Deisy Ramírez woke before dawn on the day of her final asylum hearing last November. She was shaky with nerves, but she got up and made a cup of tea to calm herself. Her fate was in the hands of one of the toughest immigration judges in San Francisco.
Ramírez and her lawyer had prepared three times for her to testify, but each time, the scheduled hearing was postponed due to COVID-19. Revisiting the things she had lived through was still gut-wrenching every time.
Ramírez, 24, grew up in the rural highlands of San Marcos province in Guatemala. She’s one of eight children, and she said her father often beat her mother and mistreated his daughters. When Ramírez was 14, she said, her father sold her to Ernesto and Eugenia Cinto, the owners of a bar where he often drank. It was a 30-minute walk from her home.
She was imprisoned by the family, required to cook, clean and serve the patrons of the bar without pay. She said she was forced into a sexual relationship with the couple’s 18-year-old son, Dembler Cinto, who routinely beat and raped her. He fathered her two children.
“They treated me like a slave,” she said. “I was so scared that whole time.”
“They treated me like a slave,” she said. “I was so scared that whole time.”
Ramírez is one of thousands of people pursuing protection from gender-based violence in a US asylum system that was gutted during the presidency of Donald Trump and has been only partially restored by President Joe Biden.
The Biden administration is now preparing to lift Title 42, the public health regulation that was deployed in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to expel asylum-seekers at US borders. But Biden has not yet delivered on a pledge to clarify the grounds on which people can qualify for asylum.
Over a year ago, the president promised a rule that would spell out who can be considered a member of a “particular social group,” a vague asylum category that comes from a 1951 international refugee convention. Advocates hope a new definition will cover people who’ve suffered gender-based violence, and they say the delay is putting women like Ramírez, who’ve fled persecution inflicted specifically because they are women, at risk of further violence.
In 2019, when Ramírez was 21, she managed to escape Guatemala with her children, then 3 and 5 years old.
Once she reached San Francisco, Ramírez spent six months searching for a lawyer to help her make her case in immigration court. She eventually found pro bono help from the Oakland nonprofit Centro Legal de la Raza, crucial assistance that many asylum-seekers lack.
Monica Valencia, her attorney at Centro Legal, bolstered Ramírez’s asylum application with more than 500 pages of documents, including reports on country conditions and affidavits from experts.
But as she prepared for court on that nervous morning of Nov. 17, Ramírez knew she would have to tell her story out loud and ask for protection from Judge Joseph Park.
Park was appointed to the bench in 2017 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In his first three years as a judge, Park denied nearly 87% of the asylum cases that came before him, far more than the 67% average denial rate nationally.
Under US asylum law, Ramírez would have to convince Park that she had a well-founded fear of persecution in Guatemala based on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group — and she’d have to show that her government was responsible or had failed to protect her.
Valencia submitted expert testimony in Ramírez’s case showing that domestic violence, rape, femicide and forced marriage, including parents selling their daughters into early marriage, are common in Guatemala and treated with impunity.
She based the case, in part, on a ruling, known as Matter of ARCG, that recognized Guatemalan women fleeing domestic violence as members of a particular social group with grounds to pursue asylum. But that argument ran counter to the way asylum law was interpreted during the Trump presidency.
In 2018, Sessions vacated that standard and ruled that domestic violence, and other “private criminal activity,” was not generally grounds for asylum. A group of retired immigration judges called the Sessions ruling “an affront to the rule of law.” Scholars say it bucked more than three decades of US and international refugee law that recognizes victims of gender-based violence as eligible for protection.
“It used to be thought that things that happen to people in the privacy of their homes weren’t of concern to human rights,” said Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of the Law. “So, women could be burned to death, beaten and killed.”
“The idea of refugee protection is that the international community protects people when their government fails them.”
But since the 1980s, the understanding of human rights has evolved to recognize that “women’s rights are human rights and governments have the responsibility to protect the human rights of their citizens,” Musalo said.
“The idea of refugee protection is that the international community protects people when their government fails them,” she added.
