Maria came to San Luis Obispo with little more than clothes, her Bible and a desire for her children to grow up in peace.
After her husband was killed in Michoacán, Mexico, she fled with her son and daughter to find refuge in California. Although she’s safe and has a support system on the Central Coast, Maria faces the same struggles many asylum-seekers encounter in the United States.
She can’t legally work, has difficulty finding cheap housing and must find a way to pay her mounting legal bills.
“The reality is, it’s very stressful and expensive,” she said in Spanish.
And Maria’s yearlong struggle to stay in the United States keeps getting harder every day, thanks to a series of ever-changing roadblocks President Donald Trump’s administration keeps throwing up to prevent asylum-seekers from entering the country and building lives here.
“We really need to consider refugees as a class of people who need help in the U.S.,” said Nikki Jacobson, Maria’s Los Angeles-based attorney. “These people are running for their lives.”
From Michoacán to San Luis Obispo
Fear is what motivated Maria — who also goes by Isabel — her 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to leave their home and travel to the United States in April 2018.
The Tribune isn’t providing Maria’s full name or the names of her children out of concern for their safety, as their case is pending in the immigration court system.
The family lives in a two-bedroom apartment in San Luis Obispo that’s been furnished by counselors and teachers at Pacheco Elementary School, a bilingual campus where Maria’s son is a student.
Another person stays in one of the rooms to help Maria pay her rent, and the family occupies the other bedroom. Maria and her daughter sleep in one bed and her son in another.
A network of local teachers and church-goers have been helping her pay for housing, food and a lawyer. Maria said she’s embarrassed to ask for anything, but people supply her with items she might be missing, anyways.
“The truth is, I have a lot of angels in my corner,” she said.
Maria is a small woman with curly bangs and long dark hair that’s usually tied back in a ponytail. Her eyes look tired, but a smile can light up her whole face.
During conversations at her home, Maria’s son stays close by, grabbing her arm and snuggling up while she sits in their living room. His sister is quiet, but she joins her mom in ribbing her brother when he claims he doesn’t yet know what he wants to be when he grows up.
The family is still coping with trauma — both from events in Michoacán and in San Luis Obispo.
Back home, Maria’s husband, a mechanic, was badly beaten and left in a ditch by robbers.
As she told the story, tears slid down her face. She said she didn’t recognize him when he made his way back home. He eventually died from his injuries.
“God took him away, and I came here to ask for refuge,” Maria said.
Michoacán, a state located in southern Mexico, is known for being one of the country’s primary avocado producers. But it’s also recently been the scene of horrific violence.
An Aug. 8 New York Times story described dozens of bodies displayed along an overpass in a Michoacán city near a banner threatening rival drug cartels.
The U.S. State Department warns Americans not to travel to Michoacán due to crime.
Maria described theft and kidnappings fueled by poverty. She said she wouldn’t feel comfortable allowing her son to go outside and ride his bicycle for fear he would be kidnapped or killed.
“I wouldn’t want to go back to my country, because there is lots of crime,” Maria said. “They just killed someone I know. They kidnapped him, and he didn’t have the money, so they killed him. I’m thankful to God that I was able to come.”
On Facebook, she met an immigrant woman living in San Luis Obispo who encouraged her to come to the United States. So, she left two older children in their 20s behind and took a bus from Michoacán to the border in Tijuana, where she and her two younger kids asked for asylum.
The family stayed in a detention center for three or four days while Maria waited for an interview with an immigration agent.
Maria said she couldn’t tell if it was day or night at the facility, but was able to keep her children with her. Eventually, the family was released into California, and Maria’s friend picked them up in Los Angeles.
Since Maria and her children arrived in California, the Trump administration has further elevated its focus on immigration, and bona fide asylum seekers are often being lumped in with those attempting to come here for other reasons.
Scenes of migrants packed into detention centers and children separated from parents have become flashpoints in the debate over how the United States should handle people hoping to come here from Mexico and Central America.
Getting across the border
Maria is just one of thousands of Latin American asylum-seekers trying to navigate a confusing legal system while pursuing security and opportunities in a new country.
But the odds are stacked against her. As part of its immigration crackdown, the Trump administration is making it increasingly difficult to attain asylum, which in itself was already an expensive and lengthy process.
Just getting across the United States-Mexico border is a challenge for most migrants, now more than ever.
The U.S. government requires they go to ports of entry to seek asylum, but also “meters” — or limits — the number of migrants accepted for processing. This first began taking place under President Barack Obama’s administration, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.
In 2018, the Trump administration enacted a “zero-tolerance policy,” which required criminal prosecutions of those crossing the border illegally, even those seeking asylum. This policy led to the infamous family separations, as adults in criminal custody can’t be held with their children.
Recently, migrants filled packed detention facilities in Texas and suffered through overcrowded, sweltering conditions in their quest to reach the United States.
In January, the Trump administration also began making some migrants — mostly those from Central America — wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed, in spite of dangerous conditions in some border towns.
“I don’t think any of us saw the day when asylum-seekers would be living in tents,” said Layla Razavi, policy director for the California Immigrant Policy Center. “We’ve never closed our borders to asylum-seekers.”
