It’s not hard for Amalia Molina Cortina — who came to the United States with her family from El Salvador — to remember. Remember that winter Wednesday morning in 1998. Her kids were rushing around getting ready for school. The 42-year-old woman threw on a sweater and a pair of her son’s slacks. Like any weekday morning, she dropped off 13-year-old Gilito at his junior high and then Amy, 16, at her high school. 

Coming home, only a block from their triplex house in Montebello, lights from the car behind her started flashing. She thought, “That’s pretty strange.” It looked like a luxury car, but with no license plate. She pulled to the curb anyway, telling herself to stay calm. A tall man in plain clothes approached, asking to see her driver’s license. When she showed him her driver’s permit, he asked her to step out of the car. She did. A woman officer she hadn’t noticed before appeared and patted her down. Then handcuffed her.

The man asked if her husband was home. “Does he have a gun?”

Amalia thought that was kind of odd, too. But said he was and had no gun.

After putting her in their car, they drove the block to her home, where two other cars showed up. Half a dozen men, wearing black jackets with “Federal Police” on the back, jumped out, surrounding the house. They rang the bell and her oldest daughter, Dianita, who was almost 19, came to the door. They burst in and found her husband, Gil, in the bedroom.

Twenty minutes later, the car with her and Gil pulled into the basement garage of the federal building in Downtown Los Angeles. They were put into cells. Hours passed with more women with children being brought in.

That evening all the detainees were put on a bus, getting to San Pedro around 11 p.m., where they were fingerprinted, had their photos taken and strip searched. Amalia was totally humiliated. She couldn’t believe what was happening.

Finally, past midnight, the detainees were given two sheets and a bedspread. Women, some with babies, were led to Pod 6. Amalia would learn later the facility was called the San Pedro Federal Service Processing Center on Terminal Island in the Los Angeles Harbor. And that’s where she and Gil, separated by one floor, would spend the next 16 months fighting for political asylum.

‘What if? What if?’

The first three days, prisoners in her group were bussed back to the Downtown L.A.’s federal building, waiting in a large room with metal benches along the walls, a couple of toilets and two small sinks. The floor was filthy and littered with orange peels. Roaches were everywhere. And, just like last night, officials said she’d be better off signing deportation papers, agreeing to voluntarily leave the U.S. Amalia repeated what she had answered before: “I want to speak with my husband first and then with my lawyer.”

Her attorney came later that day. And she brought another lawyer who handled deportation cases. They said, “Don’t worry. You and Gil will be out on bail soon. And we can all work together for a quick solution then.” That calmed Amalia down.

Her daughter Dianita was also able to visit briefly, bringing clothes and some money from home. Amalia told her to take care of her younger sister and brother — and don’t miss any school days! Just go on living like we always did. Things will work out.

Later, she prayed to God to give her children strength.

The next day, Friday, was the same back-and-forth routine. After that, Amalia and her fellow detainees no longer had to take the bus ride to Los Angeles. Court would be held for them right here in the San Pedro’s detention center. Days passed slowly. But finally it was time for them to appear in court. Walking to the courtroom, she said a quick prayer by St. Teresa of Ávila she knew by heart: “Let nothing disturb you. Nothing frighten you. Whoever has God lacks nothing.”

Right off, the young lady judge asked the detainees to raise their hands if they wanted to be deported back home. A lot now did, and they were taken away. Asylum seekers were called to the front of the courtroom. After being sworn in and read their rights, the judge talked to their lawyers in some legalese she didn’t really understand. Asylum seekers were told to come back in two weeks. And court was adjourned.

Amalia didn’t believe it. Two weeks!

Amalia’s second time in the detention center’s courtroom, she was sure all minor issues of their cases would be cleared up. And then they would be out on bail. After all, Gil’s sister was in the U.S. legally and would surely vouch for them. But the judge didn’t want to hear any of that. So her lawyer stated loud and clear that her client hadn’t changed her mind about applying for political asylum. And the judge said the next court date would be in a month.

A month!

That evening Amalia couldn’t sleep. This was going to take a lot longer than they thought, no matter what the lawyers said. And it was going to be the fight of their lives — even more difficult than leaving El Salvador after the civil war.

Worries kept running through her head, with 23 hours every day to think about them in Pod 6. Would she and Gil lose their jobs? And what about the triplex they recently bought? The kids were making mortgage payments from the two renters’ payments. But with practically no money left over after paying household bills, how long could they keep that up? 

