After 76 days of being locked up, Iris Rodriguez stepped out of the soulless lobby of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Burlington the other day and told her brother, her boyfriend, and a friend who had come to pick her up that all she wanted was seafood soup.
More specifically, she wanted the spicy seafood soup at H Mart, the Korean food emporium a couple of miles away from the ICE lockup. She used to work at H Mart, and many other Guatemalans — like her — still do.
After soup, they drove her to Lynn, where everybody was waiting at her house. Once she was safe inside, everybody cheered.
Iris was home. Finally.
She had spent her birthday in jail, so they brought out a cake and sang “Feliz Cumpleanos” and Iris Rodriguez covered her mouth with cupped hands.
Her brother, Nery, collapsed. Iris went to him and saw it was the pent-up emotion that made him go limp.
“In you,” Nery Rodriguez told his sister, “I see our dead mother.”
Twenty-four years ago, when she was 21, Iris Rodriguez fled Guatemala, where a politically connected man had raped and threatened her over a four-year period. The man tried to run her over with a truck, badly injuring her knee. The guy’s family was in the government, so when Iris’s mother reported the crime to the authorities, they did nothing.
Iris settled in Lynn, worked a variety of jobs, bought a house, paid her taxes, and became part of her community. But after she went to ICE in July, trying to resolve her residency status, they mocked her and locked her up.
The government, our government, wants to deport her back to the place where her rapist sits untouched, above reproach as a local government official.
Her lawyers, Victor Maldonado and Dayanna Moreno, filed motions to save her from being sent back to where she was raped, and thankfully there are laws that protect us from the whim of a government that locks up decent working people like Iris Rodriguez instead of using its limited resources to go after real criminals.
On Wednesday, Iris Rodriguez posted $1,500 bond and was released to await a hearing in December, when the timetable for her asylum request will be set. Her lawyers are confident she is not going anywhere but home, and home is Lynn, not Guatemala. She wants to go back to work, managing a dry-cleaning business, but her boss told her to get her knee fixed first. Her job is safe.
On Thursday, when they met at Maldonado’s law office in Waltham, Moreno kept looking at Iris and knew there was something different about her. She couldn’t put a finger on it.
“Then it hit me,” Moreno said. “Iris was smiling. I had only seen her in jail. I hadn’t seen her smile.”
Having never been in jail before, Rodriguez was shocked by what she saw. Many of the detainees were drug addicts, sick from withdrawal. Fights were common. There was a lockdown when she was in the Bristol County jail. She was forced to strip while female guards searched her. She was naked, standing there. They left the door open and male guards looked at her.
“It was horrible,” she said. “The physical invasion.”
While Iris Rodriguez, a victim of sexual violence, was locked up, the nation began a long overdue conversation about sexual assault and harassment.
“I had to explain the Harvey Weinstein story to her and what that had done,” Victor Maldonado said. “I told her that many women have found their voice with all this out in the open. And so has Iris.”
Iris Rodriguez thought a lot about what had been done to her in Guatemala, and why she told some members of her family, and why she didn’t tell others, including her father.
“When I was inside, I began thinking my experience, talking about it, might help someone,” she said. “The traumas I went through, I think my heart was hardened. Now, my heart is open.”Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org