‘Small in stature and tall in determination’
Maria brought her family here in search of a safe life, but three months after they arrived on the Central Coast, they dealt with yet more violence. Maria’s daughter was attacked by a woman at the home where they were staying.
The police got involved, and the woman is now facing misdemeanor assault charges, according to San Luis Obispo County Superior Court records.
As a result, Maria and her children had to leave the home quickly and didn’t receive her notice to appear in court, even though they reported their change of address to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
When Maria didn’t show up, she was ordered deported.
That’s when Julie Jones and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in San Luis Obispo got involved in the family’s life. Jones met Maria at her church and later found out about her situation from Karla Robles, a San Luis Coastal Unified School District counselor.
Jones helped connect her with Jacobson, who’s helping the family pursue its asylum case. She gives Maria rides to check in with ICE and takes the family to Southern California for their court appearances.
Jones also set up a GoFundMe page to help Maria raise money to pay for her attorney.
“She’s one of the lucky ones who had people in the U.S., who are in no way related to her, caring and helping her,” Jacobson said.
Jones doesn’t speak Spanish. She communicates with Maria using gestures and translation apps on the women’s phones.
“She is small in stature and tall in determination,” Jones said of Maria in an email. “She is quiet, extremely hard-working and just wants a chance for her children to grow up without fear.”
Jones said she was inspired to help Maria and her children because her own family came to the United States from the United Kingdom when she was a child.
“When I heard about her husband being murdered, and now alone trying to survive with her children, I felt it was important to try to help,” Jones said. “She didn’t ask for anything and was so grateful for any help. I have always been taught that when we have been given much in our lives, we, too, must give.”
Asylum claims are ‘exponentially harder’
Once migrants finally make it to the immigration court system, they find the federal government has also put up legal obstacles to prevent them from getting asylum status.
Nevertheless, migrants continue to seek refuge in the United States, even as it becomes more difficult.
“It’s exponentially harder today,” Razavi said. “And it’s not changing anything.”
So far this year, California immigration courts have decided about 8,800 asylum cases, according to June data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, which uses Freedom of Information Act requests to gather federal immigration information.
Nearly 60% of those cases involved Latin American asylum-seekers. Nearly 1,900 dealt with Mexican migrants. About 1,800 cases involved asylum-seekers from El Salvador, and about 1,500 dealt with Guatemalan migrants.
The state’s immigration courts in 2019 have so far granted asylum to about 3,621 migrants, or about 41% of the 8,800 cases, according to TRAC data.
Only about 339 Mexican migrants, or about 18% of cases decided, were granted asylum.
Meanwhile, over the last year, the the Trump administration has continued to tighten the rules for who might qualify.
In June 2018, the administration tried to prevent victims of domestic and gang violence from getting asylum, although a federal judge later struck that down, according to Politico.
Recently, Attorney General William Barr said migrants fleeing their homes because members of their families have been threatened — like Maria and her children — now won’t be able to seek asylum.
“Her life and her children’s lives are at risk because of their relationship to her husband,” said Jacobson, Maria’s attorney.
Amber Heffner, a Los Osos-based immigration attorney, said she’s representing six asylum clients right now, although she receives calls from many others she’s unable to help.
Heffner said the San Luis Obispo County area is home to numerous asylum-seekers, although it’s not the first stop for most.
Many end up on the Central Coast because family members already live here, she said. Heffner frequently refers asylum-seekers to attorneys in Southern California, where most immigration courts are located.
Heffner, like Razavi, said it’s becoming harder and harder to pursue asylum cases in an ever-changing legal landscape.
“Asylum is just so hard right now from the perspective of a legal representative,” she said. “We continue to fight, but it’s challenging.”
‘I just want them to let me stay here’
Maria’s case continues to move very slowly through the immigration court system. The family traveled to a court appearance in Los Angeles in July, and they’ll be back again in December.
Karla Robles, the San Luis Coastal Unified School District counselor who’s been helping Maria, said the family needs “so much support in every area of their life.”
“They are so resilient,” she said. “They came to the U.S. without any family ties or family support.”
Maria is grateful for all the help she’s received, calling Robles and other Pacheco staff members “sisters.”
She said she works as much as she can, but her hours are inconsistent. Maria cleans houses in San Luis Obispo for $15 per hour, but earns only about $400 to $500 per week. Plus, the people she works with charge her $10 to $20 for gas money.
Maria said she wants to pay income taxes once she’s legally able to work, but she hasn’t been able to get a permit yet.
“I didn’t come here to hurt anyone or take anything from people,” she said. “I came to work for you, to earn bread for my kids.”
Her children are learning English through school, although her daughter is still dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from the attack and struggles to attend San Luis Obispo High School.
In spite of everything, Maria remains determined to stay on the Central Coast. She knows there are better opportunities for her children in the United States, where they can be free from violence and can get a good education.
“I just want them to let me stay here, where it is safe,” she said. “That’s what I want for my children.”
To donate to Maria’s legal bill GoFundMe page, visit gofundme.com/f/brave-mom-hopeful-children.
Cassandra Garibay, Nick Wilson and Manuel Wudka-Robles assisted with Spanish translations for this story.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of attorney Nikki Jacobson’s last name.