But there was one fear that overrode the rest: What would happen to Gilito, Amy and Dianita if their teachers or, God forbid, the authorities found out they were living alone? Amalia knew the two youngest would be taken away and sent to foster care homes. “That was my big, big stress and pain and sorrow as a mom,” she told Angelus News, sitting on a sofa in the cozy living room of her home in the San Fernando Valley. “What if? Every day. What if?”                                          

‘Bittersweet’ release

In August 1998, things got a lot worse for Amalia and Gil. Their petition for asylum was denied. Both were devastated. But what sustained her was all those years in Catholic boarding schools back in El Salvador. The nuns instilled in their students discipline and keeping to a rigid daily schedule. No downtime to think bad thoughts. And that’s what she would try to do in detention.

Also, of course, there was her faith, and a Jesuit. “Look around,” Father Robert McChesney told her. “There’s a lot of people here in need. You can help them.”

Those words from the chaplain, in fact, turned her detention into, first, an education and then a ministry. “I witnessed so much,” she said. “I call it the ‘University of Life.’ I learned so much there about crime, about injustice, about how the children are left behind with no one to care for them.”

She got some of her fellow detainees to commit to saying the rosary every night, asking the Blessed Mother to keep their kids safe. She joined a Bible study group. Members shared their concerns and problems. They prayed for one another, especially for those women going to court the next day.

“God was with me there,” she recalled. “You know, whenever I felt abandoned or afraid for my children, he was there. Look, I can tell you if you don’t have faith, you’re worthless. I just stuck to my faith and doing service to help others instead of looking at me. And trying to help others, helped me to be strong.”

It was mostly Gil’s idea to file an appeal of the judge’s decision. And it took a while. But eventually the ruling was reversed because of the lower court’s ruling that they had “credible fear” of returning to El Salvador.

So at 5 p.m. on July 26, 1999, the couple was released after 16 months inside the San Pedro Federal Service Processing Center. Waiting outside were Amy and her lawyers. After hugs and tears, she took one look back.

“It was bittersweet,” she said. “When I got out I was happy to see my children. But it was painful to know all the people that I left behind. I was blessed with the opportunity to stay in this country. But the majority of them would not stay, and I knew it would be hard for them. A lot of them spend thousands of dollars with bad attorneys, promising that they would get them out to stay in the U.S. But they would be deported, and they lost all their money and everything. We only lost our home.”

The contractor to the gas company they had worked for gave them their jobs back. He even said they had $1,000 coming in back pay. Amalia also found part-time work with Jesuit Refugee Services, then as a bookkeeper for Get on the Bus — a program that brings children to prisons in California to visit their incarcerated parents.

Life slowly started returning to normal. But then Gil began having health problems that just got worse. And in June of 2001, he died of lung cancer. Amalia believed — and still does — what caused her husband’s death at age 52 was a lack of medical care while detained on that cold, windswept island.  

Life went on, but with much sadness. She landed a full-time position with the Los Angeles Archdiocese, heading up a ministry to families of the incarcerated. That lasted for 10 rewarding years. And four years ago, she became executive director of the Center for Restorative Justice Works, which ran Get on the Bus. 

Going back ‘inside’

Last month on Oct. 20, Amalia left Get on the Bus, answering an inner call she couldn’t dismiss.

“It was just that I was feeling I had other responsibilities with immigrants,” she explained. “It was hard. Get on the Bus was my passion. I love the children. I love the mission. I love everything about it. It was so painful.”               

Even her own children asked, “Mom, are you sure you want to leave your job? You don’t even have another job to go to?”

But a priest friend told her if the calling was coming from God, she would feel peace with her decision. And today she does. “Sometimes in your life, God is telling you, ‘You’re finished here. Now I want you to do another job,’ ” she pointed out.

And there was a more secular — and urgent — reason.

“Now is the moment for me to start and do it,” she said. “Because there always has been an immigrant problem. There’s always detention. There’s always raids. But now … you see the stories of people arrested for nothing. And what about their families? What about the children?”

After a pause, she went on: “And now you’re reading about suicides in these [detention] places. That never happened when we were locked up. So that tells you something. Maybe the buildings they house detainees in have gotten better. But what goes on inside hasn’t, and maybe it has even gotten worse.”

Amalia will soon start a training program offered by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE). It will allow her to go inside detention centers as a religious volunteer. She knows firsthand what that means to women and men locked up for wanting a better life for themselves and their families. Going back will complete the circle.

 “I remember how many blessings I received from the volunteers who came to visit me,” she said. “So I think it’s my time now. I hope to really have the opportunity to bring hope when people are hopeless. And if God brings to me a job, I may go back to work, working with immigrants who are detained.

“But right now I really want to be with them inside,” Amalia added. “Being inside is different than helping people from the outside, you know. So I think it’s the right thing to do.”


Note: Today Amalia Molina Cortina is remarried. The native of El Salvador resides in the San Fernando Valley.