Forced Back into the Lion’s Den

Of the estimated 1.2 million Salvadorans living in the United States who are not U.S. citizens, just under one-quarter are lawful permanent residents, with the remaining three-quarters lacking papers or holding a temporary or precarious legal status. While Salvadorans have asylum recognition rates as high as 75 percent in other Central American nations, and 36.5 percent in Mexico, the US recognized just 18.2 percent of Salvadorans as qualifying for asylum from 2014 to 2018. Between 2014-2018, the U.S. and Mexico have deported about 213,000 Salvadorans (102,000 from Mexico and 111,000 from the United States).

No government, UN agency, or nongovernmental organization has systematically monitored what happens to deported persons once back in El Salvador. This report begins to fill that gap. It shows that, as asylum and immigration policies tighten in the United States and dire security problems continue in El Salvador, the US is repeatedly violating its obligations to protect Salvadorans from return to serious risk of harm.

Some deportees are killed following their return to El Salvador. In researching this report, we identified or investigated 138 cases of Salvadorans killed since 2013 after deportation from the US. We found these cases by combing through press accounts and court files, and by interviewing surviving family members, community members, and officials. There is no official tally, however, and our research suggests that the number of those killed is likely greater.

Though much harder to identify because they are almost never reported by the press or to authorities, we also identified or investigated over 70 instances in which deportees were subjected to sexual violence, torture, and other harm, usually at the hands of gangs, or who went missing following their return.

In many of these more than 200 cases, we found a clear link between the killing or harm to the deportee upon return and the reasons they had fled El Salvador in the first place. In other cases, we lacked sufficient evidence to establish such a link. Even the latter cases, however, show the risks to which Salvadorans can be exposed upon return and the importance of US authorities giving them a meaningful opportunity to explain why they need protection before they are deported.

The following three cases illustrate the range of harms:

·  In 2010, when he was 17, Javier B. fled gang recruitment and his particularly violent neighborhood for the United States, where his mother, Jennifer B., had already fled. Javier was denied asylum and was deported in approximately March 2017, when he was 23 years old. Jennifer said Javier was killed four months later while living with his grandmother: “That’s actually where they [the gang, MS-13 (or Mara Salvatrucha-13)] killed him.… It’s terrible. They got him from the house at 11:00 a.m. They saw his tattoos. I knew they’d kill him for his tattoos. That is exactly what happened.… The problem was with [the gang] MS [-13], not with the police.” (According to Human Rights Watch’s research, having tattoos may be a source of concern, even if the tattoo is not gang-related).

·  In 2013, cousins Walter T. and Gaspar T. also fled gang recruitment when they were 16 and 17 years old, respectively. They were denied asylum and deported by the United States to El Salvador in 2019. Gaspar explained that in April or May 2019 when he and Walter were sleeping at their respective homes in El Salvador, a police patrol arrived “and took me and Walter and three others from our homes, without a warrant and without a reason. They began beating us until we arrived at the police barracks. There, they held us for three days, claiming we’d be charged with illicit association (agrupaciones ilícitas). We were beaten [repeatedly] during those three days.”  

·  In 2014, when she was 20, Angelina N. fled abuse at the hands of Jaime M., the father of her 4-year-old daughter, and of Mateo O., a male gang member who harassed her repeatedly. US authorities apprehended her at the border trying to enter the US and deported her that same year. Once back in El Salvador, she was at home in October 2014, when Mateo resumed pursuing and threatening her. Angelina recounted: “[He] came inside and forced me to have sex with him for the first time. He took out his gun.… I was so scared that I obeyed … when he left, I started crying. I didn’t say anything at the time or even file a complaint to the police. I thought it would be worse if I did because I thought someone from the police would likely tell [Mateo].… He told me he was going to kill my father and my daughter if I reported the [original and three subsequent] rapes, because I was ‘his woman.’ [He] hit me and told me that he wanted me all to himself.”

As in these three cases, some people deported from the United States back to El Salvador face the same abusers, often in the same neighborhoods, they originally fled: gang members, police officers, state security forces, and perpetrators of domestic violence. Others worked in law enforcement in El Salvador and now fear persecution by gangs or corrupt officials.

Deportees also include former long-term US residents, who with their families are singled out as easy and lucrative targets for extortion or abuse. Former long-term residents of the US who are deported may also readily run afoul of the many unspoken rules Salvadorans must follow in their daily lives in order to avoid being harmed.  

Nearly 900,000 Salvadorans living in the US without papers or only a temporary status together with the thousands leaving El Salvador each month to seek safety in the US are increasingly at risk of deportation. The threat of deportation is on the rise due to various Trump administration policy changes affecting US immigration enforcement inside its borders and beyond, changes that exacerbated the many hurdles that already existed for individuals seeking protection and relief from deportation.

Increasingly, the United States is pursuing policies that shift responsibility for immigration enforcement to countries like Mexico in an effort to avoid any obligation for the safety and well-being of migrants and protection of asylum-seekers. As ever-more restrictive asylum and immigration policies take hold in the US, this situation—for Salvadorans, and for others—will only worsen. Throughout, US authorities are turning a blind eye to the abuse Salvadorans face upon return.

