Her case ended in a joyful airport reunion, but the future of asylum is uncertain
ATLANTA — When Anabel fled El Salvador, she had to leave quickly, without saying goodbye to her children.
Eight years later, she is waiting nervously in the international terminal at the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where she's about to reunite with those children — and to meet her two grandchildren in person for the first time.
Already, she's crying tears of happiness.
"Because I don't know them," Anabel says in Spanish. "And I finally get to know them."
Their reunion this month is a joyful ending to a closely-watched immigration case — one that is deeply intertwined with the debate over asylum for those crossing at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Until now, NPR has referred to Anabel only by her initials, Ms. A.B, which is how she's identified in court papers. For this story, she's given us permission to use her first name — but only her first name, because she's still worried about her abusive ex-husband finding her all these years later.
"This is what the asylum system was intended for. You know, for somebody whose life is at risk," said Blaine Bookey, one of Anabel's lawyers with the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco.
But the reunion is bittersweet for Bookey and other immigrant advocates. For one thing, they say, it should have happened years ago. And it comes just as the Biden administration is considering new rules that would make it harder for migrants arriving at the border to get asylum — including, those advocates argue, women like Anabel.
"It shouldn't be this hard," Bookey said. "And just the games that we're playing with people's lives like hers."
Sweeping new asylum restrictions are causing tension
In January, President Biden announced tougher new restrictions at the border. "Do not — do not — just show up at the border," he said as he laid out the new approach.
The administration has proposed a rule that would make it harder to get asylum for migrants who cross the border illegally without first seeking protection in Mexico, or another country they've passed through on the way.
Critics have complained for years that migrants are exploiting the asylum system. Immigration courts are overloaded, with backlogs stretching for years. Immigration hardliners say that's creating a loophole that allows migrants to ask for asylum, even if their claims are flimsy, because they know they'll be allowed to stay in the U.S. while their cases play out.
Republicans argue this is a big reason why record numbers of migrants have been arrested at the southern border over the last two years.
"Deterrence is a key component of a safe and secure border," said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) during remarks on the Senate floor earlier this month. "And until the administration starts deterring would-be migrants with frivolous asylum claims from crossing the border, we will remain in a constant state of crisis."
This is the tension the Biden administration is trying to manage at the border: How to preserve asylum protections for those who need them, while also deterring migrants from crossing illegally in big numbers and overwhelming the system.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the administration's approach in an interview at Fordham University School of Law this month.
"This is not a ban on asylum," Mayorkas said. "What we're trying to do is incentivize a lawful, safe and orderly way" to make an asylum claim, Mayorkas said, while also discouraging migrants from relying on smuggling organizations that "leave a tremendous trail of death and tragedy behind."
Under the proposed rule, migrants who want to request asylum at the border are required to make an appointment through a smartphone app called CBP One.
Immigrant advocates call that a betrayal of the administration's promises to restore asylum at the border.
For one thing, they say the app is glitchy, and migrants have struggled to get a limited number of appointments at ports of entry. And advocates argue that requiring migrants to use a smartphone app would put asylum out of reach for many vulnerable migrants with valid claims.
If the rule had been in place when Anabel arrived at the border in 2014, lawyer Blaine Bookey says it would have made it all but impossible for her to get protection in the U.S.
"She had no money to her name, so she wouldn't have had a smartphone. She wouldn't have had the ability to get one of these appointments," Bookey said. "It just makes a mockery of our asylum system."
A joyful reunion in Terminal F
Anabel fled El Salvador in 2014 after years of brutal abuse by her ex-husband. She tried to relocate inside the country, she says, but he found her. Eventually Anabel left and made her to the U.S., crossed the border illegally into Texas and asked for asylum.
For a while, it seemed like Anabel would win her case in immigration court. But then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions intervened personally in her case, and used it to set a precedent that domestic violence should not "generally" be grounds for asylum.
NPR first interviewed Anabel nearly five years ago, just after Sessions had singled out her case.
"At that time, it was very sad, very hard," she says now. "Not knowing what was going to happen with my kids, if I was going to have to return to my country."
But her lawyers kept fighting. After the 2020 election, Attorney General Merrick Garland overturned his predecessor's ruling, clearing the way for Anabel to finally receive asylum and bring her children here to join her in the U.S. A crowd-funding campaign helped raise the money to fly them from El Salvador to Atlanta.
On the day their flight is set to arrive, Anabel arrives at the airport a few hours early. She is accompanied by her longtime partner, as well as Andrés López, the lawyer who helped prepare her initial asylum application.
"She's been like a rock," López says, marveling at her resilience. "I have never seen her be angry, ever. I've always seen her be hopeful. Even even when she was sad. I don't know any client, or anybody really, as strong as her to have withstood what she's gone through."
Anabel presses right up against the retractable nylon barrier at the international arrivals hall in Terminal F. She watches nervously for her children and grandchildren to appear, checking her phone often to see if they've landed.
Finally, after we've been waiting in the terminal for over an hour, they emerge from the baggage claim. She rushes toward them.
For a long moment, the entire family huddles together in one big embrace in the middle of the terminal. Anabel tales turns hugging her two sons — they were still teenagers when she left El Salvador, and are now young men. She hugs her daughter, too, before turning to squeeze her granddaughters, who are 8 and 3. One of her sons tosses the younger girl up in the air playfully, while Anabel gently scolds him to be careful.
"My heart jumped for joy" Anabel says, describing the moment she saw them.
In the morning, they plan to head off to her home a few hours away to start their lives together again, and celebrate at her favorite restaurant, a Chinese buffet.
When Anabel talks about the future, there's something new in her voice: relief.
"I always said I wasn't complete when they were in El Salvador," she says. "I was 50 percent happy, and 50 percent sad. Now I feel 100 percent happy."
Anabel's lawyers know all about mixed feelings. They share in her happiness, but worry that cases like hers may soon be harder to win.
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