Olga Guzman knew there was no way she'd be able to crawl in the chilly waters of the Rio Grande. Not with a bulging belly and a child due in weeks.
So when the "coyote"_ the smuggler she'd paid $2,500 to get her from Mexico to Texas _ told her to hide, she couldn't. She was quickly apprehended by border patrol agents _ and just as quickly declared she wanted asylum.
That was September 2005. More than 5 1/2 years later, she's still waiting to explain why in immigration court.
Guzman claims her common-law husband in Guatemala beat and threatened her with a machete, leaving her so scared and desperate that she fled without telling her four young children.
"It was so, so sad to leave them but I had no other option," Guzman says through a translator. "Every time he would look at me, he would threaten to kill me and I just couldn't do it."
She did odd jobs for two months, working her way north through Mexico, saving to help pay a smuggler to get across the river to Brownsville, Texas. Her daughter was born in the U.S. 17 days later.
Guzman's bid for asylum has stalled for various reasons: a government request for more time, a judge's retirement, the crowded docket _ and, her lawyer says, a reluctance among immigration judges to tackle cases involving battered women.
Some judges "have a hard time seeing domestic abuse claims through the same lens as they do other asylum cases," says Ashley Huebner, Guzman's lawyer at the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center. "They tend to see them as isolated private matters involving two people in an intimate relationship."
Critics argue abuse claims are hard to document and changing policy could open the floodgates, with millions of women streaming across the border. Advocates say it's difficult for most abused women to flee, make it to America and win in court.
In one celebrated case, a Guatemalan woman who'd accused her husband of pistol-whipping and savagely beating her waged a 14-year legal battle before being granted asylum in 2009.
Guzman, now 35, lives in Indiana near her sister with her two youngest daughters, 5 and 4. She has a job at a fast food restaurant (her lawyer secured a work permit) and she talks regularly with her four children _ they range from 8 to 14 _ in Guatemala.
"My kids often tell me, `Don't just leave us here. We want you with us. Why don't you come back?' I say, `You need patience. The process is long.'"
Her next hearing is set for February 2012, her case recently was transferred to a new judge _ for a third time.
"Every day," she says, "is like an eternity."