Immigrating north: Sonia Leones’ story

Sonia Leones with her working uniform and identification on the Flagler College campus.

By Adriana Cabezas |

Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel drove Flagler College’s custodial worker, Sonia Leones, 66, out of Colombia and into the United States.

Like many other Colombians, fleeing was the only way to escape the danger of the narcotraffic mafia taking over the country. Unlike many others, Leones had a chance for a better life, and she took it. With a 20-day travel visa, she entered the United States and, 29 years later, she’s still here.

After the mafia assassinated her boyfriend, Leones decided it was time to leave. The family she was working for at the time offered her a job in Miami if she went with them and, without hesitation, she took it. However, the family lost all their money and was unable to help Leones get the necessary documents to work and live in the United States.

With sad eyes and shaky hands, the 66-year-old recalls the phone call she received a couple of days before her travel visa expired to learn her father had died.

“I told myself I needed to move forward,” Leones said with a crack in her voice and tears in her eyes. “I had to do it for my family. I was alone and afraid, but I had become the only financial help for my family.”

For more than five years, Leones was living by herself and working as an undocumented immigrant in Miami.

“I didn’t dare to leave the house,” she said. “I limited myself to do everyday things because there were migration officers everywhere you went. I lived a life of fear.”

Although she lived day by day fearing deportation, Leones said the hardest part was living by herself.

“I don’t have family here,” she said. “I’m alone, I have no one. I only have my job.”

Immigrants coming into the United States illegally go through horrible experiences. They get harassed and bullied, mostly because of their physical appearance and their inability to speak English fluently, Leones said. They also get taken advantage of. She worked more than 12 hours a day, getting paid only $4 to $6 an hour.

Once, she worked for months for a Brazilian family that never paid her. When she went to demand her money, they told her they weren’t paying her at all. Because of her nonexistent working documents, she couldn’t do anything about it, so she left.

“Finally, an opportunity presented itself to me,” Leones said. “I was able to get a green card, allowing me to live and work legally in the United States.”

She said she paid $8,000 for the whole process, which is roughly around $13,500 today.

“My life completely changed,” she said. “I was not afraid anymore, and I was working; making money to send back my family in Colombia.”

Leones said the main reason Latin Americans come to the United States is to provide a better life for their families. The U.S. dollar is worth much more in Latin American countries because of the exchange rate. They are willing to live their whole lives away from their families to be able to support them financially. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 13.5 percent of the United States population in 2015 consisted of immigrants.

Leones has been working legally at Flagler College for 11 years, this July. She says Flagler students are her family and the ones that maintain her happiness during these years of solitude. She is currently trying to save up enough money to buy a house in Colombia for her whole family. She hopes she’ll be able to move back to her homeland to live her last years accompanied by her loved ones.

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