Lilian Oliva slit her wrists in the bathroom of a Texas immigrant detention center last summer. She had been locked up there for eight months, along with her four-year-old son, and the US government was preparing to send them to Honduras. She had lost her asylum case.
"I came here so this country can help me but here you've been killing me little by little with prison and lies when I haven't committed any crime," Oliva wrote in a suicide note. "I do this because I feel I'll have no life if I go back to my country."
Oliva survived the suicide attempt. But within days, immigration officials deported the 19-year-old mother and her child to San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
"I didn't know what to do when I lost the court case. I had been depressed but always had hope, but then I knew if we returned to Honduras my baby's father would follow us," Oliva told VICE News this week from her temporary residence in a European country she would rather not disclose. "Since I was 13 he abused me, he grabbed my hair, hit me and threatened me…He was connected to the gangs, and I knew they'd kill us."
In San Pedro Sula — a city consistently ranked as having the world's highest or second-highest murder rate — they hid out with her aunt for four months, barely leaving the house out of terror. They were able to flee Europe thanks to her US pro bono immigration attorney, who helped pay for the plane tickets and accommodation.
Now, in an unprecedented turn, the US government is allowing the Olivas to return to the country to fight for asylum once again, on the grounds that they did not receive adequate legal representation. They are the first Central American family to be given such an opportunity after deportation, and Oliva's attorney says many more families could qualify.
"This is significant as it is representative of hundreds of other women and children who have been deported without a fair hearing, whether due to not having a lawyer or having an ineffective lawyer," the attorney, Bryan Johnson, said. Johnson filed a motion to reopen Oliva's case, which the Board of Immigration Appeals accepted, and the Department of Homeland Security then granted Oliva parole last Thursday to enter the US, while she awaits her court date.
"The Board of Immigration Appeals has reopened the case regarding Lillian Jamileth Olivia [sic] Bardales, from Honduras. Therefore, ICE intends to parole her back into the United States so she can attend her immigration hearing," Carl Rusnok, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman, said in an email.
Oliva's case is part of the US government's gradual recognition that the thousands of recent Central American arrivals aren't just economic migrants, but refugees fleeing some of the world's deadliest countries. A record number of women and children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have poured across the southern border since 2014, fleeing warlike levels of gang violence and seeking asylum in the States. The US has detained and deported tens of thousands of them as undocumented immigrants.
Now, in a significant move, the State Department is preparing to screen asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala in their home countries, with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the program in January, and the State Department said it expected to "begin accepting referrals soon."
"The program is designed to provide protection for vulnerable individuals and families facing persecution and violence, and to help prevent these vulnerable populations from embarking on an arduous and dangerous journey to seek safety," the State Department said in an email. "The average processing time for resettlement of all refugees from all over the world is 18-24 months, though we are working to lower this timeframe without compromising security checks or other requirements."
The official did not disclose how many people would be accepted and would not comment on the program's specific start date, but immigration advocates familiar with the program said the UN had already begun screening candidates in the Northern Triangle countries, and would refer successful candidates to the State Department.
"The UNHCR has identified a pool of individuals for the government to interview," Greg Chen, Director of Advocacy with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said. "We think it's a positive step that the Obama administration is beginning screening refugees in Central American countries."
Tom Jawetz, Vice President of Immigration Policy with the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy organization, also praised the development, calling the program "a paradigm shift" in the way the US treats Central American arrivals.
"For the last two years the administration has been sending mixed messages about the influx. In the same statements that acknowledge people are fleeing violence the government is trying to tell people to stop coming," Jawetz said. "I'm hopeful that in working with the UN the administration will begin focusing on helping this population."
But the government's recognition of Central American asylum seekers is not immune from continued contradictions, advocates said. Just last week, US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced the latest wave of raids, called "Operation Border Guardian," in which ICE agents target unaccompanied minors for deportation.
"At my direction, beginning January 23 ICE has been conducting 'Operation Border Guardian,' by which ICE has taken into custody 336 individuals. The focus of this operation are those who came here illegally as children since January 1, 2014, and are now 18," Johnson said in a statement on March 9. He also said that ICE had deported 28,808 people to Central America since October.
"We will continue to enforce the immigration laws and secure our borders consistent with our laws and values," Johnson continued. "At the same time, we will offer vulnerable populations in Central America an alternate, safe and legal path."
Chen said the government's ongoing deportation raids, detention of immigrant families, and statements about border security were a glaring contradiction of its pledge to help refugees from the Northern Triangle.
"If they're really going to live up to the obligations of US asylum law to provide humanitarian protection for Central Americans, they can't continue the aggressive strategies like raids, detention, and fast-track deportations that deny asylum seekers the right to humanitarian relief," Chen said.
ICE did not respond to requests for comment about Oliva's case or about Operation Border Guardian.
Melanie Nezer, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy for the international refugee aid organization HIAS, doubted the potential of the new resettlement program to offer a meaningful alternative for families escaping life-threatening conditions. And Oliva's story, she said, pointed to the difficulty for asylum seekers to represent their cases.
"You can see in this case the real question is about whether they're getting due process. Refugee processing is a nice gesture…but what really we need to do is to ensure that there is due process for people coming here," Nezer said. "If our government is now acknowledging a refugee-producing situation we should make sure these people are protected."
Nezer noted that the State Department had already launched an in-country resettlement program for Central American minors, but that just a nominal amount of youths had been admitted through the initiative.
"I'm skeptical that a program like this is going to make enough of a difference," she said.
The State Department official responded that 135 youths had been admitted through the program, which launched in December 2014. He explained that most applications had been received in the last six months, and that the resettlement process takes about two years.
But for now Oliva rejoices that she and her child, at least, will have the chance to enter the country.
They treated us like criminals. They didn't listen to us, when we really needed it," Oliva said. "But of course I want to go back. I feel happy now."