Part 3 of a series on gang violence in El Salvador and those fleeing it to Massachusetts
Lisette glances over her right shoulder, looking out the window of a Greyhound bus at the U.S. immigration agents sitting nearby in an unmarked white cargo van. The agents just dropped her and her 11-year-old daughter off at a bus stop in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and are idling, waiting for the bus to leave. Her daughter, Abigail, sits next to her, wearing a pink T-shirt with the word "Love" printed in glittery font. The young girl smiles, while her mom keeps her eyes on the van. "I'm always nervous," Lisette says. "Anxious. That's the truth."
The bus pulls away from the dusty station and Lisette manages a shallow sigh of relief, beginning the next leg of what's already been an unpredictable journey.
"I left El Salvador on July 12 by bus," she says in Spanish. "We crossed the river in tiny inflatable rafts, and ours was losing air. The person who was ferrying us told us to look for red lights once we got to the mountains. We didn’t see anything. We despaired because we found clothing. We found shoes. We found people’s bones. We walked for maybe three hours. It was horrible. Horrible."
Eleven days after first fleeing, Lisette and Abigail were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol officers near Hidalgo, Texas, more than 1,000 miles from their Salvadoran home. (We agreed to not use their full names because Lisette fears for their lives.)
Lisette says they were told they’d be deported immediately and she was asked to sign her deportation order. When she refused, the officer told her she could be detained for months.
"Fine," she says she told him. "It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to go back to my country. I can’t." They're now seeking asylum in America.
In Mejicanos, 'They Are Everywhere'
In the gritty outskirts of the capital San Salvador, in the city of Mejicanos, graffiti marks the transitions between rival gang territories. M-S, or Mara Salvatrucha, and 18th Street are the most notorious.
Lisette's mother and younger sister, Adela and Catherine, take a bus to the center of town, meeting me, my translator and my driver to accompany us into their neighborhood. They explain it’s safer arriving with locals. The driver decides to take his personal car for this interview, leaving the cab with tinted windows at home. This way, he says, people can see who is sitting in the back seat. It's one of many precautions we take in this country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
During the drive, Adela points out a spot near her house where, four year ago, 17 people were killed when members of the 18th Street gang stopped a bus full of commuters, doused it with gasoline, and set it on fire. The gangs often torment bus drivers, threatening those who refuse to pay extortion fees. Mejicanos has become known for such displays of violence.
Parking the car in a dirt driveway, we follow Adela and Catherine down a narrow cement pathway, ducking under laundry hanging to dry in the early morning sun. They invite us into their small home. Sitting down at the kitchen table, Adela explains why her daughter Lisette had to leave for Boston.
"My daughter’s husband cheated on her," Adela says, nervously wringing her folded hands. "That’s when the threats began against all of us, against the whole family. The threats were getting worse. Death threats."
Adela says that Lisette’s husband started an affair with a woman involved in one of the gangs. When Lisette asked her estranged husband for money to help support their two daughters, she says his mistress threatened to kill Lisette and her entire family. She says those threats have continued since Lisette left in July, and that she and Catherine pay the gangs an extortion fee, what many call "la renta." Some days it's $3, other days $5.
Because Lisette has a disability that makes walking long distances a challenge, and because of the money needed for the journey, she decided she couldn't bring both of her daughters to America. So Lisette's 6-year-old stayed behind with Adela.
"She was being harassed by gangs. They were looking for the girl," Adela says. "I was in a terrible panic because I felt that they were shooting at the girl and they were shooting at me, too." She makes her hand into the shape of a gun, showing us how the gang members threatened her and her granddaughter.
She speaks in whispers throughout the interview, and her eyes shift every time someone passes by the door.
"The gang members hang out three houses away from us and, you know, walls can hear, so it’s scary," she says. "But we trust and ask God to take us away from here someday."
Adela and her daughter Catherine believe Lisette and her daughter Abigail are safe in America — for now. I ask what will happen if the U.S. denies them asylum.
"That’s the worst thing that could happen," Adela explains. "We don’t have a way to leave, to go to another place. In the end, they will always look for us because they are everywhere."
"She can't come back," Catherine says. "If they see her, the first thing they'll do is someone will make a phone call and say, 'She’s here. You can send the order to kill her.' "
"Here in the house," Adela interrupts. "They’ll do it here in the house. They’ll come into the house and kill us all. That's the way it is here."
Our driver interrupts the interview at this point, telling our translator we should get going. He says that he's noticed neighbors stirring, walking by and peeking through the steel bars on the windows and door. We pack up.
Organized Crime In Control
El Salvador had the second-highest murder rate in the world in 2012, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and murders are up this year. And a 2012 report from the Small Arms Survey found that El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide, the killing of females, in the world.
Women and young girls are especially vulnerable to the brutality of gang-related violence. This leads many to flee. Some borrow money for the journey — as Lisette did — knowing there are plenty of risks, and no guarantees, along the way.
Jose Osvaldo Lopez is a human rights lawyer for Foundation Cristosal in San Salvador. He offers legal advice to people threatened by gangs, most of them looking for protection, which can be difficult to come by in El Salvador, a country roughly the same size as Massachusetts.
