Nilsson once lived out his dream career as a teacher in Guatemala, but in 2018 he found himself having to flee his home country. When he arrived in Nogales, Sonora he found himself lost, not knowing anyone in the city, and not knowing what the next steps would be to file for asylum. In his disoriented state, he found someone that guided him to KBI’s aid center where he was given clean clothes, shelter and meals. Understanding his conditions, KBI knew Nilsson could benefit greatly from legal support from our partners at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. KBI and the Florence Project have been in partnership since 2017. Together, we created the Border Action Team, an on-the-ground program that provides high-quality legal services to migrants like Nilsson, in KBI’s migrant aid center. KBI arranged for Nilsson to connect with members of the Florence Project during a Sunday meal service, where he found renewed hope for his case’s consideration. The Florence Project was able to talk through his situation and guided him through the process he would face when requesting asylum. At the end of his consultation with the Florence Project and after recovering at KBI, Nilsson felt confident in his case and genuinely believed he was prepared for the next steps at the border.
When he arrived at the port of entry at the border however, he was processed and immediately brought to detention. That was the day he learned how little dignity he would be allowed to keep through the asylum seeking process in the United States. He was violently searched by dogs, strip searched, and immediately put in chains connecting his hands and feet. Put in a freezing cold holding cell, referred to by migrants as hieleras, for four days, all he was given was a foil blanket and the only available water source was from the toilet in the cell.
These dehumanizing conditions unfortunately did not change during the nearly two years he remained in detention centers in Arizona waiting for legal processes to give him a valid hearing.
“They made me put on a uniform, they kept us in cages. They had simply made me into a prisoner,” Nilsson shared on a recent phone call with KBI. “We were moved between detention centers with no information about legal proceedings and what would happen next.”
With one week left until his first court proceeding, Nilsson had been denied any additional information of how to prepare and what he would need to present at this point. That was when the Florence Project was able to reconnect with Nilsson. This was the first time since he was detained that he had been able to communicate with anyone that could offer him information and guidance based on what he was told during processing regarding his case.
The Florence Project once again helped prepare translations and forms, however once Nilsson’s court date arrived, all information he presented was blatantly and rapidly denied. Nothing was read, reviewed or accepted and he was never allowed to speak for his case.
It was a great injustice to not even have my documentation considered by the court,” he said. “You expect and hope when you come to this country that the judicial system will be different from the corrupt systems in your home country. Unfortunately the immigration court is unjust and not impartial.”
The Florence Project did not give up on his case however, and they continued through appeals processes. Nilsson’s legal proceedings continued for 31 months, nearly two years, during which he became extremely ill and was denied surgery and proper medical attention outside of the detention center.
“I had nothing, “ he said. “When I was ill I had no way of communicating with my family, no resources to understand medical information written in English, no way of explaining to them how sick I was. If it weren’t for the Florence Project fighting for my rights, supporting me, I would not be alive today.”
He survived his years at detention and now finally has the opportunity to reconnect with his family and reclaim his life. “I do not think I can ever express the level of gratitude I have for the Florence Project,” he shared sincerely. “They were my strength when I had none left to give. The work they do goes so far beyond assisting asylum seekers. When you’re in those conditions at the border, they truly become the only hope you have for surviving this process. They are the reason I have this new life.”
Now Nilsson works towards restoring what he once had. He continues on his mission to be a great educator once again, hoping he can support students and the community the way the Florence Project supported him.
“To me being a teacher is not just a career, it’s a dream,” he shares. “I live by the mindset that educators do not just teach through their words, they teach through their actions.”
Even with his work permit now approved and life becoming more stable, Nilsson does not forget his experiences and all the people like him who are still living this reality every day in Nogales. “My gratitude does not end now that I am in this position,” he said wholeheartedly. “I want to help the Florence Project and organizations like KBI in whatever ways I can. I have a renewed vigor for life and everyone deserves that feeling after everything experienced at the border.”
Finding voices like Nilsson who have reclaimed their freedom and continue to dedicate themselves to the rights of migrants is truly what propels us forward everyday. While Nilsson now has the chance to cultivate his new life, we lament the thousands of others who are still stuck waiting at the border with no options for asylum.
Once migrants are restored the right to present at the port of entry, they deserve due process and a thorough examination of their case. Afterwards, they deserve to wait for their hearing outside of detention centers and in safety. Like Nilsson, we know our mission towards humane migration and a just, sustainable system is far from over. We will welcome and walk alongside people like Nilsson and their immense resilience, and we will continue to fight
As Nilsson said, “No dream is impossible. Help comes from some of the least expected places. Always remember that the word surrender is not an option.”