ARTESIA, N.M. — At its core, Thanksgiving is a story about immigration.
A Honduran woman won the right to stay in America two days before the holiday when an immigration judge ruled in favor of her asylum claim. She fled her country after receiving death threats.
Milexy Gavidia, 32, had been a free woman for less than 24 hours when she and her two young sons packed their bags one last time. They'd spent close to five months in an immigrant detention center in Artesia, New Mexico.
On Wednesday they set off to meet Gavidia’s boyfriend in Louisiana. She can now legally live and work in the United States. In a year she’ll be eligible for a green card.
"In Honduras I ran my own business," Gavidia said. "I had a bookstore, sold school supplies and sold fried plantains with my sisters."
Gavidia also volunteered as a community organizer and worked on the campaign of her town's future mayor. One day she began receiving threatening phone calls.
"I assumed the calls were from the gangs," she said. "They are the only ones that do this. They told me I deserved to die."
Gang violence in Honduras is among the deadliest in the world. One morning Gavidia woke to find her dog and pig poisoned to death. Then a friend she knew from campaigning door to door was murdered.
"In my town people are killed or they simply disappear. Nobody says anything because to open your mouth is a death sentence," she said.
A week later she fled. Her boyfriend, a day laborer, borrowed $9,000 to pay a smuggler.
When she reached the Rio Grande she boarded an inflatable raft with 12 other people. Once on U.S. soil they turned themselves in to the Border Patrol. Days later she was on a bus to Artesia. On the way, the bus was struck by lightning.
"We saw flames coming from below the bus and heard a loud bang," Gavidia said. "I hugged my children and thought, 'Oh God, this is the end.'"
Luckily no one was injured. They switched buses and continued. When Gavidia arrived in Artesia the detention center had been open less than a month. The facility was part of the government's response to a mass influx of Central Americans at the southern border. Gavidia said the months she spent in detention were the most miserable of her life. The children, she said, suffered the worst.
"There was a boy in the cafeteria whose mom was pressuring him to eat and the boy, just four years old, said 'Mommy I'd rather die than stay here in detention,'" she said.
An asylum officer who interviewed Gavidia initially dismissed her claim. That was before she had an attorney. By time a team of volunteer lawyers descended on Artesia, some 200 women and children had already been deported. With legal representation Gavidia got a second chance to present her case. Three months later she won asylum. Sharing the news with the other immigrant women was a bittersweet moment.
"They cried," she said. "Partly because they were happy for me and partly because their own futures were so uncertain."
Gavidia said detaining families is an inhumane response to illegal immigration. She added it’s also not an effective deterrent.
"I knew the journey to the United States would be risky," she said. "But my life in Honduras was already at risk. And I'd rather die fighting than die defeated."
Gavidia’s case is the most recent victory for the volunteer attorneys working in Artesia. Since this summer they’ve won 10 out of 10 asylum cases.