shortly after graduating from high school. She used her newfound adulthood and the queerphobia she faced in Iguala to fuel her journey north. She set her sights on Los Angeles after her childhood friend, Tania, who is also a trans woman, sent Aranda letters describing the big American city with its vibrant LGBTQ community.
“I came to America for a new life, for the gay community,” she says. “We all had dreams to come here. For a lot of people, it was for work, but for me, it was to live my life. My gay life.”
Aranda’s journey in the 90s mirrors what many LGBTQ migrants experience today. Queer and trans migrants are still forced to leave home for reasons similar to other migrants, but also because of the violence they face as a result of their queer identities. While exact numbers are unavailable due to fears of persecution at home, an estimated 15,000 to 50,000 undocumented transgender immigrants live in the U.S. according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Nearly 70 countries around the world still criminalize LGBTQ people, with punishments as severe as the death penalty, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
In search of safety, LGBTQ asylum seekers are often met with more violence at the border at the hands of the U.S. immigration system—a system that can be dangerous for all migrants, but especially for queer and trans people. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ migrants make up just .14 percent of people ICE detained in 2017, yet were 12 percent of those who reported sexual abuse. This sexual violence is often perpetrated by the U.S.-employed detention staff as well as other detained migrants.
In May 2018, 37 Democratic congressional representatives published a letter to Kirstjen Nielsen, then the Department of Homeland Security secretary, criticizing ICE for its “disturbing” treatment of LGBTQ migrants. They denounced the agency for placing trans women in detention with cisgender men and asked ICE to release all LGBTQ migrants from custodial detention into safer alternatives like supervised release or placement with hosts or sponsors while cases work their way through the courts.
For Antonio Gutierrez, 30, the violence queer and trans migrants face from the U.S. immigration apparatus speaks to a dark reality where “asking for asylum could also lead to death.” Gutierrez is a member of Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), a grassroots organization that helps protect and empower undocumented people in Chicago.
Gutierrez says that immigration detention is inherently inhumane and dangerous for LGBTQ migrants, pointing to the tragic death of Roxana Hernández, a trans woman from Honduras who died in ICE custody in May 2018. Hernández died just 16 days after entering the U.S. in search of refuge from the violence she faced back home. While in ICE custody, Hernández was denied medical care, and an independent autopsy revealed that she was physically abused while in detention.
Aranda’s time in immigration detention as a trans woman underscores that idea. Shortly after graduating high school, she tried to get a student visa through the U.S. embassy in Mexico, but was denied when she couldn’t provide all of the necessary paperwork. She and her sister Columba then hired a coyote who helped get them into the U.S. They were detained and deported three times before successfully making it across through Tijuana.
While in detention Aranda was forced to present as masculine and feared discrimination and violence from those around her. Columba knew she was queer and helped protect her on their journey, she says. However, the sisters were separated each time they were detained. Columba would be placed with the women and Aranda with the men. Agents never asked how she identified, and she didn’t think to tell them. Keeping her gender identity a secret became a tool for survival—but it couldn’t fully shield her from the trauma she experienced in detention.
The room in the detention center had a toilet that required the men to use it in front of one another. Aranda felt so vulnerable and uncomfortable in the space she refused to go to the restroom. There were no beds, so everyone had to sleep on the ground. Aranda says the agents treated them like animals, often using excessive force and speaking disrespectfully, with no regard for their humanity.
“It was something very traumatic for me,” she says about the three nights she spent in detention. “It’s something that I will never forget.”
The oppression and discrimination migrants face navigating the U.S. immigration system don’t just occur in detention. Bindhu Vijayan has been an immigration lawyer for over ten years. She is currently the director of immigrant empowerment and activism at Community Activism Law Alliance (CALA), a Chicago-based organization that offers legal services to marginalized communities. Vijayan says there are a plethora of ways the immigration court system is challenging for LGBTQ asylum seekers.
In the U.S., a person can seek asylum in several ways. One of the more common is through a port of entry. This is where an immigrant presents themselves at an official station, then undergoes an interview meant to establish whether they have “credible fear” of harm in their home countries. After that they are usually released and allowed to live in the U.S. until their time in front of an immigration judge—though this process has been recently upended by the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.
To be granted asylum, someone must prove that they are fleeing persecution in their home country and that this persecution is based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in what is called a “particular social group.” LGBTQ people have been considered members of the “particular social group” category since 1994. So in order for LGBTQ migrants to be granted asylum, they must prove to an immigration judge that they are queer and/or trans.
