Fleeing for her life, Gregoria Flores-Nuñez left Honduras in 2006 to find safety in the U.S. after working as a human rights activist. Today she lives in Bronx, N.Y., using her own migration experience as she serves with MCC in New York City supporting and guiding recently arrived immigrants through the legalization process. We had the opportunity to interview her between her busy schedule of answering immigration questions and going with families to court.
Tell me a little about yourself.
Hi, my name is Gregoria Flores-Nuñez. I live in the Bronx, N.Y. I am the executive director of Garifuna Community Services, and I work as the immigration intake specialist and community and church liaison with the New York Mennonite Immigration Program (NYMIP) through MCC’s East Coast region. NYMIP is a partnership between MCC and the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches. NYMIP works with constituent churches and their congregations to address the complexity of immigration issues through legal consultation and representation, community outreach, advocacy, referrals and education.
I am a Garifuna from Honduras. I am from a family of seven children. I was born in a community called Triunfo de la Cruz. There are 46 Garifuna communities in Honduras on the Atlantic Coast, and it is an Afro-Indigenous town. For many years people have made a living from fishing and from the natural resources. Women worked in agriculture. But we have also been dealing with conflicts regarding land protection.
How did you get to the U.S. from Honduras?
As the president of a human rights organization in Honduras, I had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. to file complaints regarding human rights violations in the community. I was also a member of the Indigenous Peoples Confederation of Honduras (CONPAH), which is an organization among nine black and indigenous towns in the country, and Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), which works to protect Garifuna communities’ economic, social, and cultural rights, particularly with regard to farming, fishing, and defense of the earth. We were working together for the defense and guarantees of human rights for the communities.
When the persecution of leaders defending human rights began to get worse in 1998, we began coming here to file complaints in Washington, D.C. We also lodged complaints against the country of Honduras.
On May 30, 2005, I was attacked just for defending human rights in my community. They told me that if I stayed in Honduras, I would only have seven days to live. I had to come [to the U.S.] immediately, take my kids out of school and university, relocate my mom to a different community and come. I came alone, on a plane. I went to Washington, D.C., and then I came to N.Y. I had a travel visa with the organization I worked for. My sister gave me a plane ticket.
It wasn’t easy at all because I had to separate myself from my community, from the organization I worked for, from my house, from my mom and from my kids. Coming here was not an easy process. Despite having come to the U.S. before, I didn’t have an “American Dream."
What were your hopes for the U.S.? And what did you experience when you arrived in the U.S.?
It was very different this time. It was very different because the other times I came, I knew I was coming for two or three weeks. [While I was here] I had to file complaints with institutions. I had to lobby with some international organizations. I had to give lectures in universities on human rights in Washington, D.C., and the University of Texas at Austin.
This time was different because I wasn’t going back. I knew I couldn’t go back to Honduras. It was like being here for the first time. Because I had to establish myself, really, although my siblings were here. However, I felt disconnected, completely different.
The truth is that it’s very complicated, because many people looked at me and knew that I had already been here before. So, for those people, I had already adapted, but to me I had not adapted, because I knew that this time I had to stay. I wasn’t going to leave. I felt like a prisoner. I didn’t know where to begin.
The moment had arrived where I had to learn to use that same knowledge that I had about the subject of human rights and the organizations I was familiar with for my own affairs: to find a balance between seeking political asylum, staying here, bringing my children, starting work, not having work experience here and having to start completely over.
I also had to face the dilemma of a language barrier, because I didn’t have a language barrier before. [On previous trips] all the places I had to go to file a complaint or give a presentation had prepared translators who could assist me. But now I had to learn to live in this country and had to become accustomed to the language and using it as a means of everyday communication.
How do you feel about currently working with the same processes that you went through yourself?
What I first felt was like something was against me, because it was something against me. It was an attack against my life that brought me here. And I did not understand the purpose. In my eyes, there was no other purpose than trying to destroy me. As time passed I continued representing the organization [CONPAH] here in the U.S., here in N.Y., and I was traveling to Washington, D.C., to follow up on cases. That was the first thing I began doing.
