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“I Am Raising My Voice”: Guatemalan Mother in Sanctuary in NYC Accuses Border Patrol of Sexual Abuse

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We turn now to a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive interview with a Guatemalan woman named Aura Hernández, who has taken sanctuary in the Fourth Universalist Society of New York, the Unitarian church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to avoid her deportation to Guatemala. She has been living in the United States for 13 years. She’s the mother of two U.S.-born children: 10-year-old Victor Daniel and 14-month-old Camila Guadalupe. She entered sanctuary a few weeks ago to keep her family united as she continues to fight her immigration case. She says that in 2005, when she first entered the United States, she was sexually abused while detained by the Border Patrol in Texas. She says the officer who abused her then threatened to come find her if she ever went public about the abuse. She has fought for years, quietly, to obtain a U visa as a result of the alleged sexual abuse. U visas are for the victims of certain crimes who cooperate with law enforcement. She says that despite her cooperation with authorities, the Department of Homeland Security has refused to certify her U visa, meaning she has not yet been able to obtain protections to stay in the country. The Customs and Border Protection agency declined to comment. After being forced to take sanctuary to avoid her deportation, she is now breaking her silence. On Tuesday night, Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and Laura Gottesdiener sat down with Aura Hernández for her first-ever television interview.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We then sat down with Aura Hernández, the Guatemalan mother who’s taken sanctuary in the church. She was holding her baby Camila as she slept. Democracy Now!’s Laura Gottesdiener and I conducted this first broadcast interview she has done, and I began by asking Aura how she knows that ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is trying to deport her.

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] Before, I was in check-in at immigration, and at immigration they told me that in 30 days I had to go back to my country. And so I decided to confront the situation. That’s why I know that I have to not hide myself, not hide myself, but protect myself, protect my family and my children.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Aura, could you tell us a little bit about your family, about your two children? I can see Camila there sleeping in your lap. Can you tell us about your children that you’re here to protect?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] Yes, my first child, Daniel, and my daughter, Camila, we’re here. Well, it’s quite difficult for me. I have a child who is 10 years old and who knows that his mother is going through this situation. It’s not easy for him. And my daughter can’t speak yet, but she feels that anguish that I feel, of not knowing what’s going to happen to us, and the fear of saying, “I can’t go up to the window because I’m scared to see. Maybe they’re going to be having me under surveillance. Maybe they’re checking on me to see how I might be careless. I might step out of the church, and then they can arrest me.”

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where you came from, when you came to this country, how long you have lived here?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] OK. I am from Guatemala. I came here in 2005. And I came fleeing from my country because of domestic violence. And I decided to come to this country to protect myself. I entered this country in 2005, and I practically didn’t want to come. I was forced to come here.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was that journey like for you? What happened when you came over the border?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] I crossed the border, as I told you, in July. I took 22 days to travel from Guatemala to the border of Mexico and the United States. And I entered in Texas, Harlingen, Texas. Somebody took me across on a raft. I crossed the river. Then I walked about a kilometer, and I was detained by the Border Patrol. They detained me, and they took me to a detention center. At the detention center, well, I was there for three days. Those days I had extremely bad experiences there. They treat me worse than an animal there. It is so cold, it burns. So, now, I don’t want my children to go through that. I don’t want to go back. I want to have my family with me and protect them as best I can.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Aura, can you tell us a little bit more about the conditions inside the detention center? How were you treated? And how did you feel about that treatment?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] I am going to speak out to protect my family. And what I’m going to tell you right now is very difficult for me, but I have to tell you. I’m going to say this, because I don’t want to stay silent, because that would mean that they won. And that’s not the case.

When I entered the detention center, they put us in a cell. I was accompanied by my nephew. So, an agent from the Border Patrol, the agent who takes the information, began to insult me, to tell me things, like sexual things. And I knew, because of the experiences I’ve had since I was young, that this was not going well, that this was going in a direction—well, I practically knew where it was going. That immigration agent took me to an office and sexually abused me.

AMY GOODMAN: When you asked to have your nephew with you, he said no?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] The agent—well, my nephew was coming behind me on our way to the office. When he realized that my nephew was coming with me, he stopped him, and he said, “Not you. You go over there. I don’t want you to come with.” And he said, “You stay there, and I’m going to work with your aunt; otherwise, you’re not going to get out of here.” And he sent him to the cell.

AMY GOODMAN: How long were you held at this detention facility? And then, how did you get out, and where did you go, Aura?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] After the person abused me, he sent me to a cell. I was in that cell for three days. But before that, he told me that since I did not cooperate with him, he wasn’t going to let me go. So I spent three days in that cell, until another immigration agent saw that I was still in that situation at the detention center. And he asked me why was I in the cell, if I should have been released by then. And the person who took me out of the cell said, “Ma’am, we’re leaving.” At that time, I thought that something else was going to happen to me. When the agent took me out of the cell, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me or my nephew, until the person told me—well, they didn’t tell me anything. They took me in a patrol car and took me to a bus transportation office. When I got out of the patrol car at the office, he said, “Welcome to the United States.”

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Aura, did you face any other threats while you were in detention? And given all this, why have you chosen to speak out now?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] When the person who abused me, right then and there, he said, “I have your information. I have your information, and I know where you are.” That’s why for many years I did not speak out. I hushed up. They gave me some documents. What did I do with those documents? I put them in the dresser with everything that had happened to me. I wanted to leave all that behind. I wanted to leave it in the past.