Vijayan sees this material proof to be the most significant hurdle queer and trans migrants face while navigating the immigration court system because the burden of proof is so high. “What is this proof?” she asks. “You’re coming from a country where you maybe never disclosed to anyone [that you identify as LGBTQ] or you didn’t belong to any particular organization.”
Vijayan also sees the methods many courts use to determine if a person is LGBTQ or not as highly problematic because they often rely on stereotypes and cultural biases. She says migrants are forced to reveal private and intimate details about their lives to meet the burden of proof—from the moment they first realized they were queer and/or trans to how many partners they’ve had.
An individual judge’s cultural biases have a considerable impact on whether or not an LGBTQ migrant will be granted asylum. If a migrant does not “fit the bill” for what a specific adjudicator believes a queer or trans person looks like, Vijayan says, they will likely be denied asylum and deported back to the violence they’ve fled. Vijayan also notes that many LGBTQ migrants may not even reveal their queerness to a judge due to fear of continued discrimination.
“Depending on your country of origin, you may have corrupt judges, corrupt police, [and] just general violence, discrimination, and harassment,” she says. “You may not necessarily want to speak to this intimidating, uniformed customs and border patrol agent and disclose ‘by the way, this is what my identity is.'”
For Aranda, the intimidation and fear she felt in the presence of Border Patrol is something that has stayed with her nearly three decades later. “You saw their power,” she says. “It’s like a movie, to tell you the truth.”
Aranda now lives on Chicago’s north side, and CALA is helping her apply for asylum—something she didn’t know she qualified for until recently. Like many asylum seekers before her, she will also have to meet a high burden of proof in order to be granted refuge in immigration court.
She speaks fondly of the freedom she says she gained in Los Angeles, allowing her to be herself. Navigating the U.S. as a trans woman of color and an immigrant has led to its own specific set of challenges, though—most recently, getting her name changed in her job’s computer system. The cash register at work used to print receipts with the name she was given at birth, which had placed her in many awkward and sometimes unsafe situations. Now, she feels safer because it prints her last name instead.
Even with all of these challenges, Aranda’s focus isn’t on what she’s lost or the pain she’s experienced. It’s on the life she’s been able to build for herself. A queer life.
“With all the discrimination and everything I’ve lived through,” she says, “I’m a super person now.”
At Rica Arepa, a young couple slings tasty cornmeal sandwiches — and for many customers, recreates a world that no longer exists.
On a cold evening in November, just before midnight, Rica Arepa Venezuelan Cafe sits in a cluster of shuttered storefronts on Armitage Avenue, in Hermosa. And though the streets have gone quiet for the night, inside, the restaurant is buzzing with life.
Having bid farewell to their final customers hours earlier, first-time restaurateurs Maria Uzcategui, 22, and her husband, Kharim Rincón, 24, lay out a spread of bite-size cheese arepas and empanadas. Over the speakers, Uzcategui’s teenage sister, Valeria, queues up a mix of Caribbean salsa and Latin pop.
At midnight, a wave of guests arrive for an after-hours party. The occasion? Rica Arepa’s one-year anniversary. Hugs are given, chairs stacked, and tables pushed to the walls to make room for an impromptu dance floor. Family and friends, some from out of state, turn out en force to celebrate the couple’s whirlwind first year in business. “I can’t understand a year could be that fast,” says Rincón. “I mean, we’ve been working very hard, [but] it doesn’t feel like a year.”
Since Rica Arepa’s opening in November 2017, the restaurant has become a haven for Venezuelan immigrants and asylum seekers in Chicago. Having fled a home country that grows more unrecognizable each day — one marked by an uncertain economy, crumbling infrastructure, and a growing murder rate under the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro — Rica Arepa’s customers relive happier memories in the cozy neighborhood spot. Even since the ascension of National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó, who appointed himself President in January, 40 Venezuelans have died in mass protests.
At one end of the restaurant, Joe Avendaño, who drives two hours down from Waukesha to dine here once a month, watches his daughter. The seven-year-old, Sofia, signs her name on a Venezuelan bolívar banknote and tacks it to the wall, itself covered with the hyperinflated currency.
The wall serves as a visual museum of Venezuela’s economic crisis, with one and five bolívar notes covered up by 500s and 1,000s. By August of last year, when Venezuela rolled out a new currency, the value of the bills had fallen so far that a can of Coke reportedly cost 2.8 million bolívar.
According to the UN, an average of 5,000 Venezuelans leave the country each day. As of December, about 3.3 million people had fled the country since 2015, and the UN estimates two million more could follow this year. In the United States, the number of Venezuelans who have applied for asylum is almost three times greater than any other nationality, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum data.
