When Rosa Aranda was 15 years old, a teacher wrote her name on a chalkboard: R-O-S-A. “These letters,” the teacher told her, “this is your name.”
At first, Aranda was confused. Growing up deaf in a small Mexican town where there was no education system for kids like her, she had never learned how to read, write, or do sign language. Unable to communicate, Aranda had been beaten and mistreated by her family while her siblings went to school.
“No one had ever told me what my name was,” Aranda said through a sign language interpreter. “I was 15, and it was my first time reading my name.”
Now, Aranda, 58, is an undocumented immigrant living in San Diego. She’s one of hundreds of deaf immigrants from Mexico and other countries who have applied for asylum in the U.S. in the past few years. They argue that the treatment they received in their home countries—which also include Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Colombia—amounts to persecution, and that deaf people living there today are still being discriminated against.
It’s a novel reasoning, legal experts say, but it appears to be working. Of the 250 deaf immigrants that California attorney Hadley Bajramovic has helped apply for asylum since 2010, four have won their case and none have been rejected. A fifth is pending final approval. (Cases generally stretch on for five years or even longer.) Since they’ve started winning, attorneys from around the country have been calling Bajramovic asking for help with their own deaf clients.
Applying for asylum isn’t the same as becoming a refugee—people who declare asylum are already in the U.S., either illegally or on a temporary visa. If they’re approved, they’re on the path to a green card and permanent residency. In order to be approved for asylum, they have to prove to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that they have a credible fear of persecution in their home country because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or a membership in a particular social group.
The deaf immigrants fall into that last category. Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell law school professor who studies asylum and isn't associated with these cases, said applying for asylum because of deafness was a unique and “creative interpretation” of the law.
But just being deaf isn’t enough to get asylum. Applicants have to show proof that they would be persecuted if the U.S. government deports them back to Mexico. Lots of corroborating evidence and grueling interviews are required. Historically, people applying for asylum have a less than 50% win rate, Yale-Loehr said, so the success of the deaf immigrants so far is striking.
“It’s sort of like granting asylum to gay and lesbians and other persecuted minorities,” Yale-Loehr said. “The mere fact that these people have gone through the asylum gauntlet successfully means that they were able to prove that they have a real fear of persecution.”
Aranda, whose case is still pending, has lived in the U.S. for almost two decades and raised her family here. She now signs in a mix of American and Mexican sign language, but the fact that she only started learning any language at age 15 has made it hard for her to become fluent in either. In a video interview, she signed to her son Ian Guzman, who is also deaf and translated into American sign language. Kathy Veylit, another interpreter, translated into spoken English for me. It’s a slow, complicated process, with a lot of back-and-forth, checking, and verifying.
But Aranda said she wanted to tell her life story because it might get more attention on the treatment of deaf people in Mexico. “What I went through—not having language, not being able to communicate—other people are going through that now,” she said.
‘I felt like I was trapped’
Aranda was born in Tehuixtla, a tiny town in the central Mexican state of Morelos. She grew up in a family where everyone could hear normally except for one older deaf sister. Her parents didn’t seem to understand her problem.
Every day, Aranda would walk to school with her other siblings, and then stand in front of the building as they went inside. The door would close, and she’d go back home. “I thought I was going to have notebooks, pens, be able to go to school like all the other children,” she said. She would point to the school, try to make her father understand what she wanted.
“I would cry every day. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t go to school, and I couldn’t communicate that,” she said. “I was very frustrated.”
Aranda’s mother died when she was six, and three weeks later, her father remarried the family maid. Her new stepmother forced Aranda and her deaf sister to clean the house, do the cooking, and wash all the clothes by hand. “We didn’t feel like part of the family,” Aranda said.
When she was 11, Aranda says, she was molested by a neighbor, a woman who would kiss her and touch her inappropriately. “I was confused whether what she was doing was wrong or right,” she said.
Whenever she tried to communicate, by gesturing or miming, her family would laugh, and make the one gesture she came to know too well—spinning their finger around their ear: loco, crazy. Sometimes, her stepmother would beat her and she didn’t know why.
Aranda’s experience is not uncommon. There was no right to sign language education for deaf children in Mexico until 2005, and even now there’s a shortage of sign language teachers. For decades, being deaf was seen as a mental incompetence, and deaf people were not allowed to drive or buy homes. Many still get by by begging or working lower-than-minimum-wage jobs.
Many Mexican deaf kids like Aranda, who are born to a rural family without deaf relatives, don’t get any kind of language education until a late age. That can have a severe impact on their cognitive development for the rest of their lives, said Rachel Mayberry, a linguist at UC-San Diego who has studied language use among deaf people.
“A lot of people think that sign language is something that deaf people can just do,” Mayberry said. “It’s not different from other language—if nobody uses sign language with you, then you don’t have the opportunity to learn it.”
The result is a little like being alone in a foreign country where you don’t read or speak the language—except that you don’t have your own country to go home to.
“I felt like I was trapped,” Aranda said.
That changed when she was 15, when an aunt brought her and her sister to a church in Mexico City that ran a school for deaf people. “We went in the church, and saw all these deaf people, and they were signing,” Aranda said.
The first thing she learned was her name. Her aunt had brought her birth certificate, and the teacher spelled it out on the board: R-O-S-A.
“When I learned that, I was motivated to learn more words,” Aranda said. “I wanted to learn more about the world.” She started taking classes in sign language and reading and writing.
