Increasing numbers of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans are entering the United States illegally and applying for asylum on the grounds that their lives are imperiled by gang violence in their home countries, according to immigration lawyers and advocacy groups.
Although the number granted asylum barely surpassed 700 last year, asylum applications by people from those three countries have almost doubled, which lawyers attribute primarily to fear of gang violence.
The lawyers hope to persuade judges to more readily grant asylum to those who have risked reprisal by resisting extortion demands by gangs, testifying against gang members, renouncing their own membership in gangs or trying to avoid being forced to join gangs.
Gang violence has grown to epidemic proportions in the three countries since the mid-1990s, when the United States began sending Central American-born members of the rival Los Angeles-based Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 gangs back to their home countries. The deportees helped fuel the rise of ferocious sister gangs in Central America, whose estimated 60,000 members are now battling each other, the police and residents in hundreds of communities.
Brittney Nystrom of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which provides a similar service to adult illegal immigrants held in five detention centers in Virginia, said that “literally every week” she comes across an illegal immigrant who left his or her country because of gang violence or fears returning because of it.
Immigration lawyers have responded with a budding effort to win asylum for their clients. And the growing awareness of gang violence may well explain why the number of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans filing asylum claims in U.S. immigration courts jumped from about 7,000 in fiscal 2004 to more than 13,000 in fiscal 2006.
Geoff Thale, an expert on Central American gangs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit advocacy group, dates the trend to spring 2005, when asylum lawyers first began contacting him for background information on gangs in Central America. Since then, Thale has received about 100 such calls, two or three a week.
But asylum claims are hardly an easy route to legalization: Only 721 Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans were granted asylum for any reason in fiscal 2005.
U.S. law requires that an applicant prove his fear of violence is credible and that the threat is based on his race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Immigration judges have frequently ruled against applicants who were victims of gangs because of bad luck or who have faced conscription by a gang simply because they were young and male.
But some judges have been amenable to more nuanced arguments.
Several lawyers also have argued that someone who faces retaliation for refusing to join a gang for religious reasons or because he opposes the gang’s values is being persecuted based on a political view and is therefore eligible for asylum. Wilkes, who also represents Hernandez, said she is hoping to argue that in his case.
Former gang members who worry that they will be killed as punishment for defecting sometimes have been recognized as a protected group by immigration judges. But those judges are often reluctant to grant asylum to former members, opting instead for a less-generous form of relief known as “withdrawal of removal.”
Those granted withdrawal of removal cannot receive federal assistance or apply for permanent residency. The decision permits U.S. authorities to deport immigrants to someplace other than their home country. In practice, however, they are allowed to remain in the United States indefinitely.