In June, Merrick Garland, Biden’s attorney general, reversed Sessions’s decisions on domestic violence. And over the past year, immigration judges, including Park, have begun approving a larger share of asylum claims.
Still, asylum rulings remain vulnerable to the political leanings of future administrations. That’s because the immigration courts lack independence from the Department of Justice, and because the asylum category of a “particular social group” is poorly defined.
In his second week in office, Biden issued an executive order promising to review — within six months — whether US protections for people fleeing domestic or gang violence are “consistent with international standards.” The order also promised a new rule — within nine months — to define “particular social group.”
But more than a year later, the review and the rule are nowhere in sight, and asylum-seekers like Deisy Ramírez face a murky situation in immigration court, as judges tackle a backlog of cases made worse by the pandemic.
The delay in defining the grounds for asylum, like Biden’s delay in lifting Title 42 at the border, reflects a tension between those in the administration who want to stake out humanitarian positions, and those who fear that rolling back restrictive Trump-era policies could hurt Democrats in the midterm Congressional elections, Musalo said.
“There’s controversy and conflict between different positions within the administration,” said Musalo. “As we’ve seen from other immigration-related decisions in this administration, there have been opposing viewpoints.”
Reliving trauma in court
As Ramírez prepared for her day in court, she was not following these legal and political ins and outs. She just knew that she and her children had endured horrors in Guatemala and they had fled to the US in search of safety.
“It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made,” she said. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do if they find me? They’re going to kill me, and they could kill the children, they could hurt them, they could sell them.’”
On the morning of her hearing, Ramírez put on a long, flowered skirt, combed out her waist-length brown hair and got a ride to the courthouse in downtown San Francisco. She passed through the metal detector, and took the elevator to the fourth floor. The courtroom was empty except for two lawyers and a paralegal from her legal team. Ramírez also had allowed KQED reporter Tyche Hendricks to attend this sensitive hearing that would change her life.
A clerk turned on a video link that would connect the judge and the court interpreter, and he dialed the phone line for the ICE prosecutor. Then he walked back down the empty hall to his office.
The brown wood paneling of the courtroom walls was scratched and scuffed. On the back of one of the wooden benches for spectators, someone had carved the words “love” and “happy.”
Park appeared on a large video monitor and explained the proceedings. His voice was distorted, as if he were speaking from the bottom of a swimming pool, but when the interpreter repeated his words in Spanish, her voice was clear.
Over the next hour and a half, Valencia led Ramírez through her harrowing testimony.
“Why do you believe your father sold you to the Cinto family?” asked Valencia.
“My father told me we, as women, were worthless,” Ramírez replied. “And we belonged to him like his property.”
“Are you married to Dembler Cinto?” asked Valencia.
“No. When I was 14 years old, I was forced to be with him,” said Ramírez. “His parents told me, when my father dropped me off, that I would be his woman.”
“What kind of words did he use when he abused you?” asked Valencia.
“He said that women were born to serve men,” Ramírez answered, her voice cracking. “He said I was [a] whore and that I was his slave.”
“Were there ever physical markings on your body?” the lawyer asked.
“Yes, every time he hurt me I had bruises on my legs and arms, on my waist and my face,” Ramírez replied. “My nose and mouth would bleed.”
Ramírez described years of forced servitude, degrading language and regular beatings and rapes. She said she was required to wear skimpy clothing when working in the bar, where men would grope her body. A few times, she said, police officers came and drank at the bar.
“They could see I was a 14-year-old child who was bruised,” Ramírez said. “And they never tried to help.”
Besides, she had never seen police aid battered women. When Ramírez still lived at home, she said her mother had gone to the police after being beaten bloody by her father, but officers said it was a domestic matter and wouldn’t intervene, just as they ignored other neighborhood women who suffered abuse.
Ramírez said she was typically locked in the house and Dembler Cinto threatened that if she ever told anyone about her treatment or tried to leave, he would kill her and harm the children.
