Stories from the “Refugee Crisis” as told to an Immigration Attorney

Yojoa, Honduras by Photo by Héctor Emilio Gonzalez on Unsplash

Trigger Warning: violence, rape

Crisis in Central America

you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.

from “Home” by Maggie Wagner

A few months after crossing the border, Nancy*, age 13 and her little sister, Amaya, age 8, showed up in my office. Two beautiful, sweet little girls who could be my own children. Their experience was typical.

They fled Honduras with an aunt after Nancy narrowly escaped becoming the sex slave of a 27 year old local gang leader. Their mother already lived in the US, working as a hotel housekeeper to provide for the family after their father left. They were living with their grandmother in a small town near San Pedro Sula, an industrial town known for its notorious sweatshops that manufacture clothing for the US market and has now become ground zero in gang warfare.

The gang leader noticed Nancy when she was barely 12 1/2. After following & harassing her several times, he tried to rape & abduct her. Luckily people in the street distracted him long enough for Nancy to escape. Within a week, Nancy & Amaya left for the US. Her favorite cousin Maria hadn’t been as lucky. Maria, who was only 8 months older than Nancy, was forced to live with another adult gang leader who subjected her to daily beatings and rape by multiple men and impregnated her twice by age 14.

A 15 year old male cousin was hacked to death and left on the side of the road for being “big and slow.” Gang members shot a local shopkeeper, an elderly, gentle man who all the children called Abuelo (Grandpa) for resisting extortion attempts.

Neighborhood teen boys were forced to join gangs under threat of death to themselves or family members, usually in front of them. One 11 year old boy & his mom were stabbed multiple times when the mom tried to resist.

We are Complicit

While these stories may sound shocking, for immigration attorneys like myself, they are routine.

It’s easy for us to think that it’s someone else’s problem. However, we all share culpability.

  • The two main gangs in Central America, MS-13 & Calle 18 (Also called the 18th Street gang) were born in the USA and exported to Central America beginning in the 1990s.
  • We have armed them as well: US guns comprise nearly half of all guns in the region; in Mexico it’s nearly 70%.
  • Our past interference in Central American wars & our insatiable appetite for drugs contributes to political instability as well.

Gangs overwhelm the police, gaining control of whole regions making Central America and, in particular the Northern Triangle nations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the most violent region in the world that is not at war.

Honduran Market Photo by Carli Jeen on Unsplash

Across the World

Similar stories of violence come from every corner of the globe. People flee because of war, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution and climate change. In the Western highlands of Guatemala, indigenous farmers who have subsisted for hundreds of years are facing a record drought with over 90% crop loss. Several Pacific Islands are literally going underwater.

In meeting thousands of families from all over the world as I have the past 20 years, I’ve realized one truth: we are all the same.

They may speak different languages and eat different food, but Central American families are no different than us or families from Mongolia or South Africa. Parents all want the same things for their children: food, safety & security, education, and opportunity. Our notion that the families at our Southern border are different or lesser than us reflects nothing more than our own fears and prejudice. I’ve met refugees who were lawyers, doctors, teachers, business owners and police officers. They are simply families seeking safety & unable to return home. Our refugee laws were created after World War II for this very purpose.

*Names have been changed

To be continued…

Have questions for Joy? Ask in the comments.

About the Author

Joy Athanasiou is a Denver, Colorado Political Consultant, specializing in lobbying and advocacy, as well as serving as legal and policy expert. (She is also my dad’s first cousin.)

In 2016, Joy formed Joy Strategies, LLC, building on her nearly 2 decades of federal, state and local advocacy, and utilizing her background as an experienced immigration attorney. Previously, Joy owned Athanasiou Law Firm, specializing in immigration law and policy. Joy is recognized as one of the key experts on immigration in Colorado, and well known for her ability to explain complex issues, resolve intractable problems and persuade even the most hostile audiences.

Joy routinely collaborates with national & local community groups, schools and governments on immigration, refugee and constitutional due process issues. Joy has a Juris Doctor from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a Masters Degree from the University of Denver Korbel School of International Studies.

Read other social justice topics here.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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