OPINION

Opinion: Our asylum system fails and a 10-year-old boy could be deported to his death

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 15: Roberto Larios, 21, (R) holds Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival application as he waits in line with hundreds of fellow undocumanted immigrants at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles offices to apply for deportation reprieve on August 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Under a new program established by the Obama administration undocumented youth who qualify for the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, can file applications from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website to avoid deportation and obtain the right to work  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 15: Roberto Larios, 21, (R) holds Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival application as he waits in line with hundreds of fellow undocumanted immigrants at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles offices to apply for deportation reprieve on August 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Under a new program established by the Obama administration undocumented youth who qualify for the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, can file applications from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website to avoid deportation and obtain the right to work (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)  (2012 Getty Images)

Central American families continue to flee horrific violence and targeting by gangs. Unfortunately, these traumatized families are subjected to fast-track deportation proceedings upon arrival and some are simply unable to come to terms and tell their story to a stranger so quickly. Take Josie*, for example, a mother of two from El Salvador. 

When a survivor is unable to articulate what happened to her in that first interview, for totally understandable reasons related to her trauma, or where new and compelling evidence comes to light after the interview, she should be given a second chance to tell her story and to save the life of her 10-year-old son.

- Lindsay M. Harris

Josie was subjected to repeated physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the father of her children. On one occasion, when she was pregnant with their second child, he kicked her in the back after he saw another man compliment her on her cute baby as she walked down the street. 

She was terrified and it was only when her abuser left for nine years that Josie was relieved of his daily violence. Upon his return, however, he repeatedly harassed and threatened her. Josie endured this, but could not stay when she found out that members of the powerful MS gang, a transnational criminal organization, had been threatening, beating, and choking her 10-year-old son Manuel, in an effort to get him to join them. 

She had no choice but to flee.

Josie and her son undertook the long and dangerous journey to the U.S., bringing with them another boy, Cristofer, a friend of her son’s, who was also at risk of death for refusing gang recruitment. They traveled together through Mexico but were separated from Cristofer when Mexican authorities stopped the truck he was riding in, apprehended and detained him, and deported him back to El Salvador. 

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It was only weeks later, after her arrival in the U.S. and detention at the family detention center in Dilley, Texas, that Josie learned Cristofer had been killed within a week of being sent back to El Salvador.

Josie and Manuel are held in the largest immigration detention center in the country, a center purpose-built for the detention of immigrant children and their mothers. About a week after her initial detention, she underwent a “credible fear interview” — an initial screening interview with a USCIS asylum officer to determine whether she could establish threshold eligibility for asylum protection in the United States. 

Josie described that interview as intimidating; the asylum officer smiled, laughed at her, and failed to ask follow up questions. She was unable to share her story. A psychologist later met with Josie and diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and unspecified anxiety disorder. During her initial interview and a review of the asylum office’s negative determination before an immigration judge, Josie did not disclose the abuse she had suffered in El Salvador or her fear that her abuser would start harming her again. She also had not yet learned that Cristofer had been killed.

Attorneys with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, upon learning all of the details of Josie’s fear of return to El Salvador for herself and for her son, filed a request for reconsideration with the asylum office for the family on April 4, but it was quickly denied the same day. 

Attorneys scrambled again to protect this family, submitting a second request for reconsideration, including even more key evidence, like the death certificate for Cristofer, killed in El Salvador, but the asylum office denied that second request as well.

Yesterday we received notice that Josie and her son will be removed to El Salvador today. As we try to protect Josie and little Manuel, we are forced to ask, yet again, why the government continues to push families through these fast-track procedures in detention? 

Survivors of trauma like Josie and Manuel, seeking protection in the United States, should not be forced into these expedited procedures. And, when a survivor is unable to articulate what happened to her in that first interview, for totally understandable reasons related to her trauma, or where new and compelling evidence comes to light after the interview, she should be given a second chance to tell her story and to save the life of her 10-year-old son.

*Names changed for the family’s safety.

Lindsay M. Harris is an assistant professor of law at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law in Washington DC. She teaches in the immigration and human rights clinic and formerly worked for the American Immigration Council, as part of the CARA Project.

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