Maria, not her real name, had to abandon her home and business and flee El Salvador after gang members tried to extort money from her and threatened to kill her toddler son.
There is no substitute for a personal encounter with someone who is suffering due to the inhospitable laws and procedures meant to discourage people from seeking asylum here in the U.S.
Here is one such story that deserves attention.
A Salvadoran named Maria (for her safety, her real name is not revealed) migrated to California as a young woman.
Maria's mother died when Maria was a very young child, so her grandmother raised her until she left for the U.S.
When she found out her grandmother became ill, she returned to El Salvador with the intention of staying.
She left for El Salvador just after her second child was born, but a gang murdered her husband shortly thereafter.
Through a translator, Maria mentioned having issues with the gangs. In spite of all that has happened, Maria went on to buy a house and started her own business with her children at her side.
She set up a booth at the local marketplace where she could sell clothing and shoes, but the local gang approached her not long after.
They came to extort protection money, but she said, "No, I'm a single mother. I have no money to pay that."
They told her that if she did not pay what they were asking for, they were going to kill her kids.
Again, she said no, but the gang member replied, "What? Do you think we're joking?"
And she said, "No, I don't think you're joking."
Maria begins to weep when she shares what followed. They went to where her son was playing and put the barrel of a handgun inside the child's mouth.
"I had to sell everything to be able to leave. I sold everything as quickly as I could to get the money to be able to emigrate," she said. "So then, I left again to go back to the United States and I had people who were going to come pick me up when I got there, but in Arizona, they captured me. They put me in jail there. I was in jail for four months and I did not see my children the whole time while I was in there.
"When I went before the judge, they were going to give me asylum because I had the evidence that I needed to show that I had fled the violence," Maria explained. "They said they were going to give me asylum, but they were not going to let me keep my son. The United States government was going to take my son away from me."
Because the process to get asylum is six months, the social worker had to put Maria's son in foster care.
Yet, immigration authorities gave Maria a time limit of only three months to be ready to take her child back.
Maria explained, "I went back to the judge and said, 'That's it, I want to stop the whole process,' because I said, 'how can you say you're going to give me asylum but you're not going to give me my son back?' and the judge said, 'I can't do anything about that. That's a completely different problem than this.'"
Maria had to fight to regain custody of her child before leaving for El Salvador once again.
The foster parents were already in the process of becoming the custodians of her son, accusing Maria of child abandonment.
They tried to claim she beat her child and had abandoned him. Yet, when they went through Immigration, there was no evidence to suggest Maria had abused her child in any way.
A church intervened to help bring her son back to El Salvador. He is around 3 years old, quietly playing with pencils and paper while his mother continues to share with us through a translator.
"My daughter is still there [in the U.S.], and they are helping me to get her back as well. The social worker decided that she does not want her to go to an orphanage, so they put her in foster care so that she can go to school," Maria said. "She is well behaved, and she is doing really well in English. They allowed her to continue to study but she is not a U.S. citizen. My daughter was born here in El Salvador. Only my son was born in the United States."
At one time, they were going to extend temporary protected status to her daughter, but now she too is in the process of deportation.
A government immigration facility in Santa Ana, El Salvador, facilitated this interview during the week in which the Trump administration decided to terminate temporary protected status for Salvadorans in the U.S.
Maria and many others like her are victims of the increasingly harsh laws regarding refugees and undocumented immigrants.
Like the church in Maria's story, many people are hard at work in an effort to change laws and help those who are in need, but more work lies ahead in order to save lives who continue to be at risk.
Please consider what is at stake and support causes that defend the stranger among us. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
Joseph Furio is an architect by trade, currently working toward a Master of Divinity degree at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia. He remains active in the church, enjoys substitute teaching while completing his studies and looks forward to a vocation in ministry and pastoral care. You can follow him on Twitter @swpmrva.
Editor's note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the BTSR Mission Immersion Experience to El Salvador in January 2018. Previous articles in the series are:
Salvadoran Families Pay Price When Loved Ones Emigrate by Greg Smith
How the Pupusa Church Serves Town in El Salvador by Nathanael Blessington Thadikonda
A Horrific Slaughter That Must Never Be Forgotten by Cadance Tyler
How U.S. Exports Violence into Heart of El Salvador by Joseph Furio
U.S. Decision Leaves Salvadorans 'Running for Their Lives' by Sue Smith