Finally, I said to myself, “Okay, now Gregoria has to establish herself. Gregoria has to know how to live here in the U.S. She has to learn to do something here [in N.Y.].” And it was not so easy working directly with an organization with the experience I had. To do that I had to be in Washington D.C., but I had to establish myself here [in N.Y.] because the biggest part of the Garifuna community was living in N.Y.
It was a tremendous challenge, a tremendous challenge, but after several years in this process, I went to work. I sought political asylum. I was in Wisconsin, knocking on doors, asking for votes and I was working as a [community] organizer. Later I worked seven years as a staff coordinator in a home attendant agency.
Then something happened in 2013, which was the exodus of the children crossing the southern border. The exodus of women and their children [from Central America] on the border and the children who came alone was the chance for me to use the knowledge I had acquired during the process of seeking political asylum. All the waiting, the time in search of organizations, identifying organizations, writing my story, knowing how important this is, to now be able to use it for the people who were coming without any knowledge.
And I realized that when I came I had advantages. Because I had already been here really. I knew where the organizations were. Then I said, “Okay, I have a purpose before God.” It is a blessing now to be able to work with these people, and since 2013-2014 until now, we have seen more than 5,000 cases [MCC and our partners]. We’ve managed to get many work permits, many residencies, many asylum determinations. I say it’s a privilege because God invited me to be a part of the great things that He is doing.
MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas
What’s it been like working with NYMIP?
It’s been very interesting because I came with human rights experience, but I did not have experience in the area of immigration law. NYMIP helped fortify that part, it brought me knowledge about the management and administration of immigration law in the U.S. I had the chance to participate twice in the MCC 40-hour immigration training in Akron, Pa. That expanded my knowledge about immigration issues and how the job should be done.
For example, there is a challenge that exists when a person does not have a license to practice law. What limitations do we have when working with people? How can we assist them, how can we train them? How do we walk them through the process to be able to achieve their legalization within the country?
One of the things that we had to learn was that regardless of it being a civil or federal case, because the two overlap, no free legal assistance is provided. The person has to pay for their lawyer or has to contact a human rights organization to get a pro bono lawyer and guarantee representation before the court.
Also understanding that the issue of immigration overlaps with every aspect of a person’s life. When we talk about immigration, we are talking about health, we are talking about food and we are talking about human dignity. That’s how Pathways to Dignity grew, a part of NYMIP.
MCC photo/Frederick Yocum
After arriving to the U.S., where did you find strength during difficult times?
I found strength in the church, I found it in my brothers and sister, although it wasn’t easy. Every time I talked with my brothers and sister and I told them, “I feel frustrated. I feel like this isn’t going anywhere,” they would always say, “Be patient.”
During those moments it’s not very easy to understand and be patient, but when one goes to the Lord, faith and the communion of the body with Christ, with the church, helps one to be able to endure things and to find the strength to be able to say, “I can do this.” And after doing this, “I can do this even more to help others.”
Why is NYMIP so important?
NYMIP has come to bring information and connect churches with the resources within the city. There are valuable resources that can be useful to the church. I believe we should simply be careful to find programs that do not conflict with the principles of the church, identify them and bring these resources within our church. I believe NYMIP is doing this. We have the ability to capture resources and connect the church to these resources. Now we can say that the members of churches know where to go.
If they don’t have medical insurance, they know places where they can go to get medical attention. They do not have to be afraid and say, “Well, since I don’t have medical insurance, may the Lord’s will be done.” They know that there are affordable housing programs where they can get an apartment and they know where to go to look for this information. If they have a child who has special education needs, they know where to go to be able to take that child and get what he or she needs. They understand that we have a municipality that is accessible and that we are also able to access the local government authorities within N.Y. We have been able to show that the church can have an interrelation with the surrounding [governmental] society without having to damage its religious principles.
What do you want to say to supporters of MCC’s immigration work?
The first thing I would tell them is thank you for the support you have given us so far. We have been able to help many people because of you. We have results. The work we are doing has results. I have been an investment and you can see me as a result [of MCC’s immigration work].
MCC photo/Frederick Yocum