I have been visiting detainees for over five years. A month ago, I started visiting Maria A. She was petitioning for asylum and had been trying to connect with an attorney that could represent her pro bono. Maria had decided to request a hold on her deportation and wanted to stay and fight her case. Maria knew this was a long fight that could take months.
Jails are strange places to find God, but I have found over my years of conversing with detainees, that many of the women from Central America I have visited over the years, experience religious revivals while contemplating their fate. Meeting Maria has showed me the transformative power of will, faith and adaptability.
Even though she sat in a California jail for months, she always greeted me with joy and positivity, as if I had been stopping by her home in Tegucigalpa for a conversation with a dear friend. Last week she was sad, but she was in physical pain. She had gotten her tooth pulled just a couple of hours before I arrived. She had a puffy cheek packed with cotton balls and was trying to smile through the discomfort.
Maria had news to share. She shocked me when she told me, “Good news, I’m getting deported.” Following the outburst, we both laughed. Me, out of confusion at the shift in plan but mostly, at my shock for her quick adaptability to a different fate. Maria laughed at my shocked face, because she believes God is navigating her life and she does not question the whys. She told me, “I flow with his plan, like water.” Then, she explained that she had failed her credible interview and met with the judge who also rejected her case.
Maria believes that God has the final word in her life, and if she’s meant to leave then that’s good with her. She told me that prior to coming to the US, she lived a life of exhaustion. Working as a domestica hiring out her labor to families as a live-in domestic worker is just like being in this jail, she told me. “I was on call for all family needs, 24-7.” In fact, she said, “as a domestic worker I lived in a different kind of cage…..it prepared me to withstand life in a US jail.”
She told me that detainment did not make her feel trapped, “I feel blessed, ” said Maria. “In this jail, I have met the most amazing friends from all over the world and this includes you.”
Maria described why she was grateful: “Being detained in this jail has allowed me to take a break from taking care of others. I have eaten ham; the girls don’t like it, but it’s meat, and I like it. I have gotten someone else to wash my clothes, even if it’s my jail suit, and I have been given time to rest, to think about my life. I’m not young. At 53, where will I go next? On the bus to the US I got to watch the coastline and the blue ocean. I spent two months in shelters in Mexico where I met incredible people. I made friends with cooks, shelter managers and even got offered a job as an accountant assistant which was left open for me to retake at any time.”
As she mentally prepared for deportation, she told me: “It looks like I will go back to trying to survive. I don’t think I will go back to working as a domestic worker. I would rather make and sell goods on the streets, less money but more sunlight and more time to serve God.”
Maria dreams of visiting the Holy Land, she told me with teary eyes. “I also dream of finishing the building of my little house.” Before headed to the U.S. Maria had commenced the building of her own shelter. “I left two walls standing and a dirt floor.” As a widow of 53, having her own shelter is crucial.
Maria’s asylum case was denied and she was deported to Honduras. She made the journey al norte trying to reconnect with a step son she had helped raise. Maria had married a US citizen while she was working in the hotel industry in Tegucigalpa. He was originally from Tennessee, retired and moved to Tegucigalpa. Maria and her US husband lived together for 10 years and then married in Honduras. Together they raised his young son from a previous marriage and her daughter. In 2012 he suffered a heart attack and over night, she was destitute. He had paid the rent, had asked her to quit her job and focus on raising the kids. Following her husband’s death, one of his older children flew to Honduras to pick up his younger brother. Maria never saw the boy again. Since her husband’s death, she had been struggling to survive, taking odd jobs to eat and working as a domestic worker. She tried returning to the hotel industry but was told she was too old. Maria told me she came to the US because she missed the boy she helped raise. She said her husband never spoke about wills or paperwork processed on her behalf.
When she reached the US border, Maria jumped over the wall, hurt her foot, and waited to be caught. She didn’t know of any official entry points so she felt it would be safer to be on the US side of things even if detained.
Months later, Maria was deported. I was able to connect with her in Honduras. She told me that jail officials had returned her bible and her phone, but tossed out her charger and most importantly, the Mexican residency paperwork she had worked months to get. She said, “I had tucked it in my Bible, and it was gone. Why did they take it?”
Last time we spoke, Maria was starting over. She was working in a restaurant washing dishes. She asked about one of her friends still in detention: “How is Xochil? and how are you my dear friend? May God keep you blessed always.”