“I didn’t want [my children] to suffer as I had, because it scars you, really, for life. ”
Recounting the traumatic experiences was grueling. To help her stay steady, Ramírez told me later, Valencia had taught her breathing exercises.
“She always ended our conversations with an exercise so that I knew I was in a safe place,” said Ramírez. “Her words helped me so much.”
“They’re grounding techniques for coming back to your body,” said Valencia, who practices meditation.
Ramírez said the practice helped her summon the courage to tell her story in court. But she had found her greatest courage three years earlier when she made her escape from the Cinto family.
It was the kids, Stefany and Alexis, who gave her the strength to break free, she said. As they grew from babies into children, their father became increasingly abusive, whipping them with a belt.
“It was really difficult to see how he hit them, how he spoke to them,” she said. “I didn’t want them to suffer as I had, because it scars you, really, for life. ”
As her children were getting bigger, Ramírez, too, was growing from a teenager into a woman. One morning she saw her chance and took it.
“I told myself, ‘It’s today. If I don’t try today, then when?’”
“I told myself, ‘It’s today. If I don’t try today, then when?’” she said.
That February day in 2019, she said Dembler Cinto and his father were out buying liquor to restock the bar and his mother was grocery shopping. With a rare hour alone, Ramírez said she took a wad of Dembler’s cash, grabbed the children and flagged down a pickup truck that had a daily route driving villagers to the bigger town of Coatepeque about 40 minutes away.
“From there, my idea was, get to Mexico. Because if I stay in Guatemala, they’ll find me more quickly,” she told me.
At first, Ramírez was too fearful to speak to people. She knocked on doors, offering to do laundry in exchange for food or money. Sometimes she and the kids slept in bus stations under one blanket. But they also met kind strangers who helped, and Ramírez said she learned there were people she could trust.
Ramírez bought a cellphone and called her mother. It was the first time they had spoken in years, and she learned that several of her siblings had moved to San Francisco, escaping the violence back home as soon as they could leave.
“My mom gave me my sister’s number because she knew I needed help,” she said.
So Ramírez set out for the US-Mexico border, and when she got there she gave her sister’s phone number to border officials.
“My sister told them she had a room where my kids and I could stay. It was like it fell from the sky, because I really had no idea what I would do,” said Ramírez. “But she opened her doors to us. And then she helped me find work and start to get stable.”
As the asylum hearing concluded, Valencia narrowed in on a few final points crucial to proving her case before the judge.
“Did you ever ask for help?” she asked.
“No,” Ramírez said. “I was afraid if I went home, my dad would take me back to the Cinto family. He said they were my owners.”
Ramírez explained she had no basis to trust that local authorities would protect her, and she didn’t believe she could be safe anywhere in Guatemala.
“Women in Guatemala are treated badly,” Ramírez said.
To Valencia’s surprise, ICE prosecutor Juliet Boss said she wouldn’t cross-examine Ramírez.
“She’s covered everything,” Boss told the judge.
She said that if Ramírez won her case, the government would not appeal. That lined up with Biden administration guidance last year telling ICE attorneys to use their discretion on whom to prosecute, but it was not what the Centro Legal team expected from the usually aggressive ICE prosecutors.
Then it was the judge’s turn. Ramírez and her lawyers gazed at the video monitor where Park sat in his black robe. Of the 40 judges on the San Francisco bench, they knew he was one of the least likely to grant asylum. If Ramírez lost, she could be deported.
“Ma’am, we’ve heard your testimony,” Park said. “The court has determined that you are eligible and deserve asylum at the court’s discretion. So, you and your children will be asylees in the United States.”
After a thank-you from Ramírez and a few formalities, the video feed clicked off. Ramírez and her lawyers were left alone in the courtroom. They stood up and hugged each other. Everyone cried.
“Gracias, gracias, gracias,” thanked Ramírez. “You are really special people.”
The women collected their jackets and files and walked past the security guards and out onto the street. As they headed for a nearby Peet’s coffee shop to celebrate, they began to chatter.
“I was nervous about this judge,” said Valencia. “Deisy’s case is the strongest asylum case I’ve ever argued, but he has a reputation for being tough.”
