When gang members killed Rebeca Alfaro’s husband in El Salvador in 2009, she wanted to make sure his murderers were put behind bars. But two months after the alleged perpetrators were arrested, she started receiving death threats telling her to retract her complaint to law enforcement officials. Three months later, her mother was killed. Gang members broke into her house and stole everything, leaving Alfaro with no choice but to flee the country. She paid $2,000 to a human smuggler to help her cross the southern U.S. border.
Alfaro left behind her two young daughters and spent years saving enough money to bring them over. Last year, she paid $10,000 to smugglers to lead her two daughters — now ages 10 and 12 — on a two-month northbound journey by bus, by car, and on foot. The girls arrived in the United States last October and now live with Alfaro in Massachusetts.
But Alfaro is worried about what lies in store for her children. Like her, they don’t have papers. She’s afraid they may get caught by U.S. immigrant agents and sent back to the dangerous country they narrowly escaped.
CREDIT: Rebeca Alfaro
“I’m afraid of them going back to El Salvador because I have nowhere to send them to,” Alfaro told ThinkProgress through a Spanish language interpreter. “Their grandmother is dead. The gangs have threatened all members of our family, so the gangs will immediately kill them.”
Alfaro’s daughters are among the tens of thousands of Central American children who have been apprehended coming across the southern U.S. border over the past several years. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have increasingly been arresting Central American children, particularly young girls under the age of 12, in Texas.
The influx of border crossings has prompted the Obama administration to initiate an aggressive campaign designed to deter more Central American children from making the trek. In order to send the message that it’s not a good idea to come to the United States, immigration officials have been targeting Central American immigrants for deportation proceedings. In one such large-scale immigration operation shortly after the new year began, the administration rounded up more than 100 mothers and children.
According to the administration, these raids are supposed to target immigrants who have already been given final deportation orders. But advocacy groups point out that some of the people being detained were not given inadequate legal representation and may still have a shot at staying in the country. In fact, the advocacy group CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project temporarily stopped the deportation proceedings of 33 mothers and children who were arrested in January raids.
As the Obama administration attempts to quickly process the waves of immigrants creating a bottleneck in the court system, children are typically required to appear before an immigration judge within 30 days of their arrival to make the case that they deserve asylum here. The short time frame leaves advocates, guardians, and legal representatives scrambling to find adequate counsel to give them a fair judicial process.
Alfaro has yet to find a lawyer for her daughters. She said that the $10,000 that she paid the smugglers — along with their regular $1,100 monthly rent bills — has left her broke. Her daughters are currently on a wait list to get a free legal representative through a Massachusetts-based immigrant advocacy group. In the meantime, federal immigration agents could arrest them.
That’s why Alfaro is petitioning for the administration to issue Temporary Protection Status (TPS) — a form of temporary immigration relief — to her daughters and other immigrants in the same situation. This form of humanitarian relief would preclude certain foreign nationals from returning to their home country if it may be “unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately.”
Her request follows a similar call to action by 270 organizations seeking to broaden eligibility requirements for immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The uptick of violence in those Central American countries has been staggering, with El Salvador’s homicide rate — currently at 1,399 homicides recorded in January and February — expected to rise even further this year.
“Cases like [Rebeca’s] are emblematic of a problem that is affecting 150,00 to 250,000 people with very similar stories over the past several years,” Oscar Chacon, executive director of the advocacy group Alianza Americas, told ThinkProgress.
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) estimated that anywhere between 750,000 and 1.2 million people in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala could qualify for TPS.
“We’re appalled that the administration is going forward with a campaign of raiding homes even though they perfectly know how bad the situation is in these three countries,” Chacon added.
The United States has come close to acknowledging that some of these Central American immigrants could qualify for refugee status. The president, the head of Homeland Security, the Secretary of State, the State Department, and even the Peace Corps have separately acknowledged the violence in the region.
Alfaro, who has already lost so much to the dangerous gang activity in her home country, knows exactly what’s at stake for her daughters.
“It’s critical to stay here because it’ll give my family the opportunity to move ahead in all senses,” she said. “Both in overcoming poverty but also in the security to know that you won’t be sleeping in the middle of the night and someone will come to kill you. For my children, the ability to study here, to learn another language is an incredible opportunity for them, but also the opportunity to go to school without the fear of reprisal or gang violence.”