BEFORE BENTONVILLE was Bentonville, it was Osage. For thousands of years, the native Osage made the prairies stretching from southeastern Kansas to Missouri’s Ozark plateaus their home, hunting buffalo and farming on territory that also dipped into northern Arkansas and Oklahoma.
The first European settlers to arrive in the area named the town after its inhabitants. But in the early 1800s, as America’s newly minted residents migrated west, they forced the Osage onto reservations and renamed the town “Bentonville,” after U.S. Sen. Thomas Benton, a champion of Manifest Destiny. “It would seem,” wrote Benton in 1846, “that the White race alone received the divine command to subdue and replenish the earth.”
A century later, in the spring of 1950, Sam and Bud Walton opened Walton’s 5 & 10 in downtown Bentonville. The plain white building with red letters and a striped awning is now The Walmart Museum, where visitors can browse black-and-white photos of the Walton brothers in their World War II uniforms, see a mismatched batch of Every Day Low Cost tiles and flip through pages of Walton’s original handwritten ledgers.
Around midnight in 2001, in a Walmart not far from the original Walton’s 5 & 10, Amanda Aristondo was standing under the fluorescent lights, looking for medicine for her young daughter. Arkansas reminded Amanda of her native Guatemala—warm and green, with gentle mountains and acres of farmland—but with a crucial difference.
“We felt safe.”
The U.S. seemed like a haven in comparison to Guatemala, still recovering from a decades-long civil war that officially ended in 1996. But living in the U.S. would present its own challenges, and nearly 15 years later, the Aristondos would find themselves embroiled in one of the country’s most contentious debates: immigration.
IN THE CHURCHYARD across from her house on Finca Sebol, a young Amanda swept the dirt and added water to tamp down dust. Each morning, Amanda would gather neighborhood children to her makeshift lectern and teach the lessons and psalms she had learned the night before during the evening service she attended with her mother. “I don’t remember playing with Barbies,” Amanda laughs. “I remember playing with the Bible.”
Amanda’s improvised Sunday school was on a Chiquita banana plantation in Guatemala near the border with Honduras. Her father worked for the company and raised his family there—Amanda was the last of six children, a blessing for her mother, who had been praying for another girl after a string of boys. If her prayers were answered, she promised, she would do “whatever she has to do to prepare the girl to serve the Lord.”
Amanda was born smack in the middle of Guatemala’s gruesome civil war, which officially began in 1960. The seeds of the war were planted with the help of the U.S., which sent money, weapons and CIA officers to help Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz, who had been democratically elected in 1951.
Decades passed, presidents came and went, and the civil war dragged on. Thousands of Guatemalans fled state-sponsored death squads to neighboring countries and to the U.S., sparking the beginning of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, a campaign spearheaded by religious organizations in the U.S. to provide refuge for those fleeing chaos in Central America. 1980 also saw the passage of the Refugee Act, which increased the number of refugees admitted to 50,000 from 17,400 and expanded eligibility for asylum to include “a well-founded fear of persecution.”
Peace accords in Guatemala were officially signed in 1996, but two decades on, things haven’t improved much: The Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador consistently have the highest homicide rates in the world. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, it was statistically more dangerous to be a civilian in Honduras between 2007 and 2012 than it was to be a civilian in Iraq in the midst of a war. And the area in Guatemala where the Aristondos lived, just north of the border it shares with Honduras, is considered one of the most dangerous areas of the country—a spot the International Crisis Group has dubbed the Corridor of Violence.
Amanda eventually married and moved off Finca Sebol, although she stayed in the region to raise her own family. But the violence from the war’s remnants percolated, and she remembers her husband, José, coming home with stories of hearing shots fired and coming across a body not long after. José worked for PepsiCo, traveling extensively and managing money, something that put him at risk for extortion and murder.
Amanda loved Guatemala—it was home—and the couple tried to raise their young daughters, Katherin Jazmin and Amanda Michelle, with as much normalcy as possible. But women in the country face particularly acute dangers, with some of the highest rates of femicide in the world, and these risks only became magnified as the girls grew older.
Meanwhile, Amanda’s parents and five siblings fled to the United States, settling in Arkansas and California. Amanda and José didn’t want to leave their home, but they wanted a future for their girls, or at least a measure of safety. So in 2001, the Aristondos applied for tourist visas, gathered their young daughters, packed two suitcases and boarded a plane to the U.S.
THEY STAYED WITH FAMILY for a while, doing odd jobs—cleaning houses and mowing lawns—to get by. Eventually, Amanda found work as a nanny for three children whose mother was newly divorced. The family lived in Fayetteville, and Amanda, José, Katherin Jazmin and Amanda Michelle moved into the bottom floor of the house. “We were family. My girls and her kids were so close—sometimes they would come downstairs and sleep with us.”
