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By Barbara Alexandra Zavala Pinto

I will begin writing the most important text of my life by saying thank you. Thank you to Koen Gieskes, my freshman year professor for EDD, whom I once promised this story to (I thought I’d never see him again for a while), and Arthur O’Sullivan, the Editor-in-Chief whose encouragement gave me the confidence to write my full story. I’ve decided to forego the simplicity of a quiet life with this “behind me,” as it were, to highlight the ever-burning pyre of injustice in this world. There’s a lot to write about, and this story will be split into several long articles.

For context, I was brought to America by my parents in 2006 on a ten-year visa. I was born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, so I am not a U.S. citizen. I had no idea that my mom and I weren’t American citizens until I turned 16, when it expired. Suddenly, just getting a work permit, driver’s license etc. took countless trips to lawyers’ offices. When my visa expired in 2016, we began a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization case. My late grandmother was a U.S. citizen, so my mom divorced my dad just so that my grandma could pass on her naturalization. Everything went according to plan for 3 years. I was blissfully finishing high school (about as much as anyone can), and gathering legal documents and thirty petitions from U.S. citizens declaring that I was a good influence on my community who deserves naturalization. The last step was to go to my home country of origin, Honduras, where I would receive my first step to naturalization, permanent residency.

 I was a minor in the year 2019 in the eyes of immigration law (under 21), so if everything had gone to plan, I would’ve simply become a U.S. permanent resident, with no more obstacles ahead of me (Social Security Number, ability to participate in elections, ability to receive scholarships and FAFSA etc.) to pursue my dreams. Mine was the perfect dream, actually… It was my actual American Dream.

All this was to avoid the life I saw people living in Honduras: poverty, crime, exploitative working conditions, no matter what color your collar. I learned this from a man whose name was Cesar, a store manager and homeowner in Honduras before he decided to illegally migrate to the U.S.. Cesar did everything by the book: he studied, bought a house, got a good degree in Honduras, and still yet at 30, he was irreversibly in debt, caught in a culture that hindered his success, in a pond (“employment pool,” if you will) too small—an entire continent too small for his ambitions. He earned the highest education possible in Honduras, and his wage was nowhere near livable for 3 kids, a mortgage, and a non-poverty lifestyle. He just couldn’t save money on a $600 USD per month salary as a Honduran manager in a store that mimics Best Buy. So when I saw society outside of America, I saw people oppressed. They don’t even know the outrage that would result if Americans had to suffer even one of the things: the water infrastructure going out (periods of the day with no running water—even if you pay your bill—by order of the government, extreme crime, unreliable official information et cetera. If I had stayed there to live out my adulthood, I would have had a similar fate to Cesar—if not worse!

Going to Honduras was my first time leaving the U.S.. I came with clear expectations and plans, thousands of dollars, and half of my adolescence invested in a two week trip whose sole purpose was to gain permanent residency. Well, political conditions were a perfect storm in February 2020. Donald Trump was in office, and “coronavirus” was an excuse to close the border. These two things worked against me, dear reader, and my “two week plan” was made much more complicated…

It was February 14th of 2020 when I saw Binghamton University for the last time until Fall 2022. It  was February 20th when I attended that fateful meeting in Honduras. If all had gone well, I would’ve never had to endure the long journey and violence which would follow. 

I was reading my favorite book: 1984 by George Orwell in the waiting area, an immigration officer a few feet away in a secluded private room. I was told to put my book away. I don’t know why. I was just reading the part about Winston feeling like his every movement was being watched. 

Finally, my mom and I entered the meeting room. The immigration officer sat behind bulletproof glass. We talked with him through a small window. Our folder had a single red dot on the bottom right corner. We were not told the contents of that folder—which he didn’t even open. He only told us that we were missing an I-35 waiver for illegal entry to the country in 2006—something our lawyers said we didn’t need. He pointed at me, recognized my upbringing, and just said “lots of kids who speak even less Spanish than you have been in this situation…”

I was dumbfounded—in a freeze response. There wasn’t exactly a 911 to call for emergency legal services (“Help I locked myself out of my car country”), although there should be. On this exact day (February 20, 2020), Trump ordered that all green cards be denied to prevent coronavirus spreading to the U.S. via foreigners. Thus, when my application was denied, I had no way of getting back into the country; I had no legal status. I felt flabbergasted and deceived, my muscles couldn’t hold themselves up. I was suddenly denied from all my property, all my accomplishments, and all my dreams. 

