Maria C. doesn't know where she faces a greater risk of violence—Mexico or the US.
When Maria first arrived in the US 15 years ago, her relationship with her husband was going well. She fled from Mexico with him "to find a better life," after suffering decades of physical violence for much of her childhood and adolescent years. At the age of eight, she was kidnapped by her abusers, who were narcotraffickers, and unknown to her family. Though she was later released, the abusers told her they would kill her father if she told anyone about her ordeal.
But over the years, her husband grew physically abusive. He would lash out and hit her, and verbally torture her on a daily basis. When she became pregnant with their first child, she said she didn't recognize her husband anymore.
"When my son was born, our relationship grew sour. He wanted me to work but I didn't have any family there and I didn't want to leave the child alone. I wanted to take of our child."
Maria separated from him in 2013. Though they were separated, he would visit the children, but still disappeared for prolonged periods of time with no word. Then, in June 2015, their relationship took a turn for the worse: Following a heated fight, her estranged partner called immigration authorities to have her deported.
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She'd always worried she may one day be deported from the US—but she didn't expect the man she once loved to be the one to alert the police to her non-legal status. She was sent to an immigration detention center in Northern California. For 1.5 years she sat behind bars in detention, separated from her two children, aged 12 and 14. The children lived with their father in Salinas, California.
Maria had escaped violence at home in Mexico, her home in the US—and then once more, inside a detention center.
According to Maria, another inmate had sexually abused and harassed her between August to December 2016. Maria couldn't do anything: There was nowhere to go, and she constantly feared for her safety. Speaking from a payphone inside the center in April, Maria said: "[Abuse] is a fear I've had all my life. I wanted to cry and I couldn't, I wanted to run and I couldn't. All I could feel was helpless."
In April, CIVIC filed a federal complaint to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detailing reports of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment in immigration detention facilities. It called for a federal investigation into the reports, which they described as "disturbing." The DHS released a response to the complaint, saying they would review the report, but believed it was "grossly inaccurate," and they are "firmly committed to providing for the safety and welfare of all those in its custody."
The violence inflicted against vulnerable women from Central American countries is being reproduced inside the US borders, CIVIC says. It found 1,016 complaints of sexual abuse filed by people in immigration detention between May 2014 and July 2016, the equivalent to more than one complaint per day. Of those complaints, only 24 were investigated. They expect the number may be higher too, as rape and sexual assault are known to be highly underreported in immigration detention facilities due to fears of retaliation and social isolation.
There was hope for Maria. Following a crowdfunding effort, campaigners raised the bail money needed for her to be released. The 40-year-old mother of two walked free from the detention center on Friday. Maria wept on release, and went immediately to see her two children, whom she was only able to see a handful of times while in detention.
Still, she remains at great risk of deportation at any time. And what awaits women when they're deported back to Central America offers little hope that a future without violence exists.
"When women are deported, we know that they return to the same reality that they once fled from," said Tamara Medina, the program officer on femicide research for Amnesty International in Mexico. Medina and her team interview women who have been victims of sexual violence by the state, as well as those on migration routes. In their research on gender violence, they've noticed a pattern emerge: It's widespread, exists in all corners of society, and is rarely taken seriously by both communities and authorities.
"Violence against women here is structural, and there is a complete immunity for the perpetrators," she added. "Domestic violence, for example, is often seen as something women must endure from their husbands as a right."
Amnesty International says gender violence in Central America has ignited a refugee crisis of women. Between November 2016 and March 2017, Mexico saw a staggering 150 percent increase in asylum requests, 90 percent of which, the human rights organization say, were people from Central America.
It is unclear whether the Trump administration's anti-immigrant rhetoric played a role in shifting the decline in applications. However, Amnesty International has noticed a significant increase of visa applications from women in Central America attempting to escape violence from the "Northern Triangle," comprising of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, countries which have some of the highest rates of murder and femicide in the world. In 2015, US authorities interviewed women seeking refuge from these countries in Central America. Of the 16,077 women, 82 percent were found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture and were granted permission to pursue their asylum claims in the US.
"When people hear about migration today, they think of Europe—they do not think of here," Medina added. "But what's happening here is, women are no longer looking to reach the US to achieve the American dream. Instead, they're escaping the violent nightmare in Central America."
Though Maria wants to remain in the US with her children, her future rests on being granted U visa, a visa for victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and are willing to support the government in and law in prosecuting the perpetrator. She doesn't know if she'll be allowed to stay. And if she's returned home, she doesn't know if she'll face the same level of abuse that's followed her her entire life.
Still, she remains hopeful. While in detention, she turned to religion, and found faith in the Church. She's excited to spend time with her children, and glad she'll no longer be missing her daughter's school graduation this month. "I'm always trying to become a better person, for myself and for my children," Maria says about her future. "I only want to be with them."
Update: An earlier version of this article included identifying details of Maria C's case, which Maria and her lawyers have requested to have removed.