“I remember taking my belt, and I tied myself with it so I wouldn’t fall off,” recalled Franco, who fled Guatemala in 2009. “I was so tired. And I was so cold, so cold.”
About half a million people from Central America board cargo trains, referred to in Spanish as La Bestia, or “the beast,” on a potentially deadly journey north each year, according to The Migration Policy Institute. Most are fleeing economic hardship, gang violence, and political persecution.
Franco’s primary motive for boarding the beast was far different — and it made her escape all the more poignant.
As a gay woman, Franco made the harrowing trip from Guatemala to the U.S. because she feared persecution and hatred in her home country solely because of her sexual orientation. Exact numbers on cases of violence against gay and trans individuals in Guatemala are hard to find, as they often go unreported by officials.
About half a million people from Central America board cargo trains on a potentially deadly journey north each year.
On a recent Tuesday night, Franco, whose full name is Sulma Franco-Chamale, sits on a couch in an empty classroom at First Unitarian Church in Austin, TX. She is preparing to teach a group of adult members of the congregation Spanish, a weekly lesson that she offers to the church that housed and fed her for almost two months when she faced deportation back to Guatemala.
Franco can come and go from the church freely now, but just this past summer she could not set foot outside its doors for fear of being detained by immigration officials.
“I couldn’t go anywhere,” Franco said in her native Spanish. “I couldn’t go to work, eat what I wanted, I couldn’t see my partner.”
In a case that made headlines in Texas, Franco was granted a stay of removal in August by taking advantage of a once controversial but now often forgotten tradition that dates back to the early 1980s.
“The Sanctuary Movement,” as it is still known, began in Arizona during the Ronald Reagan era. Congregations offered a safe haven for immigrants fleeing violent civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala — with the hope that the U.S government would eventually grant them asylum. Various denominations across the country began transforming church basements and Sunday-school rooms into efficiency apartments for immigrants with nowhere else to turn.
“You really had this community of regular Americans in these congregations coming together to help,” said Susan Gzesh, a human-rights expert who teaches at the University of Chicago and has studied the Sanctuary Movement for years.
Discrimination in Central America is very cruel. It’s something that doesn’t allow you to live.
Religious leaders, attorneys, and churchgoers brought to light the Reagan administration’s support of Central American regimes that people were fleeing — and the unequal asylum-granting policies taking place during the era, Gzesh said.
Salvadorans and Guatemalans made up just 3% of approved asylum cases during that time, while refugees from current and former Soviet countries were granted asylum at rates as high as 60%.
Now, 25 years later, Franco's case has been cast as a revival of sorts for the sanctuary movement.
First Unitarian Church, the congregation that housed Franco, was active in the movement in the 1980s, helping to transport people seeking refuge to and from the airport. But Franco is the first-ever asylum-seeker the church has housed, according to the Rev. Meg Barnhouse of First Unitarian Church.
“We felt that she had the capacity to run her own campaign with the coalition of immigrants-rights groups that was gathered around her,” Barnhouse said.
The church helped cook meals for Franco while she took refuge, and a local immigrant-rights organization outfitted the portable classroom where she stayed with a shower and created a small yard surrounded by a fence for privacy.
Franco, along with the Unitarian Church and other community organizations that assisted her, has been vocal about her struggle for asylum. But she's not as comfortable opening up about her life in Guatemala and what compelled her to make the dangerous journey across Mexico alone.
“There’s a lot of things I don’t want to remember,” Franco said.
Some experts say that the Guatemala she left has not changed all that much since people fled violence and repression there in the 1980s.
Gloria González-López, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies gender and sexuality among Latin American immigrant populations, said sexual violence against women in the region remains very high, and often goes unreported.
“And for a gay person it’s even worse,” González-López said. “The church has demonized same-sex relationships, and the state has traditionally been homophobic.”
For Franco, the homophobia was also deeply ingrained in her family. Her parents “did not accept” her identity, she said. As the oldest of her sisters, Franco believes that her stepfather used her sexuality against her, as he knew about it when other family members did not. “He was very machista,” she said.
You can go, eat, and relax. They’ll treat you well, and serve you. And nobody stares at you. In my country, you could never do that.
“They gave those of us that didn’t have family in the U.S. a jacket with drugs inside,” she recounted. “They said if you can’t pay, you need to carry these drugs, or we will kill you.”
Franco said that she was bound to one of the men with a plastic zip tie, who cut it and ran when border patrol spotted them crossing the Rio Grande. She was caught by officials in Hidalgo, TX, and sent to a detention center.
Immigration officials released her, reportedly finding she had a “credible fear” of returning home. She was ordered to report back to immigration officers every three months. Franco said she hadn’t missed an appointment since 2009. But when her attorney filed her application for asylum with the wrong court, she faced the threat of deportation.
“Sulma Franco-Chamale had been afforded full due process and exhausted all her legal options,” Carl Rusnok, the central region spokesman for the U.S. Immigration Enforcement Agency (ICE), said in a statement.
She did have one last option, it turned out.
A volunteer working at the detention center recommended she reach out to First Unitarian Church, a left-leaning congregation in Austin with many young members, for an emergency plan.
According to an official memo by ICE, institutions of worship — along with schools and hospitals, and places holding weddings and funerals — are considered “sensitive locations.” Immigration agents will not conduct surveillance or make arrests in these spots unless there is an imminent risk of harm to others.
Now, Franco has been granted a stay of removal until 2017 — and she is pursuing permanent residency in the new city she calls home.
In the meantime, she’s grateful to be out of the confines of immigration detention centers and beyond the walls of the church sanctuary. She is trying to obtain a work visa and funding to open a food truck and has even been traveling around to other states to speak to immigrants in detention centers.
But Franco said she is especially thankful for the opportunity to live openly with her partner, another immigrant woman from Central America whom she met after relocating to Texas five years ago, enjoying things as simple as eating at a restaurant in public.
“You can go, eat, and relax,” she said of life in the U.S. “They’ll treat you well, and serve you. And nobody stares at you. In my country, you could never do that.”