I was a straight A student all my life. My teachers always said I was destined to do something great. If these immigration officers knew that about me, would it change their minds? If they saw I wasn’t just anyone? I actually disagree strongly with even entertaining these questions because everyone deserves a second chance, no matter whether their future is “bright” or not. The law should not be the deciding factor in one’s pursuit of happiness. 

When I took AP US History, we learned that indentured servants migrated to new countries no matter how destitute they were, because all of their debts would be paid off after working under a sponsor—they had jobs secured before even moving. I felt, then, that they had more social mobility than me at that moment. 

I still could’ve “gotten in” to America, but it would’ve taken seven to eight months of waiting in Honduras (possibly longer due to the offices shut down due to COVID). Here’s a point of view you can read while I find myself unable to write in the first person: 

“The daunting conditions of US Immigration policy at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the case of this “immigrant,” Barbara Zavala, who had been living in the U.S. all her life, and desperately did not want to stay in a country in which she found herself totally ostracized, caused a panic.” 

I panicked. I knew we could not live in the Honduran house my mom raised me in. It was 2020, not 2000, and things got worse in our absence. Still, we owned that house. Nobody lived in it, as far as we knew. We locked it and left it empty for over a decade. It was located on a dirt road and left vacant for years. This made us perfect victims: no friends, no family (who could protect us); we were Americans who didn’t know “the way it works around here” (i.e. violence and corruption), and we owned that house as property. We were prime victims for burglary and I, as a young woman, was prey for kidnapping and selling.

At first, we were staying with an aunt from my dad’s side just before the appointment. If everything had gone to plan, we would’ve left as quickly as we arrived. After the failed appointment, my aunt told us she couldn’t support keeping us indefinitely but that she wouldn’t kick us out while we found what to do. Well, we had nowhere to go other than our old abandoned home in the slums. It was dangerous, but none of our family members could’ve maintained our stay. Why? Because in Honduras, electricity is turned off at 7 pm; water is turned on in the mornings and evenings and saved in storage to use throughout the day; the A/C is only turned on at night—on low. We would’ve inevitably incurred much higher costs for any household which took us. 

So, we returned to my childhood house. Then, on the first night, the gangs showed up. They apparently had been using our abandoned home as a nexus for drug trading and illegal activity. I learned this while on my phone at night in the living room, my mom in the bedroom. A car pulled up. I was confused. Before I could react a group of men came in with guns already pointed at me (they saw the lights on inside the home and were infuriated). “Turn around!” I was commanded. The only thing that went through my mind was “they’re not going to kill us, right?” I turned around. I looked at my mom as she walked in, wondering what she was going to do. I saw the fear surge in her body. As I was facing the wall, a man pointed a gun to the back of my head. Was I actually being threatened?

“So you own this house?” The man yelled sternly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about” my mom kept repeating to them; she was protecting her information to see what they wanted. “We know you’re lying” they yelled… I knew the gun was behind me. They hounded us. They made me cry. They made my mom cry. My neck felt tense, any movement I made could’ve been wrong. I was not going to indulge their sadistic fetishes or give them a reason to kill me. My mom only cried through her tears and the whimpers she had to defend herself were “Please don’t kill us, we’ll do what you want…” But I heard her remain quiet as the man asked her where she kept the papers, while the gang ripped our bags open and took out all our clothing. We’re lucky they left us our phones. I was standing, I felt someone touch my arm and back. He said that if my mom doesn’t start answering soon, “We’re going to start doing stuff to her [me]” and asking “You don’t want that to happen, do you?” She tried to offer them money, or arreglar. They denied it, insisting they wouldn’t leave until the house was theirs. Time felt distorted. All I remember is the gun being held behind my head but me only facing the wall, whatever edges my vision could reach and the couch I was facing. I was impatient somehow—I immediately wanted it to end. I was not going to cry so as to not bring attention to myself. I stayed quiet as a mouse. 

In the chaos, my mom verbally agreed to give them the papers to the ownership of the house just to get them to back off. He said he wanted them tomorrow. I stayed looking at the wall until they left. We left for good that night at like 6am. The day was March 10, 2020. We sobbed and called my dad. Our only hope was to return to the U.S….

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