'It Was My Life Or It Was Death': A Guatemalan Woman Escapes Violence And Seeks Asylum In Charlotte
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For years, Mayda Vargas led what she described as a stable and average life. She was a public school teacher for elementary school kids in her native country, Guatemala. A government job, she says, is highly coveted and difficult to attain. And she loved it. At home, she and her partner were excited to welcome a new child this year.
That all changed on March 12. She was driving with her partner and two children, who are 14 and 8 years old. She says a car came up to them and began firing shots. Her partner lost control of the car, she says.
“The murderers got out of their car and came to finish us off," Vargas said. "They killed him and they shot me. My sons only suffered the impact of the crash and I was left injured.”
She says they thought she was dead. The killers, she says, are her partner's family. His aunt had been pressuring him to join a gang she belonged to.
“He never wanted to join. He was always dedicated to his work. He owned a truck company,” Vargas said. “And so in October of 2020 she threatened us saying that if he didn’t join the gang to avenge the murder of her brother, he was the one who was going to pay for it.”
Vargas was taken to the hospital. A bullet was lodged in her abdomen but she didn’t lose the baby. She reported the shooting to police, but says nothing came of it.
“In Guatemala there’s only ever justice for people who have money. Only those who have good jobs and are rich — they get justice,” Vargas said. “But for people like me who are poor and fight every day to live, we don’t get justice.”
Knowing her partner's killers were free, Vargas said she realized she had to flee the country.
“They know I’m alive so if I went back to Guatemala they were going to end my life and my sons’ lives,” Vargas said. "It was my life or it was death."
‘They Wouldn’t Listen’: A Complicated Journey To The U.S.
While still physically and emotionally reeling from the shooting, Vargas took her two children and began to make the trek to the United States alongside her mother and sister-in-law.
It had only been a few weeks since her partner had been murdered. She still had a bullet lodged in her stomach, she says, and miraculously she was still pregnant.
She made it across the Rio Grande after her mother-in-law — who was still back in Guatemala — paid someone to help them through. She says she arrived in Texas and was immediately met by border agents.
“I asked for help. I told them I was wounded and that I was pregnant, that I was in danger,” Vargas said. “I would just talk to them and they wouldn’t listen. The only thing they said was that they had to take my fingerprints.”
Vargas says she and her children were put in the back of a car and immediately deported to Mexico. Her mother and sister-in-law were turned away at the border too, Vargas says, and she thinks they're back in Mexico — but she's lost contact with them.
Vargas says she spent the next 15 days sleeping in the streets of Mexico alongside her children. People on the street would give her food and water. She says she feared her partner’s killers would find her.
Eventually, a priest from a nearby church gave them a place to stay. There, Vargas says she met a lawyer who made a case for her to receive parole in the U.S. It was accepted.
On April 20, she arrived in Charlotte. A local Guatemalan family had seen a report of her story on TV when Vargas first reached the U.S. border and they opened their doors to her.
“They welcomed us in," Vargas said. "They’ve treated us as if we were family, as if we had known each other our whole lives.”
Seeking Asylum In One Of The Toughest Courts In The Nation
Even though Vargas and her sons have made it into the United States, her journey is still far from over. She is now joining the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who seek asylum in the country every year.
Data from the Department of Homeland Security says more than 307,000 immigrants applied for asylum in 2019 and around 46,000 of them were granted it. Unlike refugees, asylum seekers have already entered the United States when they apply for this status.
Soon after arriving in Charlotte, Vargas met immigration attorney Rebekah Niblock from the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. Niblock has been able to get Vargas’ children food stamps and health insurance and is now helping her apply for asylum.
Charlotte’s immigration court is considered one of the toughest in the nation. Data out of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University finds that between 2009 and 2021, more than 80% of asylum cases were denied.
But changes out of the Biden administration last month may give Vargas a better chance of receiving asylum.
One of the changes pertains to victims of sexual, domestic or gang violence. The Trump administration made it harder for these victims to qualify for asylum. But Niblock says under President Biden they are once again protected.
“It recognized victims of domestic violence who are unable to relieve their marital relationship, can seek asylum in the United States," she said. "And that will qualify based on individual fact-based analysis for a particular social group, which is one of the five grounds for asylum.”
The Biden administration also made changes that reversed a decision by the Trump administration. The change allows people to file for asylum if they were being targeted because of family ties.
Both of these decisions can help Vargas get asylum.
‘My Kids Are All I Have’: Building A Life In A New Country
Vargas has now been in North Carolina for a couple of months. At the beginning of July she gave birth to her daughter and had the bullet in her stomach removed. She has also been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. But she says from the moment she came to the U.S., she immediately felt safer.
“I felt like this was a new life," she said. "I felt like I wasn’t in danger here. I felt like my kids and I were going to be safe and no one could do anything to us. And that’s how I still feel.” \
She says she hopes to receive a work permit soon so she can get a job and begin her new life.
“I feel that this is a country with a lot of opportunities," she said. "And I have to take advantage of them so I can have a future here and so I can build a future for my children.”
She says her children are starting school in the fall and she’s happy they no longer have to fear for their safety.
“My kids are all I have. I’m alone," she said. "I only have them and they only have me.”
For now, her permit allows her to stay in the country for a year. And she’s using that time to seek asylum. If she gets it, she says she’ll pursue a teaching career and recreate that calm and peaceful life she left behind in Guatemala.