“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 U.S.-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,” said 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 U.S. 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.