Xiomara Benitez Blanco was 19 years old with little formal education when she came by herself to the U.S. from El Salvador to find work. She made her way to Durham, and by 2009 had worked in a series of service jobs that gave her hope for a better life. She led a peaceful and quiet existence for four years. That was until she met Bedri Kulla.
They met through on an on-line social networking site. In his on-line profile he said he was a flight attendant. After exchanging a few messages, she agreed to meet him for coffee. He quickly manipulated Xiomara into talking about her background, and also made it clear he was ,interested in way more than just coffee. When she refused, he showed her his badge and informed Xiomara that he had the power to deport her. The next day, he showed up at her workplace with a bouquet of roses and a copy of a deportation order that had been issued against her a few years earlier.
Kulla worked as an Immigration Services Officer for the Durham branch of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a federal agency under the Department of Homeland Security that works with people who want to legally immigrate to the U.S. He did not, however, work for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, which has the authority to deport. But having little knowledge of U.S. immigrations systems, Xiomara was petrified.
There was, indeed, a deportation order previously issued for Xiomara as she had come close to being deported in 2008. But police had released her after ICE issued an Order of Supervision that allowed her to temporarily stay in the U.S. and work legally while being treated for aserious kidney ailment.
During this time, Kulla sent her a barrage of alternately cajoling and threatening texts. She refused his sexual advances, despite the potentially devastating consequences. And he did not take “no” for an answer. Xiomara was so fearful that she thought she would be arrested if she went into the hospital for the surgery she desperately needed.
Xiomara told a social worker at Duke Hospital about Kulla’s threats. The worker put her in touch me, and working with other attorneys and volunteers, we able to gain her trust. We told her that just because she didn’t have the proper papers, didn’t mean she didn’t have any rights.
Despite the potential peril and ongoing medical challenges, Xiomara filed a complaint against Kulla with the police and cooperated with ICE and USCIS in their investigation. She later testified against him in court.
Xiomara stood up against him and pursued justice to the end. He is now in a Texas jail serving a 12-month sentence.
Xiomara was recently honored as one of 15 Freedom from Fear Award winners from around the country. The award was announced at Netroots Nation, a gathering of digital media makers and bloggers. It honors ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees – individuals who have taken a risk, set an example, and inspired others to awareness or action.
Award recipients come from a broad range of people from all over the political spectrum who are all involved in standing up for immigrant rights across the country – ranging from a former police chief from Phoenix, a conservative immigrant from Columbia living in Utah, an undocumented worker from South Pasadena, California, and a number of students and activists.
The Freedom from Fear Award takes its name from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech 70 years ago in which he outlined four fundamental freedoms that people “everywhere in the world” ought to enjoy: Freedom of speech and expression; Freedom of religion; Freedom from want; and Freedom from fear. These fundamental freedoms are just as important now as they were then.
I was honored to nominate Xiomara and she was equally honored to receive such an award. She stood up to Kulla because she believes that all of us can and should stand up for what’s right, such as basic human dignity for all people, including other immigrants.
The Awards are particularly fitting on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides that helped dismantle segregation in the South, and on the heels of the Arab Spring which has shown the power of ordinary people overcoming their fear.
Xiomara’s public resistance inspired other woman to come forward. After ,her case received media coverage, other women came forward either ,directly or through their attorneys and reported that Kulla had victimized them as well.
It was scary for Xiomara to work with ICE agents during the investigation. But she overcame her fears to make sure that what happened to her never happened to another woman. And while undocumented workers across America continue to be vulnerable, at least one victimizer is behind bars.
Rosenbluth, executive director of the NC Immigrant Rights Project. He nominated Xiomara Benitez Blanco for the Freedom from Fear Award, which honors ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees. www.freedomfromfearaward.com. Copyright (C) 2011 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum