What is it like to seek asylum in the United States?

Why do people leave their homelands to establish lives in other countries? What factors do people consider in leaving behind their belongings, livelihoods, and even friends and family?

Lucía Mondragón made the difficult decision to flee her home country to save herself and her children from harm. After losing her father to the dangers of migration, Lucía Mondragón resolved never to take the same risks. But years later, as a parent herself, she would have to break her vow—making the long journey from El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico, to seek asylum in the United States.

Mondragón was born in 1972 and grew up in the countryside of Usulután. Her father was a farmer and her mother a seamstress, earning enough to send her and her two siblings to college, where she pursued a degree in business administration and marketing. While she was attending college, however, her father immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities to support his family. When Mondragón bid him farewell, it was the last time she would see him. The treacherous journey took his life.

In 2013, El Salvador’s rampant gender-based violence forced Mondragón to flee. According to data collected by the Wilson Center in 2018, 6 to 7 of every 100,000 women and girls in El Salvador are targets of femicide—intentional killing because the victim is female. This is one of the highest rates in Latin America and nearly 10 times the global average.

Mondragón hoped for asylum in the United States but arriving did not deliver her family to safety. Border patrol officers apprehended her and her children, escorting them to an immigration processing center in McAllen, Texas. Their story represents those of hundreds of thousands of migrants who cross international borders in search of sanctuary. For Mondragón and countless more, escaping persecution and endemic violence often means enduring further violence before finding safety, if at all.

Mondragón fled El Salvador as an asylum seeker—a person who has left their country of origin to find protection from persecution or human rights violations. Asylum is a protection granted to people who are already in the country or have arrived at the border or port of entry seeking admission into another country. The term “asylum seeker” is often used interchangeably with “refugee” because both seek protection from persecution. The difference is in the process. Refugees must apply from overseas, such as in a refugee camp, and applicants for refugee status must be vetted and approved before traveling to the United States. Asylum seekers already live in the United States or at the border. They must apply for protection within a year of arriving. Obtaining legal status in the United States can take years.

Upon arriving in the United States, Mondragón and her children were swept up into a sprawling prison industrial complex. U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained Mondragón and her children and placed them in facilities surrounded by chain-link fences, where they were imprisoned alongside thousands of people who had also fled their home countries due to violence and other untenable conditions.  As Mondragón quickly learned, detention facilities strip away people’s unique histories and social contexts, rendering them a mere statistic in a punitive system. The dehumanization is not lost on the people incarcerated. Spanish-speaking migrants, including Mondragón, refer to such places as perreras, translated from Spanish as “dog kennels,” to denote their degrading treatment as animals.

Collage. On the top left, a pink child’s shirt with the message “Love Everyday Dream Big.” On the top right, a black child’s coat with a hoodie. On the bottom, a pair of gold cross earrings with green gems.
These articles of clothing were worn by Lucía Mondragón’s daughter and son during their migration journey. They also wore these clothes in the family detention center. Mondragón kept these clothes to remember the difficult journey of migration. (2020.0052.2, 2020.0052.3, and 2020.0052.5)

Inside the facilities, migrants endure humiliating hardships and emotional, psychological, and physical abuse, which contribute to yet another cycle of violence in their migration journeys. Human rights advocates, like the Texas-based civil and human rights organization Grassroots Leadership, have brought greater public scrutiny and accountability to these facilities, which are often run by private corporations with little federal government oversight. People in the detention centers do not receive adequate medical care, food, and legal assistance. And the remote areas where detention facilities are located intensify the experiences of imprisonment by isolating people detained from family, friends, advocates, and larger society.

Mondragón recalled that one of the more difficult moments of the detention was when guards separated her daughter and placed her with children her age. Meanwhile, Mondragón was allowed to stay with her son; they were provided aluminum blankets, which made them look like “baked potatoes,” as her son remembered. One day later, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) transferred the family to another immigration facility in Texas, where the three were reunited.

Four multicolored woven bracelets linked together.
Four friendship bracelets made by young girls held in a detention facility while seeking asylum from El Salvador. (2018.0156.04)

Mondragón’s imprisonment should be seen as part of the long and torturous history of immigration detention, not as a unique phenomenon of the 21st century. As scholars like Erika Lee, Judy Yung, and Anna Pegler-Gordon—and my fellow co-creator of this blog series, A. Naomi Paik—have shown, migrants have been subjected to dehumanizing conditions of incarceration throughout the 1800s and 1900s. Migrant detention stretches back to Ellis Island in New York, where European and Asian migrants were detained and vetted for entry starting in 1892, and across the continent to Angel Island in California, which imprisoned over half a million migrants between 1910 and the 1940s, most of them Asian migrants excluded because of their race. This history of detention works alongside the history of deportation, which began in the 1800s and remains a mechanism of immigration control that has torn apart families and communities.

Unlike most asylum seekers, who languish indefinitely in detention centers while awaiting their asylum hearings, Mondragón fortunately received her hearing in three weeks. After her release, she moved with her children to North Carolina on a one-year humanitarian visa. She was unable, however, to secure work authorization for several years. As a practicing Catholic, she searched for churches in her area and found solace in the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFWM). There, Dr. Mireya Loza, a professor at Georgetown University and a former curator at our museum, and I first met Mondragón, in March 2020.

A group of people pose in front of a large sign for the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry.
Group photo with staff members of the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry taken on March 6, 2020. Lucía Mondragón (third from the right); Sam Vong (second from the right); and Lariza Garzón (first from the right). Photo courtesy of Sam Vong.

The EFWM is a faith-based organization in Dunn, North Carolina. It provides direct social services to local communities, comprised mostly of Latin American immigrants with temporary work visas, as well as asylum seekers like Mondragón. These services include mental health care, English instruction, job placement, and support for agricultural workers. Its members have organized a women’s support group whose participants engage in arts and crafts, create programs for traditional medicine and reproductive health, and deliver sanitary napkins to women farmers while they toil in the fields, among other activities.

A group of women pose for a photo outdoors.
Group photo of the women’s support group at EFWM. Courtesy of Lariza Garzón.

The EFWM is central to the region’s sanctuary politics. It offers more than protection. EFWM organizes local communities, empowering its members to advocate on behalf of agricultural workers who labor under exploitative conditions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, many Latinx essential workers in meat processing plants owned by Butterball and Tyson Foods succumbed to the virus while laboring to supply food to a country mostly sheltering in safety. (To hear their first-hand testimonies, visit the museum’s Stories of 2020 project). Mondragón has found refuge with EFWM. At the time that Loza and I met with Mondragón, she had received authorization to work in the United States and was working as an office administrator in EFWM, where she was supporting other migrants and agricultural workers, drawing on her own journey seeking asylum. Today, Mondragón is working toward a path to U.S. citizenship, and her children have quickly adapted to their new home.

Mondragón’s story raises crucial questions. What conditions must migrants endure in their search for safety and protection? And what kinds of tradeoffs do people make when transitioning from one violent situation only to confront yet another form of violence? While Mondragón’s story is extraordinary, it is not unique. Her story reflects many migration experiences—stories that remain untold, ignored, and hidden from public view. Her story casts light on the everyday forms of harm and violence that migrants, especially women and children, encounter in their search for sanctuary. It also highlights the relationships, advocacy, and empowerment that communities can forge by working together.

Sam Vong is curator of Asian Pacific American History in the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History.

This post is part of a series, The Politics of Sanctuary. Visit the series’ introduction to learn more and to explore other entries. The series has received funding support from the Smithsonian’s Latino Initiatives Pool and the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool.