Clara and Rafael

Growing up in El Salvador, *Clara endured a traumatic home life, witnessing and experiencing domestic violence at the hands of her father. She persevered, earned good grades, and impressed her teachers. After high school, Clara found work selling sandals with her mother and serving tables at a restaurant. Clara had a secret, too, that she knew, while nothing to feel ashamed about, might cause trouble for her in El Salvador. She was attracted to women in addition to men.

Clara eventually came out as bisexual and began dating *Rafael, whose assigned gender at birth was female. They often encountered hostility in their community, which was nothing new to Rafael, who’d been discriminated against since he was a child. The only employer willing to hire him was his father, who paid Rafael to help run a small food stand.

The persecution of LGBTQ people in El Salvador goes beyond the patriarchal attitudes associated with “machismo” men, Rafael says. “We suffer harassment from women, men, kids, police officers, the government, Maras, and everyone else.” The Maras are violent gangs that operate with impunity throughout Central America. In Clara and Rafael’s neighborhood, the Maras targeted LGBTQ people out on the street. “They would try to humiliate us and make us hit rock bottom,” Rafael recalls. “According to them, what we did went against human nature.”

Clara felt terrified when the gang started following her home from work. She had reason to believe the police wouldn’t protect her—officers had a reputation for ignoring gang activity and the police had once threatened to detain Rafael if he didn’t start behaving and dressing “like a woman.”

By that point, Clara had moved in with Rafael’s family to escape her abusive father. Rafael’s family stood by them. But one day, a tragedy occurred that convinced the entire household they were no longer safe in El Salvador. The gang kidnapped Rafael’s sister and his cousin, both of whom were lesbians. Rafael’s sister escaped, but his cousin was killed. The gang began calling Rafael’s house demanding that his father turn over “the three who are left”—Clara, Rafael, and his sister—so the gang could make them “real women.”

“My dad made the decision for us to migrate to avoid an even greater tragedy,” Rafael says.

Together, the family and Clara fled north on a months’ long journey to seek refuge in the United States. Upon presenting for asylum in Nogales, Arizona, Rafael’s parents and his younger sister were released, but Rafael and Clara were sent to Eloy Detention Center, an ICE facility that holds up to 3,000 immigrants in the Sonoran Desert. This form of family separation occurs without justification every day.

Around the same time as their migration occurred, a lawyer named Lisa Siegel moved with her husband from Connecticut to Tucson, Arizona. Lisa was retiring from over 30 years working in the public sector in New England. In her new community, Lisa soon felt compelled to use her skills to assist people seeking protection at the border. Disturbed by recent policies that have dismantled the right to seek asylum, Lisa connected with Katharine Ruhl, a managing attorney on the Florence Project’s Pro Bono Program, which trains and mentors private attorneys to take on immigration cases as volunteers.

 As a former prosecutor, Lisa had experience litigating and building cases, but immigration court was its own monster.

“I had to learn a whole new field of law,” she says. Immigration courts have different standards for evidence and complex rules of eligibility for the various forms of humanitarian relief.

Lisa’s first pro bono case was assisting Clara. Alongside pro bono interpreter Maria José Rodriquez, she interviewed the young Salvadoran woman at Eloy Detention Center in weekly meetings to build an asylum case with the Florence Project’s support. “It was a joy to talk with Clara, learn from her, and to listen to her experiences and hopes for the future,” Lisa says.

Katharine Ruhl and her colleagues on the Pro Bono Team were impressed by Lisa. “Clearly, her primary focus was to ensure that her clients understood their case, and that she was accurately representing their person, their goals, and their history to the Court,” says Katharine.

Rafael also received legal representation from the Florence Project’s Adult Team. ICE typically detains transgender people based on their assigned sex at birth, so Rafael was held in the women’s side of Eloy Detention Center with Clara. They both felt relieved to have escaped the anxiety of daily threats from a violent gang. But they now feared being deported. The stark, oppressive conditions in the facility also took a toll on their mental health. Rafael had trouble getting out of bed sometimes. Friends, along with Clara, would visit his cell to encourage him to take advantage of their recreation time, to go play soccer and talk with others as a reprieve from his sadness.

Clara struggled with nightmares during her first weeks detained. “I would wake up with fears of going back. If they returned me to my country, for sure something would’ve happened to me.”

“It wasn’t easy being locked up inside four walls,” Clara adds. She says the food was often inedible, “but the worse thing is how they treat you. Some officers are nice, but others are not. You suffer. But I would have rather suffered in detention than lose my life in El Salvador. That’s why I said, ‘I’m going to fight.’”

Rafael’s case was decided first. Multiple Florence Project attorneys and legal assistants collaborated to prepare his case. He appeared at his final hearing with then Managing Attorney Alexandra Miller and was granted asylum. “It was an unforgettable experience knowing that there is a person you’ve never met before in your life who is helping you,” Rafael says. “I had an attorney who was defending me that was amazing, and honestly, I’m super grateful for that.” Upon his release, Rafael traveled to Maryland, where his family had resettled in a Salvadorian community outside of Washington, D.C.

Clara’s detention lasted several more weeks, and in her last court hearing, the judge announced that he needed more time to consider his decision. Clara took this as a sign she’d be denied. One week later, the ruling came. “I remember that day very clearly,” she recalls. “They had locked us in for 48 hours. We weren’t allowed to go to the yard, watch TV, or make calls—nothing. On the third day of lockdown, as I was laying down, a guard came and said ‘Clara, you’re leaving.’ I was free. I couldn’t believe it! I started to cry as my bunkie hugged me. Part of me felt sad because she was staying behind. But I was just happy to leave that place.”

Clara resettled in Maryland in the same town as Rafael and his family. Though no longer a couple, they remain close friends and both enjoy support from a local LGBTQ community nonprofit called Casa Ruby. Rafael now works at a retail superstore, which he describes as “an amazing environment with zero discrimination.” He purchased DJ equipment and plays music at parties and special events. Clara got a job at a fast-food restaurant and plans to become a manicurist. “I’m very happy to be able to live in this country,” she says. “I’m calmer because I no longer have a fear of being murdered or kidnapped…It’s a very beautiful place.”

Reflecting on Clara’s win, Lisa Siegel says, “It felt great. I really worked hard on her case because, like I said, I started from zero. I felt extremely happy and relieved that I was able to help Clara get what she wanted, and I was so grateful to the Florence Project for the support. I couldn’t have done this on my own.”

Lisa went on to represent many more Florence Project clients as a volunteer attorney and was recently named our 2021 Pro Bono Attorney of the Year. “It is just astounding to work with someone who can so wonderfully blend law, argument, and client-centered advocacy to present a case in such a way that a Judge has little choice but to grant asylum,” says Managing Attorney Katharine Ruhl.

All retired attorneys who give their time, energy, and experience to serve detained immigrants were celebrated through Lisa’s award.

“Retired attorneys come to us with decades of experience and an unusual resource in the legal field— time,” says Katharine. “That time of course is their hard- earned rest, so they certainly could be filling their time with less stressful endeavors then removal defense, so we are particularly thankful for their work and are eager to celebrate their contributions. Lisa is the perfect example of what a mutually positive experience it is for us to work with our retired colleagues.”

*pseudonyms used to protect privacy