“When I say I miss Venezuela, I don’t mean the land,” says Hector Cedeno-Indriago, 19, another regular. “Really,” he says, “it’s the people that I left over there.”
Cedeno-Indriago learned of Rica Arepa from his father, who found it on Facebook. The moment he stepped inside the restaurant, he says, he felt like he was back in Puerto La Cruz. “It was something in the air, like socializing with the people that I trusted back in Venezuela. Home is like a place where I have trust in friends and family.”
In a photo from Rica Arepa’s anniversary party posted to Instagram, Cedeno-Indriago stands in a celebratory black suit beside a painting of a Venezuelan and American flag. In his caption, he thanks the owners for fostering a “little bit of Venezuela that we want so much here.”
As night creeps into morning at the anniversary party, a lull in the evening is shattered by a chrous of “Ay, Qué Noche Tan Preciosa,” a Venezuelan birthday song. The crowd surrounds a cake, its candles glinting in a revolving disco ball. Holding hands, Uzcategui and Rincón inch closer, take a breath, and blow them out.
The idea for Rica Arepa was born in 2016. Rincón was tired of working construction, and Uzcategui’s older brother Andres, 27, felt the same about his factory job. With Rincón’s cooking skills and Andres’s experience slinging street food back in Venezuela, the pair teamed up to start making arepas. Uzcategui’s mother, Gloria, 52, stepped in to help.
The family began selling the griddled cornmeal sandwiches from a cart in Hermosa early in the morning, and later expanded to the evening to reach more customers. Soon, they learned of the Chicagoans’ affinity for what Uzcategui calls “Mexican hot sauce” (salsa verde). “It was, ‘boom!’ ” she says. The financial game-changer eventually helped Rica Arepa move from a cart to their storefront.
Rica Arepa’s menu has expanded considerably. The restaurant now serves drinks like chicha (a thick, sweet rice beverage) and papelon con limón (Venezuelan-style lemonade). They’ve also mastered a handful of regional dishes, and more than 20 variations on the arepa, stuffed with fillings like shredded Gouda, stewed black beans, and savory meat.
Inside the café, daffodil-yellow walls are splashed with blue, red, and white accents, a tribute to Venezuela’s flag. A chalkboard hanging above the counter reads, “Castellano, ni español, hablamos Venezolano.” (“We don’t speak Castilian or Spanish. We speak Venezuelan.”)
Behind the counter, Uzcategui shows off a handpicked selection of Venezuelan cereals and cookies, including Toops, a chocolate cereal, and Cocosette, coconut cream-filled wafers — rare finds in the Midwest.
Helping Venezuelans access the elusive feeling of home is at the heart of Rica Arepa’s mission. Everything must be perfect, the couple says, from the menu to the decor to the music. Their customers count on them to keep the old Venezuela alive between their yellow walls, and they struggle with the guilt of falling short.
“Like today,” says Uzcategui, “we are out of tequeños [Venezuelan cheese sticks].”
“That’s why people come,” adds Rincón.
“Two people called already, [saying] ‘I just called because of tequeños,’” says Uzcategui. “I said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ But they’re like, ‘OK, what time will you have tequeños ready?’ I was like, ‘Oh my god. 1 p.m? I don’t know!’ ”
As Rica Arepa’s popularity has skyrocketed, the couple has struggled to keep up with requests for niche regional dishes they’re unfamiliar with — especially over social media.
One example? The patacón, a fried plantain sandwich popular in the northwestern state of Zulia. The handheld meal is stuffed with shredded beef, chicken, or ham, cheese, and lettuce, and topped with ketchup and mayo. Rincón had never eaten one before — let alone cooked one — so he relied on a customer to teach him how. Now, it’s a staple on the menu.
Uzcategui and Rincón run a mom-and-pop shop by the book. On a typical day, Uzcategui works up front taking orders, phoning distributors, and running inventory; Rincón helms the kitchen and sometimes goes out on deliveries.
In between, it’s bookkeeping, hiring, social media, stepping in for no-shows, and grabbing last-minute ingredients for the restaurant’s ever-growing menu.
The couple says the long shifts have put a strain on their relationship, but Rica Arepa’s popularity — especially among Chicago’s Venezuelan community — keeps them going.
“We are not perfect,” Uzcategui says. “We fight [about] stupid things or big things, but then we try to talk. We try to explain to each other why things happened that way. We’re like every other relationship.”
Uzcategui and Rincón left Venezuela for America four years ago. She was 18 and he was 20, both of them college students. Their hometown, Porlamar, on Isla de Margarita, was once a bustling tourist destination, marked by its natural beauty. But when the couple recalls the end of their time there — and what Venezuela has become since — their smiles fade.
Beginning in 2015, President Maduro deployed 80,000 members of Venezuelan security forces across the country under the pretense of combating crime. But Human Rights Watch has reported widespread abuses of the military, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, forced evictions, and the destruction of homes.
Street crime, too, has skyrocketed. In 2017, the Venezuelan NGO Observatory of Violence found that the country had more than 26,616 homicides, or about 89 per 100,000 inhabitants. (The United States’ rate, by comparison, is 5.3 per 100,000.)
“I’ve even seen people killing people in the streets,” Uzcategui says. “It’s something that you never want to see.”
Such incidents became regular in Porlamar. And eventually, Rincón and Uzcategui bumped up against them firsthand.
Rincón had heard of express kidnappings, an increasingly popular crime in which victims are held hostage for a quick ransom, from some unlucky friends. “They just tell you to make sure that it doesn’t happen to you,” he says. “We never knew until we got robbed.”
It happened to the couple on a night in 2014. Rincón was dropping Uzcategui off at her home, which was tucked away in a gated neighborhood. When Rincón stepped out of the car to open the gate, like he had dozens of times before, a couple jumped out at him with guns drawn.
“They yell at us like, ‘Move, move! Get out of the car!’” says Uzcategui. “We tried to get out, [but] there was [another] car coming, so they said, ‘No! Go inside the car!’ They drive us around, and they took everything from us.”
Eventually, Rincón and Uzcategui were dropped on the side of the road in another neighborhood, which Uzcategui describes as “unsafe.” They ran until they came across officers in a police car, who ultimately drove them back home. “It was like a bad dream,” she says. “Like, really? Is this happening to me?”
“They can kill you for a bag, and that’s crazy. They don’t care. For a cellphone, for nothing. They can kill you.”
It was a breaking point for the couple. They didn’t have a plan, but they did have a pair of plane tickets and a place to stay in Miami, where most of Rincón’s family already lived. “We didn’t think about the real stuff in the moment,” Uzcategui says. “We’ll move there, and then we’ll see.”
In Miami, they moved in with Rincón’s brother. The couple worked round the clock, picking up jobs bussing tables or with moving companies. They stretched their paychecks, taking English classes at a local community college and trying to make friends in a new country. Quickly, stress and homesickness set in.
“Even here, even now, I want to go home,” Uzcategui says. “We like other countries; we like how America received us and stuff, but it’s not your ‘home-home.’ You want to be in the place that you [grew] up. Home is home.”
And so in 2015 in search of a place to call their own — and tired of living in Rincón’s brother’s house — they headed to Chicago. Since then, Hermosa has been home.
“There’s a lot of Venezuelans that are alone here in the United States,” says Rincón, who goes out of his way to befriend Rica Arepa customers. “It’s hard for them because they don’t have any family here in Chicago that can support them. So, they try to come in here and make new friends and see how they could feel better.”
For the owners of Rica Arepa, the days of selling street food from a cart are a distant memory. But Rincón keeps a memento from those days stowed in his car: an original sketch of Rica Arepa’s logo, its name etched in pencil on a folded piece of paper. The only flourish in the design is the “a” in Rica, which swoops upward into a doodle of an arepa — an easy homage to their business’s foundation.
Weeks before Rica Arepa’s one-year anniversary, the couple unveiled a newly renovated dining room to complement the sparse tables and bar stools tucked over by the kitchen. Bold decals border a large front window, which floods the restaurant in natural light. The area is meant for birthday parties, celebrations, and other gatherings that Rica Arepa is sure to serve as a nucleus for.
In just under a year, the Uzcategui and Rincón have amassed a loyal enough following that they’re toying with the idea of opening a second location. Or, they’ll head back to the streets — this time with a food truck.
President Donald Trump signed a 90-day asylum ban Friday that makes it harder for immigrants to claim asylum if they are caught crossing the border between designated ports of entry. The new restrictions, which will force asylum seekers to wait weeks or longer at ports of entry to request asylum, were immediately challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Melanie Schikore is the executive director of the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants. Her nonprofit is a faith-based organization that responds to the suffering of all individuals and communities affected by immigration detention, deportation and post-detention through pastoral care, advocacy, public witness and other activities.
Schikore sat down with Borderless to talk about the asylum process.
Borderless: What do you think the public doesn’t understand about asylum seekers who come to the United States?
