‘If I’m Deported, They’ll Kill Me’



When she made it to the U.S. border with her 12-year-old daughter in the middle of March, “E.G.S.” thought the door to hell from where she had fled was finally closed. She thought she was safe from the MS-13 gang members who killed her brother-in-law shortly after the U.S. deported him and from those who had repeatedly extorted and raped her. And she thought that she had gotten her daughter to safety after the MS-13 threatened to do the same to her daughter and started harassing her when she got out of school. The imminent deportation order now hanging over mother and daughter is much more than the end of their attempt to seek a better life. It is, she says, a death sentence.

“When I get back, I imagine they’ll follow through with their threat. They did it to a neighbor who turned them in for robbing her and three days later, sent someone out to kill her. That is what I’m afraid of,” says E.G.S. Out of fear, she does not dare to give her name, speaking by phone from the Karnes County Civil Detention Center in Texas where she and her daughter await their fate. Her experience is not unique. “What she has suffered is, unfortunately, very common. We hear it from so many women and children who have received threats from gangs, who are threatened with sexual assault or even death,” says Manoj Govindaiah, a lawyer from RAICES, an organization that provides legal services to immigrants and refugees in Texas.

The Obama administration announced that in the coming weeks it will start a new surge of raids and deportations of undocumented Central Americans who arrived after January 2014. That is the year when, by the tens of thousands, unaccompanied minors and mothers with their children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras began to arrive. The fact that there will be priority on deporting mothers and minors such as E.G.S. and her daughter has led to a wave of outrage among those who accuse the White House — from organizations to Democratic legislators — of having a “hemispheric bias” that is treating Central American immigrants more harshly than other refugee groups.

“The government doesn’t want to recognize that mothers and children prioritized in these waves of deportation are, like the Syrian refugees, people who simply have to choose between life and death. They seek refuge in the U.S. from the horrific violence that they flee,” decries Marialena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a precautionary warning in favor of E.G.S. and her daughter in which it urges the U.S. to halt their deportation, recalling in its resolution the violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle that has left a death toll “higher than four West African countries struggling with the Boko Haram insurgency and even higher than the death tolls in Somalia, Libya and South Sudan.”

According to Hincapié, it is easier for the government to consider them economic migrants because that facilitates the decision to deport them. But the figures and stories tell something else, says Michelle Brané, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. “We have seen a dramatic shift in the demographics of those coming over and [the reasons] why: there has been a significant decrease of economic migration, but at the same time there is an increase of women and children seeking asylum. It is very clear that there is a high percentage of people looking for protection.” In El Salvador, E.G.S. had a food stand and also sold jewelry door-to-door. It was not much but it was enough to live on. Had they not been threatened, she and her daughter would not have left their city where her husband and two other small children stayed behind because “there wasn’t enough money” for the coyote smuggler hired to take them up to the U.S. border.

The Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of implementing Obama’s migration policy, says that it will only detain those who “have been ordered removed by an immigration court and have no pending appeal or pending claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws.” But things are not so simple, cautions Govindaiah.

The process to be accepted as a refugee “is extremely intricate and difficult, and also in English, which makes it very easy for someone to not understand or know how to navigate it,” he explains. All the more so if there is not legal counsel from the outset, as happens in many cases.

Experts believe that after this new surge of raids continuing through next January, Washington will pursue a deterrent effect for other undocumented persons. But the effectiveness of this measure, they say, is quite uncertain. “When you’re in a burning house, shutting the windows and doors is not going to keep people from trying to break out,” warns Brane.

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