Amanda remembers vividly the first church service she attended after leaving Guatemala. She arrived late, and the congregation was already singing when she arrived—a missionary hymn, “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go.” It was the same hymn Amanda had sung at her last service in Guatemala. But if, by a still, small voice he calls to paths that I do not know, I’ll answer, dear Lord, with my hand in thine: I’ll go where you want me to go.
When the Aristondos eventually settled in Bentonville, the Church of the Nazarene would be the family’s rock. Amanda rose to become a volunteer associate pastor, giving sermons in Spanish as part of the church’s Hispanic ministry. The church would be where the girls spent summers and weekends, where little Amanda Michelle played a drum set so large she could barely see over it and where the family would come for support when Katherin, an energetic soccer player, was diagnosed at 19 with a rare form of cancer.
Bentonville’s churches—Episcopal and Catholic, Methodist and Baptist, an Islamic center, a Hindu temple, Presbyterian—are where the community comes together: Arkansans descended from European migrants and more recent arrivals from Mexico and Latin America, together in faith.
Between 1990 and 2000, the state’s immigrant population grew a staggering 196 percent, according to a report by the Urban Institute, and during the period when the Aristondos arrived, the state’s Hispanic population was the fastest-growing in the nation. Many migrants found work in construction during the housing boom or in the chicken-processing plants such as Tyson in Springdale. They took difficult jobs, often in remote places for low pay and long hours.
“It’s hard work, and it’s hard to find folks to work in those places,” says Pastor Mark Snodgrass, who first met the Aristondos in 2011 through the church.
But despite their socioeconomic and cultural differences, it’s faith, Snodgrass says, that brings Arkansans together.
“It’s a story I never thought I would be in the middle of—but here I am.” Snodgrass pauses.
“Unity doesn’t mean uniformity—it doesn’t mean we all look the same or even believe the same politically. Where else is someone who voted for Donald Trump going to go to a [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] office and hold a sign advocating for illegal immigrants? That only happens in the church.”
But Snodgrass concedes that faith is not always enough. “Love of neighbor is so clear in Scripture, but sometimes this is at odds with policy.”
THE ARISTONDOS lived without papers for eight years before they decided to file for asylum in 2009. Maybe if they hadn’t waited so long, Amanda muses, things would have turned out differently. “I didn’t know what to do. We were afraid,” she says.
For three years, the Aristondos’ case wound its way through the regional courts. Asylees arriving in the United States have one year to apply for asylum, and those who apply late—like the Aristondos—must prove that they qualify for an exception, such as changed circumstances in the country of origin or serious illness, among others. The family’s case continued until Amanda and José were called before an immigration judge in Memphis in 2012.
The couple appeared before the judge with their lawyer, who came from Miami to attend the hearing. A chronic nationwide shortage of immigration lawyers often means that families work remotely with attorneys based in major immigration hubs. Having an attorney is critical to being granted asylum—for those who apply but are not represented, 87 percent are denied, according to Syracuse University’s immigration database, TRAC.
In the Memphis court where the Aristondos’ case was heard, immigration judges approved 53 percent of asylum cases in 2012—slightly higher than the nationwide average of 50 percent, according to TRAC. Asylum approval rates vary wildly across courts—2012 saw approval rates of 21 percent in Dallas and 83 percent in New York—partially due to “the differing composition of cases assigned to different immigration judges … For example, being represented in court, and the nationality of the asylum seeker, appears to often impact decision outcome. Decisions also appear to reflect in part the personal perspective the judge brings to the bench,” notes the TRAC database.
The Aristondos ultimately lost their bid for asylum, but they were offered a reprieve in the form of a “stay of deportation”—officially encouraged to go back to Guatemala but allowed to stay in the U.S. Stays are issued at ICE’s discretion and must be renewed each year, but may be denied at any time and require that the recipient check in each year with immigration officers.
A stay of deportation is “really more of a discretionary benefit, if you can even really call it a benefit,” says the Aristondos’ new attorney, Nathan Bogart. “Every year, you’re living in fear of something going wrong. You so much as step one toe out of line, it’s over. It’s hard to call it a benefit, although I think ICE would certainly call it that, and I certainly consider it a benefit in comparison to being deported.”
Bogart met the Aristondos in 2016, after hearing of their case through Pastor Snodgrass’s wife, Lauren, who works with Canopy Northwest Arkansas, an organization that helps resettle and support the state’s refugee population. Coincidentally, Amanda had also been seeking out a new attorney closer to home and had already contacted Bogart’s firm. They met for the first time in November at his offices in Fayetteville.
