Maria and her 10-year-old son Jose fled El Salvador in early October to seek asylum in the United States, hoping they may finally be able to leave gang violence behind. For the three months up until they left, MS-13 gang members targeted Jose every day for being gay, calling him homophobic names and beating him up in school. The pair ultimately decided to cross the border to reunite with Maria’s brother in Maryland. But now, they may be sent back as soon as Wednesday.
After Maria and Jose — whose names have been changed for their protection — crossed the southern U.S. border last month, they were sent to Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, which is one of three major immigrant family detention centers used to hold people before they can go before an immigration judge at their court hearing. In order to qualify for asylum in this country, Maria and Jose needed to prove to the judge they have “credible fear” that prevents them from feeling safe in their home country.
They didn’t meet the criteria. Since homosexuality is not accepted in El Salvador and their family is deeply religious, Maria felt too “ashamed” to discuss her son’s sexuality and the homophobic slurs he has encountered with the asylum officer during her credible fear interview. She did not have legal counsel during her interview nor when her case was reviewed by an immigration judge. And her son was not given the chance to explain his circumstances.
Maria and Jose’s case was taken up by Emily Puhl, an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow and pro bono attorney at the advocacy group RAICES, who initially asked for a “reinterview” and a stay of removal. That request was denied on Tuesday. The Salvadoran consulate informed the mother and son that they would be deported this week.
It’s not really taking into account cultural factors.
“This case illustrates how ICE [the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency] is shuttling people through the process without giving people time to talk to a lawyer, to understand what’s important information to give,” Puhl said. “It’s not really taking into account cultural factors of fear of giving information which show that they qualify for asylum. They’re also not talking to children about their experiences to let them also show that they have asylum claims.”
A decision by California District Judge Dolly Gee this past summer called for the Obama administration to comply with a class-action agreement to establish guidelines for treating children in detention centers. Gee also condemned the conditions of family detention centers, calling on an end to the way that families are currently detained. Spurred by the deadline and pressure from advocates, the Obama administration responded that it would process immigrants either for supervised release or deportation proceedings within an average of 20 days.
But the administration’s effort to closely hinge to the promised turnaround time may prove detrimental for some unrepresented immigrants, like Maria and Jose, who are unable to “fully express their fear” during their credible fear interviews. In Puhl’s anecdotal experience, those immigrants are denied a reinterview process, especially if they have been in detention past the 20-day mark. She added that she was told that her clients had a 30-day turnaround deadline, though other attorneys were quoted other numbers.
“The process started to get sped up to the point where women and children hit 30 days in detention and we’re seeing them get deported regardless of where they are in trying to show that they qualify for asylum,” Puhl said. “If they don’t talk to an attorney before they have their first interview and go in front of a judge, then we’re racing to get them a new interview before their 30 days expire.”
It requires an attorney to be advocating for everyone, but we don’t have enough attorneys.
Puhl said that the tight turnaround on Maria and Jose’s case, as well as the unwillingness of ICE officers to exercise discretion to grant reinterviews, is representative of other cases she’s seen. Notably, Puhl explained that a woman she recently represented was deported after she exceeded 30 days in detention despite her still waiting for a reinterview request from an asylum officer.
“It requires an attorney to be advocating for everyone, but we don’t have enough attorneys,” Puhl said.
Puhl is worried that Jose will be targeted “everywhere he goes,” while his mother could be seen “as supporting the equality of people who are gay, which is very much persecuted in El Salvador.”
Hate crimes in El Salvador against the LGBT community are on the uptick and the penal system doesn’t recognize crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity, according to Al Jazeera America. At least 500 cases of murder and assault against LGBT people have been documented since 1993, though it’s likely that many more go unreported.