Some people from El Salvador living in the United States have had a temporary legal status known as “Temporary Protected Status” or “TPS,” which has allowed those present in the United States since February 2001 (around 195,000 people) to build their lives in the country with limited fear of deportation. Similarly, in 2012, the Obama administration provided some 26,000 Salvadorans with “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” or “DACA” status, which afforded some who had arrived as children with a temporary legal status. The Trump administration had decided to end TPS in January 2020, but to comply with a court order extended work authorization to January 2021. It remains committed to ending DACA.

While challenges to both policies wend their way through the courts, people live in a precarious situation in which deportation may occur as soon as those court cases are resolved (at the time of writing the DACA issue was before the US Supreme Court; and the TPS work authorization extension to January 2021 could collapse if a federal appellate court decides to reverse an injunction on the earlier attempt to terminate TPS).

Salvadoran asylum seekers are also increasingly at risk of deportation and return. The Trump administration has pursued a series of policy initiatives aimed at making it harder for people fleeing their countries to seek asylum in the United States by separating children from their parents, limiting the number of people processed daily at official border crossings, prolonging administrative detention, imposing fees on the right to seek asylum, extending from 180 days to one year the bar on work authorization after filing an asylum claim, barring asylum for those who transited another country before entering the United States, requiring asylum seekers to await their hearings in Mexico, where many face dangers, and attempting to narrow asylum.

These changes aggravated pre-existing flaws in US implementation of its protection responsibilities and came as significant numbers of people sought protection outside of El Salvador. In the decade from 2009 to 2019, according to government data, Mexican and United States officials made at least 732,000 migration-related apprehensions of Salvadoran migrants crossing their territory (175,000 were made by Mexican authorities and just over 557,000 by US authorities).

According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, the number of Salvadorans expressing fear of being seriously harmed if returned to El Salvador has skyrocketed. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of Salvadoran annual asylum applicants in the US grew by nearly 1,000 percent, from about 5,600 to over 60,000. By 2018, Salvadorans had the largest number (101,000) of any nationality of pending asylum applications in the United States. At the same time, approximately 129,500 more Salvadorans had pending asylum applications in numerous other countries throughout the world. People are fleeing El Salvador in large numbers due to the violence and serious human rights abuses they face at home, including one of the highest murder rates in the world and very high rates of sexual violence and disappearance.

Despite clear prohibitions in international law on returning people to risk of persecution or torture, Salvadorans often cannot avoid deportation from the US. Unauthorized immigrants, those with temporary status, and asylum seekers all face long odds. They are subjected to deportation in a system that is harsh and punitive—plagued with court backlogs, lack of access to effective legal advice and assistance, prolonged and inhumane detention, and increasingly restrictive legal definitions of who merits protection. The US has enlisted Mexico—which has a protection system that its own human rights commission has called “broken”—to stop asylum seekers before they reach the US and host thousands returned to wait for their US proceedings to unfold. The result is that people who need protection may be returned to El Salvador and harmed, even killed.

Instead of deterring and deporting people, the US should focus on receiving those who cross its border with dignity and providing them a fair chance to explain why they need protection. Before deporting Salvadorans living in the United States, either with TPS or in some other immigration status, US authorities should take into account the extraordinary risks former long-term residents of the US may face if sent back to the country of their birth. The US should address due process failures in asylum adjudications and adopt a new legal and policy framework for protection that embraces the current global realities prompting people to flee their homes by providing “complementary protection” to anyone who faces real risk of serious harm.

As immediate and first steps, the United States government should adopt the following six recommendations to begin to address the problems identified in this report. Additional medium- and long-term legal and policy recommendations appear in the final section of this report.

·  The Trump administration should repeal the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP); the two Asylum Bans; and the Asylum Cooperation Agreements.

·  The Attorney General of the United States should reverse his decisions that restrict gender-based, gang-related, and family-based grounds for asylum.

·  Congress and the Executive Branch should ensure that US funding for Mexican migration enforcement activities does not erode the right to seek and receive asylum in Mexico.

·  Congress should immediately exercise its appropriation power by: 1) Refraining from providing additional funding to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) unless and until abusive policies and practices that separate families, employ unnecessary detention, violate due process rights, and violate the right to seek asylum are stopped; 2) Prohibiting the use of funds to implement the Migrant Protection Protocols, the “Asylum Bans,” or the Asylum Cooperation Agreements, or any subsequent revisions to those protocols and agreements that block access to the right to seek asylum in the United States.

·  Congress should exercise its oversight authority by requiring the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Inspector General to produce reports on the United States’ fulfilment of its asylum and protection responsibilities, including by collecting and releasing accurate data on the procedural experiences of asylum seekers (access to counsel, wait times, staff capacity to assess claims, humanitarian and protection resources available) and on harms experienced by people deported from the United States to their countries of origin.

·  Congress should enact, and the President should sign, legislation that would broadly protect individuals with Temporary Protected Status (including Salvadorans) and DACA recipients, such as the Dream and Promise Act of 2019, but without the overly broad restrictions based on juvenile conduct or information from flawed gang databases.