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Paulina, right, stands with her daughter after she was sworn in as an American citizen

A little over a year ago Bolivian native and Catholic Charities client Paulina, a victim of both human trafficking and domestic abuse, lived in fear. She was constantly looking over her shoulder.

Today, Paulina, says the fear is gone. She is making plans and dreaming about her future again. Her life is transformed. She credits her faith and Catholic Charities Hogar Immigrant Services, Legal, for that transformation.

“I was feeling hopeless and afraid.” Paulina says of her former life. “My life was very chaotic, and I was struggling to make ends meet with a new baby. I didn’t have any status, so it was hard to find a good job to support my baby.”

Today, as a newly minted American citizen, Paulina, who also recently battled a serious illness, is planning to return to school to get her GED. She wants to get a good job to support herself and her family.

“I don’t live in fear anymore and I feel like I can dream again,” she says. “I have a sense of security that I never felt before.”

Raised amidst domestic violence in her home country, Paulina was trafficked from Bolivia to the United States when she was just 15. She was subjected to virtual slavery and abuse, forced to work and not allowed to leave the house. After being trafficked for nine years she finally escaped.

In 1998, Paulina moved to Washington, DC, where she met her husband and had a baby girl. Paulina hoped to have the stable and healthy family for which she always longed. Instead, she was subjected to severe domestic violence. In 2005 she fled to a shelter.

Paulina first came our Catholic Charities Hogar Immigrant Services in 2006. To her dismay, she learned she had been ordered deported from the United States. However, because of the extensive abuse by her husband, Paulina qualified for relief under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Under VAWA, domestic violence survivors may self-petition the government for a green card, or lawful permanent residence, without the cooperation of the abusive family member. With Catholic Charities’ assistance, Paulina’s VAWA petition and work authorization was approved. Two years later, our attorneys helped Paulina become a lawful permanent resident.

However, Paulina was still afraid that she would lose her legal status. So eight years later, she returned to our Hogar offices to apply for U.S. citizenship. In the middle of the process, Paulina received a life-changing breast cancer diagnosis – but the illness did not diminish her determination to become a citizen. Even while receiving chemotherapy treatments, Paulina continued to come to Hogar to work on her case.

After a smooth interview, Paulina’s application was approved. On June 1, 2018, she attended her Naturalization Oath Ceremony and officially became a U.S. citizen.

“Catholic Charities changed my life,” Paulina says. “My lawyer stopped my deportation to Bolivia! This meant the world to me. When I got my green card, I was able to see my family after so many years. Now as a citizen, I was finally able to get insurance — and with my medical problems I really need it!”


Suleyka Canelo is an attorney with Catholic Charities Hogar Immigrant Services