A 27-year-old Guatemalan woman who experienced years of sexual assaults because of her light skin is facing her final hearing at winning her asylum case and staying in the country with her daughters, who are US citizens.
The woman, who asked to be identified only by her initials, JGCA, said she's faced an uphill and unfair battle in the nation's immigration court system since she entered the country in 2007 when she was 16. She fears going back because of the years of sexual assaults she endured at the hands of family members in Guatemala.
The woman grew up speaking Jacaltec, an indigenous language common in the small town of Concepción Huista in the department of Huehuetenango in Guatemala. Today she speaks rudimentary Spanish and is in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention.
"It's difficult being locked up and speaking with my daughters who always ask me the same question: 'When are you coming back home?'" JGCA told BuzzFeed News. "I don't know what to say to them."
Her attorney, Allison Boyle, said that at multiple points in her client's case she was denied translations in the language she was fluent in, was denied due process rights, and when she had an attorney, they proved to be ineffective, making it so JGCA never had a chance.
"It's an extreme case and a perfect example of an unjust system," Boyle told BuzzFeed News.
Official census figures estimate that 45% of Guatemala's population is indigenous, but other studies put the figure at 60%, or close to 6 million people. Despite their large numbers, indigenous people face discrimination and violence that only worsens for women in rural areas.
JGCA said that if she had to pinpoint the moment where her case took a turn, it was September 2008. She was 17 years old, pregnant by her husband, and didn't understand Spanish or English.
She'd been caught trying to enter the US illegally the year before and was released into the custody of her sister, who lived in Georgia. JGCA walked into her first court hearing alone; her brother-in-law, who took her there, feared going into the building because he lacked legal status.
JGCA said she didn't understand what was happening around her because the entire hearing was conducted in Spanish, not Jacaltec. She only understood when someone asked her what her name was or where she lived. Beyond that, nothing made sense.
According to a court document Boyle filed on JGCA's behalf, attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security told her to "sign here" on a document that was written in Spanish.
JGCA did, not knowing that she had just signed a voluntary deportation order. The immigration judge in Georgia told her she had 120 days to leave the US. She also didn't understand that.
She remained in the United States past the 120 days, unaware that her voluntary removal had turned into a deportation order.
Some 10 years later, she had two US citizen daughters and was living in Alabama. That was when she was arrested by ICE agents in July 2017 and sent to a detention center in Jena, Louisiana.
Boyle said JGCA hired an attorney, but the lawyer failed to ask the government to give JGCA an asylum interview after her arrest. JGCA was deported on Aug. 23, 2017, back to the town she left behind as a teenager, where she hardly knew anyone outside her family or the area outside her town.
She also was now living in the place where she'd endured years of sexual assaults that started when she was 7. Her assailants were two cousins who would undress her and penetrate her with their fingers. During the assaults, the cousins, who were adults, complimented her light skin and eyes.
Rape attempts, threats, and assaults at the hands of family would continue for years. Boyle said her light skin was the reason that she was sexually assaulted. In 2014, Planned Parenthood reported that in four out of five cases of the more than 5,000 pregnancies of girls under 14 In Guatemala, the father was a close relative.
In court documents, JGCA said she never told her siblings, mother, or the police about the sexual assaults out of fear that her father would find out and not believe her. JGCA said she couldn't stay in her country because of continued harassment, and she tried to cross the border near Laredo, Texas, in May.
She was apprehended by border agents and was eventually sent to the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas. She told immigration authorities she feared returning to Guatemala. Nearly two months later, the Houston asylum office conducted two credible fear interviews.
Both interviews were conducted in Spanish, which she still does not speak fluently. JGCA said she was too intimidated to request the credible fear interview be conducted in Jacaltec.
"I speak Spanish, but there are things I can't say," JGCA said. "When I speak in my dialect to say words I can't say in Spanish, there are things other people don't understand."
The International Encyclopedia of Linguistics said there are about 77,700 Jacaltec speakers in Guatemala. The problem of indigenous languages extend beyond JGCA's case. The fathers of the two children who died recently in Customs and Border Protection custody also speak indigenous languages.
The process has also been difficult for her two daughters, who are US citizens and speak to their mother in Jacaltec. In a letter intended for the court, her oldest daughter, Nuria Ramirez, writes in English that she feels empty inside and thinks about suicide.
"Sometimes I feel like killing myself," the 10-year-old wrote. "I know it's not right but that's what I feel like doing. I feel that because I don't want to live like this."
JGCA said it's also been hard not being able to tell her daughters when, if ever, she will be reunited with them. She recently sent two large envelopes with drawings she made to her daughters.
"When you're locked up, people on the outside tell you to be patient, but they don't know what it's like," JGCA said. "Knowing that my daughters are not okay has taken a toll on me."
Katy Murdza, advocacy coordinator for the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which works with immigrants at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, said they've seen a lot of people who speak indigenous languages not get their credible fear interviews, a crucial first step in the asylum process, in their first language.
About 10% of the people they work with speak an indigenous language, generally a Mayan one from Guatemala, Murdza said. Sergio Romero, a linguist at the University of Texas, Austin, told the HuffPost that in Guatemala alone, Mayans speak at least 23 different languages.
In some cases, the interviews are done in Spanish because the asylum-seeker understands a little and doesn't feel empowered enough to demand it be done in their preferred language, Murdza said. In order to pass their credible fear interviews and move ahead in the process, immigrants need to show a “significant possibility” that they will be able to convince an immigration judge they’ve been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” if they return home.
Asylum-seekers in these situations fear that asking for more can negatively affect their immigration cases, Murdza said.
"We have seen people receive negative credible fear determinations when they did qualify for asylum because of poor interpretation," Murdza told BuzzFeed News. "This can be a life-or-death mistake."
People are also frequently asked to sign paperwork in a language they don’t understand, either English or Spanish, Murdza said, adding that they've seen immigration officials many times sign the paperwork saying they had read the document to the person in a Mayan language when they had not done so.
Boyle, JGCA's attorney, said she's hoping that by filing court documents pointing out all the procedural defects in her client's immigration case, she will now have a fair shot at staying in the US under withholding of removal, a type of asylum, or protection under the Convention Against Torture. Her final hearing on both forms of relief is slated for Jan. 10.
Still, Boyle admits that it will be a difficult case to win because the standards of persecution JGCA has to meet to stay in the US are now much higher as a result of her previous deportation.
"It's important because my greatest desire as an attorney is for everybody to be given a fair process, at least a chance to fight," Boyle said. "And if they lose, that they at least lose with dignity, and in this case, that never happened and it blows my mind that our system allowed this sort of thing to happen."