"This is a country of 20,000 square kilometers and almost 6 million people," he says. "Organized crime controls pretty much the entire country. There are two factors there: the population density, which does not allow people to move elsewhere, but also the control that already exists on the part of organized crime."
Lopez says the options available to people within El Salvador are limited. This makes even the chance of asylum in the U.S. all the more appealing, raising the stakes for asylum hearings.
"When a person finds support or protection in another country, and they're forced to return, that is sending him or her back to a certain death," he says. "If there's already a clear link to persecution by gangs, they're going to kill him or her. That's the only thing that is going to happen."
But gang threats alone are not enough to assure asylum in the U.S. In fiscal year 2013, when considering asylum applicants who were already in the process of being deported, U.S. immigration courts denied nearly 10 applications from Salvadorans for every one granted. In Boston immigration court, where Lisette's case is slated to appear, 56 percent of the asylum cases from all countries were granted in fiscal year 2013.
Months In Artesia Detention Center
After Lisette and Abigail were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol, they spent more than two months in a federal family detention center. The facility in Artesia, New Mexico, is about 200 miles north of El Paso. The scent of petroleum lingers in the desert air and oil rigs dot the horizon along the isolated U.S. Route 285, one of the main roads in and out of town.
A federal law enforcement training center was converted to the detention center in June to temporarily accommodate the surge of Central American immigrants showing up at the U.S. border.
Operations at the detention facility came under fire when civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit in August, in part claiming that a lack of sufficient representation was preventing many of the detainees from fully understanding their due process rights, resulting in rapid deportation back to their country.
Six months later, after a steady stream of pro bono lawyers arrived to volunteer their services, the rate of deportations dropped dramatically. The federal government recently announced plans to close the center this month, transferring remaining detainees to another facility in Texas.
Back on the bus, on the day of her release from the center, Lisette recalls her time at Artesia.
"These were very traumatic months for me, to see my daughter not eating … to leave my family behind, to leave my other daughter behind," she says, her eyes welling with tears. "Even now, I can’t believe it. It’s hard because you feel like you’ve left a part of yourself behind … but in El Salvador, we were in danger.”
A federal asylum officer interviewed Lisette in Artesia, deciding she and her daughter did indeed have what’s called “a credible fear of return” to their home country. This sent their case before an immigration judge in Denver, who would determine whether or not Lisette and Abigail were eligible for release from the facility on cash bond.
Kira Gagarin, an immigration lawyer in Framingham, met Lisette when she was volunteering in Artesia. When she learned Lisette was trying to reunite with family in Lynn, Massachusetts, Gagarin offered to represent her pro bono.
"The basis of her asylum is because she was persecuted by gangs in her native El Salvador," Gagarin explains. "And the problem there is, as a single woman, because her husband had left her and because she doesn't have any men in her family, she was very vulnerable to the continued gang persecution there.”
The bond hearing was conducted on Oct. 1 via Skype with the judge in Denver asking questions through a translator. When the video froze in Artesia, the hearing continued as a conference call. After taking into consideration her lack of a criminal record, the financial support of her family living in Lynn, and her pro bono counsel, the judge determined that Lisette and her daughter posed little flight risk and were not a danger to the community. He ordered a $3,000 cash bond for their release. Lisette's cousins in Lynn paid the bond and bought two bus tickets for Boston, a city Lisette and Abigail know little about.
"I think it’s a beautiful city, very big, and full of people," Abigail says giggling. Lisette says she can't imagine what Boston is like. "I never thought I’d be in this situation," she says, "leaving my country to go to another country so far away. But everyone tells me Boston is very pretty.”
After more than 30 hours by bus from New Mexico — and after traveling thousands of miles from their home in El Salvador — Lisette and Abigail finally arrive at South Station. They have one bag of clothing and an envelope full of paperwork.
Lisette's Aunt Maria hasn’t seen her since she was a little girl and she’s never met Abigail. As the two step off the bus and walk into the terminal, Maria whispers under her breath, "Is that them?"
"We’re here. We’re here," Lisette says, wiping away tears and nuzzling her face into her aunt's embrace. "I still can’t believe I got here," she says. "Let’s see what happens. The only thing we can do now is look forward and see what the future brings us in this country."
There was another reunion waiting for Lisette in Lynn, one she had no idea was coming: her other daughter, the 6-year-old, the one being threatened by gang members after Lisette left.
"Wow," Lisette says, recalling her reaction when she saw her daughter. "It's the best thing that could happen to me. I never expected this...to find my princess, who I'd left for lost."
The young girl walks into a family member's living room in Lynn and Lisette's face lights up. "Here she is, here’s my princess."
The family explains that Lisette's mother, back in Mejicanos, simply couldn't protect the 6-year-old any longer. She made the decision to send the child, with another relative, by bus to Boston. It's still unclear exactly what happened at the U.S. border, but the little girl made it to Massachusetts in August, while her mom and sister were still detained in Artesia.
Lisette says she's relieved to have both of her daughters by her side while she waits to begin the asylum hearing, the next step in their journey. According to her lawyer, the wait for a judge to hear their case could be anywhere between three and six years.
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