Melanie Schikore: I don’t think people realize how difficult it is. I think it’s unfortunate that immigration and safety has been conflated with immigration and terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001. So the public is very wary of people from other places. We see the politicians claiming that we have to be safe, we have to protect ourselves from terrorism. But the irony is that the people that are seeking asylum are fleeing terrorism, violence or threats to their lives and they’re not a threat to us.
When asylum seekers come here they have so much to learn about American culture and about the way of life here. Until they get asylum, there is no government assistance for them. Things like food stamps or housing or job searching assistance, those become available to people after they win asylum. But while they’re seeking asylum, it’s community groups like ours that pick up this slack.
We provide wraparound care for them. We have case management and every case is individualized. People that come to us have a master’s degree in engineering, but they don’t speak English. Some of the people come to us and they speak some English, but they’ve never been in school. Asylum seekers have a wide variety of needs.
Borderless: You said people are fleeing violence and threats to come seek the safety of asylum in the United States. Can you speak more about the reasons people leave their home country?
Schikore: Everybody has a history of trauma because trauma is just part of why they’re leaving their home country. There’s also trauma in migrating — horrible things happen to people when they are vulnerable and traveling through countries that they don’t know.
And then there’s the trauma of detention. Asylum seekers are leaving countries and while they’re migrating the United States adds to their trauma by putting people in detention. Many of our participants express great surprise that this is how the United States treated them when they came here asking for help. They’re not criminals, but they were put in a jail uniform and shackled and taken to a jail.
Borderless: Who are the asylum seekers your organization works with and where are they from?
Schikore: People that are seeking asylum come from all over the world. Many are from Central America and that’s what makes the news. But also we have lots of people from Africa and Asia.
Asylum seekers are people who couldn’t wait until a refugee program was created because the violence or the strife they’re experiencing makes it unlivable in their home country. The danger is just so strong at the moment that they have to go somewhere else to live. So there are some asylum seekers that try to make it to the United States, but plenty of asylum seekers also try to seek shelter in a neighboring country.
If we meet an asylum seeker in detention, we hear their stories about how they came to the border or they came to our airport and in the moment they were interviewed by ICE or by the border patrol they said that they needed help. That they were fearing death in their home country and they came to the United States for assistance. That’s when they are put in detention.
Borderless: How should news media be covering asylum stories?
Schikore: Hearing the stories of asylum seekers is really important. I think that everybody that I know through this program has a story. If you knew their stories, each one would break your heart. Just knowing that fact is a mindfulness that we can practice about people leaving a country for asylum.
If they need safety and they choose to come to the United States for that safety, we should accept that at face value. They know what they’ve been through. We don’t.
And then once we know some of the details of their story, most of the people that we work with have been through things that in the United States are unimaginable. Whether that is torture because of your sexual orientation, or the level of violence in your country or coming from a country that is war-torn.
So getting an understanding of those stories and those experiences is important. I think there’s also a healing component for people to tell their stories. When we do pastoral care in the jail, there are lots of stories that we hear that we can’t do anything about. But we can hold that person’s story with them so they’re not alone with it. Some people that have suffered trauma are ready to tell their story because it can be cathartic and help them expunge the experience from their bodies by telling others what has happened to them.
I’m an immigration lawyer in New York. I have represented people at deportation proceedings and immigration proceedings for the past five years. I also happen to be an asylee. I sought asylum in the U.S. back in 2008 and I was granted asylum in 2009.
I think that it’s incredibly important to share the stories of asylees and asylum seekers and refugees because this administration and, in general, our immigration system has put a lot of energy and resources into dehumanizing the people seeking asylum here in the U.S.
What the American public has to remember is that the people seeking safety in this country are just like our mothers and fathers and our neighbors. They’re people who have dreams, who have fears, who have people they love.
It is only through the stories of them and through understanding their humanity that we’re really going to be able to react and understand why it’s so important to protect them.
I, myself, share my story of being a refugee here in the U.S. and the fact that I had to flee my home country Ecuador because of being gay and because of a murder attempt due to my sexual orientation. Because one, I want to remind people that there are many, many people in my community, the LGBTQ community, out there who continue to be persecuted outside of the United States and murdered outside of the United States.
We need to ensure that as country we continue to fight that and we continue to want to provide safety for those people to come to the U.S. after being persecuted due to their sexual orientation. But also to make sure that America, our country, actually protects our own LGBTQ community. And not only protects, but provides them with all of the rights and privileges that every other human being has in this country.
So at the very end, to share the stories of refugees and asylees and asylum seekers and gay people and transgender people, it’s sharing the stories of human beings. Human beings who unfortunately have been disenfranchised one way or another and just want to have a chance in life to redo their lives.