One teacher in particular took the time to teach her everything—an incredibly difficult process, starting as a teenager what most kids learn when they’re three or four years old. “This woman changed my life, she gave me life,” Aranda said, tears in her eyes. “She told me, you have to learn, you can do this. She didn’t give up on me.”
Aranda married a deaf man when she was 21. Their three kids—one daughter and two twin sons—were all born deaf (deafness is a recessive trait that can be passed genetically). Her husband was abusive, and they fought often. She ended up divorcing him and taking her kids to Tijuana, where she worked for the government as a data clerk.
The city still lacked real education for the deaf. “I started thinking I didn’t want my three deaf children going through the same experience I had had growing up—no education, no schooling, no life,” Aranda said.
She heard from other deaf friends about a place called America, not too far away, where there were great schools. With help from her co-workers, she got a passport and a U.S. tourist visa, and assumed that she could just continue her job after moving.
But when she and her kids crossed over the border, she quickly realized she needed things she could hardly understand: a social security number, a work permit, a green card. So she started working as a peddler, selling bracelets and other trinkets in public places, making just enough money to support her family. They lived in a cramped house in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego that’s only a few miles north of Tijuana.
Aranda crossed over in 1996, just before Bill Clinton signed a far-reaching anti-illegal immigration bill that stepped up border controls and deportations. “People told me to be quiet and not get in trouble, and I didn’t know why I was supposed to be hushed about it,” she said. “I wanted a better education for my children, so I didn’t think about the laws or things like that.”
She added, laughing, “Now I know all about that.”
According to asylum rules, immigrants who want to declare asylum must do so while they’re still covered by a student or tourist visa or within a year of their visa expiring. The process is more complicated for people like Aranda who illegally overstayed their visa. To get around this, Bajramovic, the lawyer, is arguing that the lack of education for many of her deaf clients made it impossible for them to understand the rules.
“Most of them had no idea what a country is,” Bajramovic said. “Most had no understanding of borders. They only knew that one place had trash on the street and the other didn’t.”
That’s not to say that these people aren’t mentally capable, she says, but “it’s a part of the persecution that happens when a country does not make sure that their deaf people are provided with education.”
Some deaf immigrants have even worse stories than Aranda’s. Groups of deaf Mexicans were trafficked to the U.S. in the ‘90s by gangs. They were held in virtual slavery in cramped houses in New York and California, and forced to beg on the subway and streets.
In the two decades since she crossed the border, Aranda has built a life and a family in the U.S. She moved across the state several times, saving money to send her kids to the best schools for the deaf. She’s survived breast cancer twice.
But she always knew she was one wrong move away from being deported back to her old life.
Out of the shadows
When a friend introduced Aranda and her family to Bajramovic five years ago, they were struggling to get by. Her kids, who couldn’t afford college and couldn’t work legally, were making money with artwork and design.
Aranda agreed to become one of Bajramovic’s clients and applied for asylum. Her case, like many others, stretches on today. After applying, she and others who are waiting for asylum approval receive work authorization after half a year.
“Once I got that, I felt that I was safe, that I could go places without being frightened of the police,” she said. “For 18 years, I had been terrified and hiding around, driving without a proper license because the laws forbid me to have one. Now I feel like a normal person and I can have a normal life here.”
Bajramovic says that once clients declare asylum and get a working permit, it’s a sea change from past lives “living in the shadows, completely cut off, sometimes exploited or trafficked or used by employers, paid like fifty cents an hour.” Many get jobs at supermarket chains or places like Goodwill, earning their first legal wages.
Aranda’s children have also been eligible for Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Ian, her son who’s a translator, works with the deaf Mexican community and is fluent in American and Mexican sign language. His sister also works in translation, and his twin brother is a visual designer studying at California State University of Los Angeles. The opportunity to go to school and work openly have changed the lives of his whole family, he says.
“I’ve seen what my mom went through here in America,” he said. “Other deaf people have no community, no support. I want to give back.”
Aranda’s older, deaf sister is still living in Mexico, and the two have fallen out of touch. If her asylum is approved and she gets a green card, Aranda said she hopes she can eventually help her sister come to the U.S. and have a better life.
In the meantime, Aranda has to wait. Asylum offices around the country are backed up, in part due to the huge influx of Central American women and children who came into the U.S. last summer and declared asylum. The Los Angeles asylum office, where many of Bajramovic’s clients are applying, has wait times of more than four years between an application and an interview.
Deaf applicants face their own logistical challenges because the asylum office needs to hire trained interpreters, and often secondary interpreters like Ian, who translate between different forms of sign language.
A spokesperson for the U.S. citizenship and immigration services declined to comment on the deaf immigrant cases.
Undocumented applicants can be deported if their asylum claims are rejected, but that hasn’t happened in any of the 250 cases so far. New rules put in place by the Obama administration prioritize resources to deport undocumented immigrants with significant criminal convictions. Almost all of the deaf immigrants that Bajramovic has helped apply have no criminal record, she said.
Aranda says that while she worries about whether her asylum case is approved, she’s focused on her family and spending time with her five grandkids. None of them are deaf, but they’ve all learned or will learn sign language. While Aranda had no way to communicate when she was growing up, they have many: English, Spanish, signing.
She hopes more deaf people facing what she faced have the opportunity to come to the U.S. “A lot of deaf people have a lot of potential and are very intelligent, but they have no ability to communicate, they don’t have any ways to express themselves,” Aranda said. “That prevents them from becoming the successful people they can become.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.