At least 138 people who were deported from the U.S. to El Salvador in recent years have been killed, according to a Wednesday report from Human Rights Watch.
A majority of the deaths documented in the report occurred less than a year after the deportees returned to El Salvador, some within days. The organization also confirmed at least 70 cases of sexual assault or other violence following their arrival.
The violence highlights the risk faced by people forced to return by U.S. law, which mandates the deportation of non-citizens convicted of crimes and Trump administration policies that make it harder for people to seek asylum in the U.S., said Alison Leal Parker, the group's U.S. managing director.
"Our concern is that many of these people are facing a death sentence," Leal Parker said.
Between 2014 and 2018, the U.S. deported about 111,000 Salvadorans back to their homeland, which has long been in the grip of fierce gang violence.
The. U.N. reported last year that killings in El Salvador – most of which are linked to gang conflict – have declined from a peak of more than 6,000 in 2015. But the country still retains one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Meanwhile, the number of Salvadorans seeking asylum in the U.S. grew by nearly 1,000 percent between 2012 and 2017. Only about 18 percent are granted asylum.
Human Rights Watch confirmed the 138 deaths during that period through official records, interviews with families, and media accounts but believes the actual toll is much higher.
President Trump has made immigration enforcement central to his administration, and that has included a policy of forcing asylum-seekers from Central America to wait in Mexico while their claims are evaluated.
Many of those asylum-seekers could previously have been released on parole in the U.S. while awaiting a decision on their case that could take a year or more. The Department of Homeland Security says it's trying to make the process more efficient and crack down on fraudulent claims.
Human Rights Watch urged the administration to repeal the policy that requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico along with the agreements that allow Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans to be settled in other countries of Central America while seeking refuge. They also want the attorney general to reverse restrictions that made it harder for them to claim U.S. asylum because of threats posed by gang violence.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.