Violence in El Salvador is hitting levels not seen since the country's civil war in the 1980s, driving families north and across the U.S. border to seek asylum.
According to data from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees part of the asylum process, Salvadorans make up the highest number of new cases in recent months, surpassing 1,000 for each of April, May and June. But despite the threats applicants face in their home country, gaining asylum in the U.S. is not guaranteed.
A killing and a flight north
Francisca Cuchilla, 37, a mother of three, said she fled El Salvador after her oldest son was found slain on a street corner in August.
“After they killed my son, our lives changed completely,” she said in Spanish. Cuchilla believes her son, Aldo Josue, was killed by gang members to send a message to other youth in the area. Government investigators found that the teen was killed by knives on the night of August 18, 2014, but did not give a reason, according to a local news report at the time. An autopsy report from local authorities showed multiple wounds to the arms, neck, legs and torso. The case remains unsolved.
The killing prompted Cuchilla to take her surviving children north on a nine-day journey through Guatemala and Mexico and across the U.S. border. Cuchilla filed an application for asylum after being apprehended by authorities in April in South Texas and was released on parole to Los Angeles, according her lawyer, Yanci Montes at El Rescate, a legal aid group in L.A.
“Here at least we pass the nights in peace, without the fear that [gangs] are going to come, that they’re going to break down our door, or that they’re going to kill my other children,” said Cuchilla.
Rise of violence, ‘a lawless state’
The family’s case is a glimpse into the violence now gripping El Salvador, where the government launched a tough military campaign, known as mano dura, earlier this year. Since then, the violence has only risen. In May, murders passed 600, according to a tally from local media, La Prensa Gráfica. And that’s for a country with just over 6 million people, fewer than in all of L.A. County.
“The police is incapable of protecting citizens,” said Suyapa Portillo, a professor at Pitzer College whose research focuses on Central America. “The violence that the kids are reporting is the violence in the streets – from gangs, from police from narcotraffickers. It’s become a lawless state.”
That's quickened the pace to an already high caseload. Since 2011, Salvadorans filed 19,366 asylum applications in the U.S. and Canada, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
A challenge for asylum law
The nature of gang violence presents a challenge to the asylum process, said Niels Frenzen director of the University of Southern California’s Law Immigration Clinic.
“Judges, asylum officers, the U.S. government just don’t know what to make of gangs,” said Frenzen. “The argument that a lot of advocates are making, is that these are de facto governments.”
That could be a crucial point because to be granted asylum, a person must prove persecution or the fear of persecution in their home country based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a certain social group or political opinion.
Some immigration lawyers contend that youth in Central America are being targeted by gangs due to their age or where they live, which could qualify them as being part of a certain social group. But that concept remains contested.
“The legal protections that were drafted, were drafted from a European perspective dealing with the post-World War II situation," said Frenzen. "No one could imagine [gangs like] MS-13, no one could imagine 18th Street."
A strain for asylum officers
That makes things hard for asylum officers, who often need to assess complex cases and make a timely decision, said Megan Brewer, a former asylum officer who now practices immigration law privately.
“The asylum officer has the task of serving as the government and also as the judge at the same time and also helping the applicant to meet their burden by eliciting the information,” said Brewer. Over the past four years, the backlog of asylum cases has also surged, hitting more than 70,000 by the end of 2014, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The asylum office in L.A. declined KPCC’s request to interview a current officer, but provided general data on credible fear cases, the kind of case that Francisca Cuchilla and her family filed and an initial step in the asylum process. That data shows that in June, L.A.’s office conducted 717 interviews, approving 575 cases, a rate comparable to the previous eight months. It’s unclear how many of the cases are gang-related.