Asylum seekers in the United States face dangerous, even deadly, consequences when their claims are not taken seriously.
Those at risk are people like Santos Amaya, a Salvadoran police officer who had received death threats from gang members. He was deported from the United States in April 2018 and was shot dead, allegedly by gangs, that same month. People like a young Salvadoran woman who fled domestic violence and rape and was deported to El Salvador in July 2018. She now lives in fear, hiding from her abusers.
These lives hang in the balance while the Trump administration attacks every legal means of protecting them in the United States.
On Feb. 5, Human Rights Watch released a report that identified 138 cases of Salvadorans who had been killed since 2013 after being deported from the United States; more than 70 others were beaten, sexually assaulted, extorted or tortured. These numbers are shocking but certainly an undercount, because no government or entity tracks what happens to deportees.
The Trump administration has put pressure on immigration judges to use overly narrow readings of the definition of a refugee. This approach may result in judges denying asylum to people like Amaya and the young Salvadoran woman — survivors of domestic violence, people who fear violence at the hands of gangs, or people who fear being targeted based on their family relationships. The administration has further proposed several new obstacles to gain asylum, including barring people convicted of illegal reentry into the United States, an offense often committed by people desperate to seek safety.
The Trump administration has tried to destroy the US asylum process in other ways — among them by forcing people to remain in dangerous and inhumane conditions in Mexican border towns while their claims are processed under its Migrant Protection Protocols. A Syracuse University analysis of government data revealed that as of December, 7,668 Salvadorans have been forced to wait in Mexico for their asylum claims to be processed. We have documented cases, included in a tally maintained by Human Rights First, of Salvadorans who have been kidnapped and attacked while waiting.
The United States is also returning asylum seekers to Guatemala, after pressing its government to sign an “asylum cooperation agreement,” despite the fact that many Guatemalans are fleeing for the same reasons as their Salvadoran neighbors.
Salvadorans in the United States are at risk for reasons other than the Trump administration’s attempt to eviscerate the right to seek asylum. More than 220,000 Salvadorans are affected by the administration’s decision to end temporary protected status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections. The administration also decided to end work authorization for Salvadorans with TPS, which allowed many Salvadorans to come to the United States in 2001 after a series of natural disasters.
These policies cover people who have worked, raised families, educated themselves and built their lives in the United States. This alone should be reason to value their relationship to the United States and regularize their legal status. But the killings and abuse that many Salvadorans will face if they are returned makes the need for Congress to enact legislation to protect recipients of these programs even more acute.
Former long-term residents of the United States face unique risks. Salvadorans who have lived in the United States are often extorted by gangs, as two cases we investigated in detail illustrate. In each, the person’s long-term residence meant that they were seen as having more wealth than most Salvadorans. They were repeatedly extorted by gangs and ultimately killed for their refusal to pay bribes.
But the Trump administration is not solely at fault here. Existing law, passed long before President Trump took office, has largely barred people with criminal convictions from seeking asylum, even when they face harm. They include a young man whose case we investigated, who at age 17, in 2010, fled gang recruitment and violence for the United States. After serving a sentence for two counts related to burglaries in the United States, he was denied protection, deported in 2017 and killed about three months later.
There is a simple way to prevent the murders and abuse we spent the past year and a half investigating: Give all noncitizens a full and fair opportunity to explain what abuses they fear before deporting them. As Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement after we released our report, the United States must stop “knowingly signing a death sentence by forcibly returning vulnerable people to the very place they fled.”
The right to a fair hearing on claims for protection should apply to everyone — including the more than 59,000 people waiting in dangerous and inhumane conditions in Mexican border towns, people who had been living under the TPS or DACA programs, or those who have paid their debt to society after serving criminal sentences.
Now US authorities are on notice about what is likely to happen when they deport Salvadorans without adequately considering their cases. This shameful and illegal practice should stop.