She added, “I’ve never had an ICE prosecutor decline to cross-examine.”
At the counter, Ramírez ordered a hot chocolate with whipped cream.
It was the third asylum case the Centro Legal team had won in just four days, said Valencia’s colleague, Abby Sullivan Engen, and likely the result of the Biden administration’s more generous interpretations of asylum law.
A few weeks later, another client — also a woman fleeing gender-based violence in Guatemala — won asylum from an equally tough San Francisco immigration judge.
Iris Diéguez testified she had been married to a Guatemalan police officer who raped and threatened her and that, when she got a restraining order, his fellow officers refused to enforce it.
Judge Julie Nelson acknowledged that Diéguez must have felt frustrated, since she’d been waiting for her day in court since 2013.
“But,” she told Engen, “it may work in her favor, given changes in the law.”
As the hearing concluded, Nelson explained her reasoning to Diéguez.
“You have argued that you were harmed because you were part of the social group of Guatemalan women … I do find this is a recognizable particular social group, based on the law,” she said. “And I do find that you testified in a credible manner that [your husband] and others treated you the way they did because of their animus toward Guatemalan women and you as a Guatemalan woman.”
Then Nelson granted asylum to Diéguez and her daughter.
Ramírez and Diéguez now have the security of knowing they can live permanently in the United States. But advocates say too many asylum-seekers are left guessing about their chances for protection, because the Biden administration hasn’t issued the rule promised in February 2021 to clarify the grounds for asylum based on belonging to a “particular social group.”
“I think it will be more clear for applicants and it will be more clear for adjudicators,” said Musalo. “It will make things run more smoothly.”
A better life in San Francisco
Now that she has asylum — and soon, a green card, establishing her as a permanent US resident — Ramírez can take stock of the new life she’s building for her family.
I met up with her a few days after the asylum hearing at her home in San Francisco’s Bayview district, and we headed for a nearby park.
As we walked down the street in the late autumn sunshine, Stefany and Alexis, now 8 and 6, skipped ahead. The kids stopped to marvel at a procession of ants climbing a tree trunk, then took off running when we reached the playground.
“They’re inseparable,” Ramírez said. “I don’t know if it’s because of what they’ve been through, but they do everything together.”
As she walked, Ramírez pushed a stroller. Her kids now have a baby sister, Irma. We settled on a park bench, and she bounced the baby on her lap and told me how she had met Irma’s father.
In San Francisco, Ramírez started attending her sister’s church. There she met other Guatemalans, including Cristian Aguilar, a young man who had once been a childhood playmate in her village of San José Chibuj. Ramírez said Aguilar became a trusted friend. In time, their bond grew into love and they married.
“At first it was really difficult,” she said. “But he always gave me a sense of security. And he’s great with my kids. They feel so comfortable with him.”
Aguilar works as a medical courier, driving blood between hospitals and clinics. The cost of living in San Francisco is high, but they manage by sharing the four-bedroom townhouse with his parents and siblings, making it a household of 10.
They hope to have a place of their own one day, and Ramírez, who studied only through seventh grade in Guatemala, eventually hopes to go back to school and find a good job. She knows that in this country it’s hard to support a family on one income.
For now, though, Ramírez is focused on healing. She’s seen a psychologist, and she’s building relationships with her siblings and her mother, who she said is still suffering abuse back home. Ramírez hasn’t spoken to her father, so she may never know why he sold her to the Cintos. Maybe it was a way to cover his bar tab, she said. She just wants to put it behind her.
The most important thing for Ramírez is the well-being of her children — and she knows that’s connected to her own status as a woman.
“Here in the United States, women are free, they’re equal, they can do anything,” she said. “I have opportunities here that would be impossible in Guatemala. And my daughter, my children, will be safe here.”
She takes them to the playground almost every day.
“I want their minds to be peaceful so they can enjoy their childhood,” she said. “Because you’re only a child once in your life. And I believe they deserve to be happy.”
An earlier version of this story appeared on KQED.