CINCINNATI -- Fabiola Gomez and Sofia (for her protection, not her real name) have never met. But the two single mothers with one toddler each have a lot in common.
Both young women, who are from Honduras and Mexico, respectively, have endured violence, poverty, hardship and bloodshed.
Both recently fled their native countries to seek political asylum in the United States.
Both are being helped by Su Casa Hispanic Center, an offshoot of Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio, a Roselawn-based agency that seeks to offer undocumented Hispanics a better quality of life.
Su Casa considers them to be the poorest and the most vulnerable group of immigrants.
“In the past two years, we have been seeing a trend of young mothers with very small babies fleeing Central America and Mexico. They face danger and risk death to cross the borders,” said Kelly A. Anchrum, director of marketing and communications for Catholic Charities.
The agency has helped 119 unaccompanied minors and 62 mothers with children this past year. It offers the asylum seekers food, clothing, transportation and support. Volunteers drive them to court hearings in Cleveland, Columbus and even Chicago, which has jurisdiction over Ohio cases. There are no asylum hearings in Cincinnati.
About 57 of them got referrals to attorneys. Fifty-one have cases pending, and six have been granted asylum and put on the path toward getting a green card and citizenship.
“For me, personally, it’s an eye-opener to hear stories of people who face so much poverty, hardship and challenges. I wanted to work with an organization that changes lives, and we do that daily,” said Anchrum. “They are not that much different from us. They want the same things we want: better lives, security and opportunities for themselves and their children.”
Su Casa’s only caseworker, Margaret Singer, who is bilingual, has seen her workload double. So Su Casa is looking to hire another bilingual caseworker and a full-time immigration attorney.
It’s not just the legal files and the advice that overwhelms Singer. The work takes an emotional toll, too.
“It’s really sad to hear such terrible stories. The women face poverty, violence, hopelessness and despair. Some days, I just go home and cry,” said Singer, who spends her days documenting the stories the young mothers tell her.
Singer said she believes that these two young mothers, both 21, have the best shot at being granted asylum. Sofia's mother has been in Cincinnati for 14 years as an undocumented immigrant and also received assistance from Su Casa.
It can take anywhere from five to eight years to get asylum, then a green card and eventually citizenship. After the initial request for asylum is granted, the petitioners receive a work authorization valid for one year. Then they can apply for a green card.
Both Fabiola and Sofia are defiantly brave. They said the factors that propelled them to seek sanctuary are fear for their lives and a desire to protect their children. They dream of having fulfilling careers and peaceful lives.
While members of Fabiola's family were threatened, attacked and killed by Mara 13, the international crime gang with a vicious branch in Honduras, Sofia’s family was killed by gang members affiliated with a drug cartel. The father of Sofia's baby was killed, and shots were fired at her younger brother, Juan (also not his real name).
Both had no doubt that they would be killed, and both agreed to take uncertain and dangerous journeys to reach the United States. Currently, the women wear ankle monitors while awaiting initial court hearings.
Singer says their stories echo the experiences of many before them. Asylum seekers move through a circuit of jails and detention centers before they are interviewed by immigration officers, whose job is to determine whether they have a “credible fear” of persecution in their native countries.
This analysis helps the judge to decide whether to suspend cases or proceed with deportation. There is universal agreement that a good attorney can be of assistance, but not every asylum seeker has access to one.
Honduras is one of the poorest and most violent countries in Latin America, and gang violence flourishes, while Mexicans cartels are known to kill residents who do not wish to become accomplices.
And while immigration officials acknowledge that violence exists in the countries from which asylum seekers flee, they expect law enforcement in those countries to protect their citizens. They ask applicants to support their cases with evidence such as police reports, court files and other documents.
However, officials can and often do deny requests for asylum in cases where a suspect has been arrested. Yet in some cases, applicants point out that the alleged offender has been released on bail, meaning their lives are still in danger.
A Citizenship & Immigration Services report for July 2015 shows that 7,436 new asylum applications were filed for that month nationwide. To date, 98,840 of cases remain pending and unresolved.
There were 483 asylum cases which were referred to their Chicago office, of which 12 percent involved asylum seekers from Mexico and 6 percent from Honduras.
Natalie Fairalbright, a Cincinnati retiree who has worked with Su Casa in the past and was the director of the International Center of Greater Cincinnati, spent her career connecting immigrants with services and referrals.
And even though the International Center no longer has office space, Fairalbright continues to give out advice and referrals. She says 50 percent of asylum seekers are Mexicans, 25 percent are Latinos from Central America and 25 percent are from Africa and Asia.
In addition, she said, there are large numbers of undocumented immigrants from Canada and Great Britain, but because they are white, they blend in easily.
“I believe that honest, hardworking people...should be allowed to stay. We are historically a country of immigrants, and it's unrealistic to think that we can keep people out,” Fairalbright said. “Even the Berlin Wall didn’t stop people, and America has extremely porous borders with oceans.”