For Heidy Gomez Garcia, the need to escape permanently from Venezuela became apparent one night in May 2011, when she and her daughter were riding in the back seat of a car, with her own mother at the wheel. A black SUV with darkly tinted windows pulled up on the left. Suddenly the rear window of the SUV opened and someone inside fired a half-dozen shots, then sped away. Were it not for the spare tire in the trunk, the bullets would have penetrated the car and struck Gomez Garcia and her daughter in the back.
The terrifying night was the culmination of years of intimidation, threats, and abuse, which began after Gomez Garcia resisted attending rallies in support of the government of then-president Hugo Chavez.
Immediately after the shooting, Gomez Garcia and her daughter moved to a new state, and a month after that, they left for the United States. Arriving in the Seattle area, where Gomez Garcia had relatives, she sought help from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which then sought assistance from DWT. Peter Finch, an associate who had just recently joined the firm, raised his hand to take the case.
“I hadn’t been able to do a lot of pro bono work in my government job,” says Finch, who came to DWT after 14 years with the National Labor Relations Board. “I didn’t know a lot about asylum, but was glad to have the assignment. I ended up taking a crash course not only in immigration law, but in how difficult life can be for people who might not agree with the government in Venezuela.”
At the time her troubles began, Gomez Garcia was working at the state petroleum refinery and living with her young daughter in Venezuela’s second-largest city, Maracaibo. As an employee of a state company, she was regularly required to participate in marches and rallies celebrating President Chavez and his political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, who had just come to power.
These rallies could last an entire weekend and require hundreds of miles of travel on poorly equipped buses. Security cameras kept track of attendance. “I hated going to the rallies,” says Gomez Garcia. “I would often cry on the bus ride. I was away from my daughter and family, and I did not support the PSUV.”
Gomez Garcia did not hide her opposition to the rallies, and was transferred to another facility an hour away—“punishment,” her supervisor said, for her disloyalty. The forced rallies continued, as did her vocal resistance. Eventually, Gomez Garcia was terminated and subjected to an interrogation, at which a security officer laid a gun on the table and yelled at her so loudly she suffered hearing damage.
Shortly thereafter, PSUV-labeled vans began making late-night passes by her home directing searchlights inside. She also began receiving threatening text messages, as did co-workers who had been similarly terminated. A year later, events came to a head with the shots from the SUV, and Gomez Garcia fled to the U.S. with her daughter.
The family lived with hosts they met through the Mormon church, which sponsored them on their arrival. Gomez Garcia did odd jobs while her 15-year-old daughter enrolled in high school. Without a granting of asylum, Gomez Garcia would have had to return to Venezuela. Finch began to meet with her in early 2012 and submitted her asylum application in June. Months passed before the heavily-burdened agency could schedule an interview.
When the day for the asylum interview finally came, Finch, his clients, and a translator, were all in the cavernous waiting area of the Homeland Security building in Tukwila, south of Seattle, when news came across the television that Hugo Chavez had died.
“I immediately wondered about the impact of that on her application,” says Finch. “‘Ding-dong, the witch is dead’—so why not go back to Venezuela? But it’s not just about Chavez the person, but Chavez the ideals, and his replacement has been as bad or worse. In the weeks that followed, they helped us make that point by expelling diplomats, floating conspiracy theories that the U.S. was behind Chavez’s cancer, and so forth.”
After a brief flurry of concern about one element of Gomez Garcia’s story, which was settled to the satisfaction of the asylum agent, Gomez Garcia received her asylum approval in mid-May, exactly two years after the shots were fired.