Bogart took over the case and filed for a stay of deportation, as the Aristondos’ former attorney had been doing for years. But ICE informed him, he says, that a stay had been filed in January, and it had been denied—and so had the one filed in January 2016. Amanda says she received a letter in December 2016 denying the stay—nearly 10 months after the actual denial issued by ICE, on Feb. 10, 2016. [Editor’s note: ICE did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the past few months.]
Most stay-of-deportation denials are murky, says Bogart. You never really know why they occur, and ICE doesn’t have to tell you. But he says ICE indicated that because Katherin (who had been battling cancer) had recently turned 21, that perhaps the case for the Aristondos staying in the U.S. was not as sympathetic as it had been. The couple were told to check in at ICE offices on March 14, 2017.
“We really were anticipating that they’d be taken into custody and taken away,” Bogart says.
Fayetteville, March 2017
INSTEAD OF eating breakfast the morning of their appointment with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—they were fasting in preparation—the Aristondos prayed. Exodus 14:14: Ustedes quédense quietos, que el Señor presentará batalla por ustedes. [The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still. ] Amanda had brushed off her brother’s pleas to prepare for deportation—she felt that God planned for her to stay in Arkansas, and preparing to leave would not show trust in him. But she knew it was a possibility.
“After all the deportations, we knew what was coming. We started asking for prayers at church,” Amanda says. Some urged them to skip the check-in altogether, but she refused. “We have to do the right thing. We have to go to the appointment.”
Amanda consoled herself with what she felt was God’s plan for her. “If he wants me to leave, you have to understand God’s will is best.” Still, her legs were shaking during the half-hour car ride to ICE headquarters in Fayetteville.
“We can trust in the Lord,” Amanda mused, “but we’re humans.”
Nathan Bogart, the Aristondos’ attorney and himself a practicing Mormon, was having a harder time having faith.
“If ICE is telling me a stay has been removed and my client has to report on a certain day… I’m thinking, they’re done, they’re over. We’re out of any type of recourse whatsoever.”
On an unseasonably chilly Tuesday in March, a crowd gathered in front of the ICE offices in Fayetteville, holding signs. The grass was still brown, biding time until spring.
“People were calling and asking me, What should the sign say? What should I do?” says Pastor Snodgrass. He decided the church would support the family in the best way they knew how: “We’re just gonna go, and we’re gonna pray—show that this family is loved and that they’re part of the community. We knew it would be risky—it’s a touchy issue—but we felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Snodgrass led the small crowd in prayer, Leviticus 19:33-34: When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.
The Aristondos entered the offices accompanied by Bogart and Pastor Snodgrass, and the crowd milled about, talking to the reporters who had gathered. A woman wrapped herself in a blanket to guard against the cold.
A short time later, the family emerged. They hugged supporters. It was better than expected—the stay denial had not only been reversed, but both José and Amanda had been granted an Order of Supervision, allowing the couple to apply for employment authorization cards and work legally. This meant that Amanda could pursue a pastoral degree, something she’d been hoping to do. The couple would be able to drive Katherin to her remission checkups and attend her soccer games; they would be able to watch Amanda Michelle learn piano and attend her summer voice recitals.
None of this, says Amanda, would have been possible without the support of the church.
“It’s a beautiful church. It’s a place where you feel what church is about—no matter what race, color or language you speak.”
That day, surrounded by friends at an ICE office in Northwest Arkansas thousands of miles from where she was born, Amanda says, “That made me feel so blessed. In my bones, I felt really strong. I wasn’t afraid anymore.”
Since the appointment in March, Amanda says, the community’s reaction has been overwhelmingly positive: “Sometimes people will recognize us from the news and pay for our food when they see us eating outside. They come to the table; they say, We’ve been praying for you.” The family has been mostly going about their lives—spending time with their daughters, running summer services at the church, visiting the lake.
The Aristondos have applied for work permits and are required to check in with ICE again in April 2018. The permits provide hope for more meaningful employment in the future—Amanda will be able to make a living as a pastor, something she currently does as volunteer work.
But Amanda concedes that while the couple have struggled over the years, cleaning houses and mowing lawns to support their family, they’ve been able to give their girls a safe home and a chance at an education.
“My girls didn’t have any idea of how we struggled, because we tried to keep them out of this so they can live their childhood,” says Amanda. “When my oldest was applying for college and she wanted to see the income, she cried. She said, I didn’t know. Sometimes they felt like they were rich.” Amanda laughs a little at the memory.
“It’s a hard way to live, but God is so good.”
Kate Cough is a journalist and photographer. She spent four seasons living aboard a sailboat on the coast of Maine, rode her bicycle (Isabella) from Portugal to Zanzibar and left medical school in 2015 to pursue her dream of becoming a journalist. She has an M.S. degree in journalism from Columbia University.