But in 2013, I went back to that dark past, feeling tormented. One Sunday, I was headed to church, and I was stopped by the police for a traffic violation, and he reported me to immigration. He told me that I had a deportation order dating to 2005 for having failed to appear at immigration, at a court. But I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t want to know anything about those documents. I knew that those documents existed, but I didn’t want to review anything. Well, mainly, I didn’t even know English at that time.

In 2013, I looked for a lawyer. What struck him was that, well, I told him that I didn’t want to talk because something happened to me at the border. And this struck him. And he asked me: Did I need a psychologist, in order to be able to speak? And he helped me in that regard. And he told me there were possibilities of obtaining a U visa.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about today, what it means to have been welcomed into this church, the Unitarian church where you have taken sanctuary, and how long you plan to stay here?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] How do I feel here in sanctuary? When I came here, I was looking for help, protection. And I found good people. I found something that I didn’t find in my own church. I always had the church, but I didn’t have this in my community, at the church that I went to regularly. And I came here, and I found an affection that I thought didn’t exist.

And so here I am. I wouldn’t say that I’m happy, but I feel protected here. I feel that here I can raise up my voice, that I’m going to be bold enough to be able to speak out and to say what I feel, what I want and what I really deserve. I deserve a better life. I and my children, my family, we deserve it. Because they take your freedom away. They tell you you have to go. It’s so easy to say, and it doesn’t matter. It’s of no interest to me. They say, “Just go.” When they say, “Go,” it’s as though they’re—well, they’re saying this to children, first of all, who aren’t to blame for anything. But they have rights. They have rights, and I have rights here, as well. And they are trampling our rights.

I’m not just struggling with this situation under this administration. I’ve been struggling since 2013. Before, not everything was said, but now they shamelessly tell you things. “From up on high, they are requiring me,” they say, “to get rid of you.” I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but I’m certain that it’s not going to be too long, because I’m going to speak out. I’m not going to let them get away with this any longer.

AMY GOODMAN: We just interviewed the senior minister here at the Unitarian church, and he said he’s willing to be arrested to protect you. What does that mean to you?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] There is no doubt that I did not make a mistake coming here. It really makes me feel strong to know that a person who I just met, we just began have communication, and that he is capable of being arrested—for me. Well, that’s priceless. And it pushes me to continue struggling to stay here in this country, because I deserve it. I think that all these years that I’ve lived here and everything that has happened to me, well, I think that I have rights, and I have to stay here.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Aura, I want to ask you, by speaking out, what do you hope will happen? What are you demanding?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] First is to get out of here. Then I want to continue struggling, because now I want more people to speak out about everything that’s happened to them. And I hope—and this is my goal—that other persons will raise their voices, that they can be bolder and not be fearful and not hide anymore, as I did, to be fearful to go to the park with your children because you’re scared that they might arrest you, to be scared that the slightest mistake you might make driving. Well, they can label you a criminal. That’s what they’re doing. They’re labeling you as a criminal. What I want out of this is to raise up my voice, and that other people who are in the same situation as I am speak out and defend themselves. Because here, what’s going to get me out of here is raising my voice, not staying hushed up, and not just wait for others to do things for me, but rather, I, myself, need to take the initiative to get out of here by speaking and not staying hushed up.

AMY GOODMAN: Your daughter, Camila, who you’re holding right now, who’s asleep in your lap, she’s 14 months old, and Danny, your son, is 10. And they are both U.S. citizens. What would happen to them and to you if you’re deported to Guatemala?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] If that situation were to come to pass, then I would take my children with me. I would not leave them here. But if I took them to my country, then I’m giving up. But when they’re adults, they’d be able to come back. What do they even come back to? To clean dishes? Because they don’t have English. There is education there. They can get an education, but it’s not like the education here. I think that that’s the right that they have, because of having been born in the United States. And I think it’s not fair for them. They have the same rights, because they were born here.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would happen to you, Aura?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] The deepest fear I have here, that makes me want to stay here, is that if I go back to my country, I might be assassinated. I might be murdered. That’s why I’m struggling here, because I don’t want to take my daughter with me. I can’t go back to my country. I can’t. I am in danger of death. And that would mean the destruction of my family. I’m in danger of being killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think you would be killed? Why do you think you would be assassinated?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] I can’t tell you exactly who or why, because that could put my family at risk.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your thoughts on President Trump?

AURA HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] Good question. I don’t hate him, because that would mean being bitter all the time. But I think that his heart is very much embittered, we could say. And we have to pray to God to soften his heart, because it’s very hard. And it’s not that we’re asking for compassion. That’s not the case. But he should have a softer heart. I can’t really wish anything bad for a person who I don’t even know, but he has done a lot of harm to me. I can’t say that this or that should happen to him. No, I can’t, because he’s also a human being. And as a human being, I think that he loves his children. The only thing is that his heart is very hard, and so I would ask God to soften his heart, so that he not hate us so much.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Aura Hernández, who’s taken sanctuary in the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City, where she’ll be holding a news conference today with her supporters after they take a silent walk from Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle up to the church on the Upper West Side overlooking Central Park, the Unitarian church where she’s taken refuge.

Special thanks to Cinthya Santos for providing additional photos, and to Malav Kanuga and Democracy Now!'s Laura Gottesdiener. We'll link to their series in The Nation, which chronicles another Guatemalan mother who’s taken sanctuary in yet another church in upper Manhattan. As we continue to cover the sanctuary movement around the country, we’ll also link to our interviews with mothers in sanctuary in churches in Carbondale and Denver, Colorado. And thanks to Charlie Roberts, Simin Farkhondeh, Charina Nadura and John Hamilton. I’m Amy Goodman, with Laura Gottesdiener. We’ll be back in 30 seconds.

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