Escape to Minnesota—and a second chance


Silvia, 22, and her brothers Pablo and Rene, 19, seem like ordinary youths, if soft-spoken and shy. Yet they have been through more than their share of scary situations. They have faced death threats from street gangs in their native El Salvador. They came to the United States nearly 5 years ago, seeking asylum. They have lived with uncertainly about where to call home.

The three now live in the St. Paul area, and their asylum case has been a roller coaster. They were recently jailed for about 17 days and faced imminent deportation. Then they scored a major victory. Not only were they released from jail, but the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also has joined with their attorneys to ask the Board of Immigration Appeals to reopen their case. Ben Casper, one of their attorneys, called DHS’s decision very unusual. “I have never heard of it before,” he said.

The three sat in Casper’s office Wednesday and shared a bit about their life. They are willing to talk now. Because of recent court filings, their names have become public record. Their case has attracted more media attention. They seem more secure about avoiding deportation—for now.

Earlier TCDP stories on this case:

Immigrant Law Center tackles asylum appeal for youth fleeing gangs
ICE acts to deport Salvadorans who face death threats at home
• ICE reverses course, releases three Salvadoran youths pending appeal

The Daily Planet has chosen not to use last names, even though they are public record. If the youths are deported, they could still face threats from gangs back in El Salvador.

The youths speak passable English, but not completely fluently. On several occasions, Casper helped with translation.

The youths said their mother left their native El Salvador for the United States when they were very young. They stayed behind, and were raised by their grandmother. They could have become targets for gangs because they did not have strong adults in their lives.

On the way to school, the younger brothers started getting hassled by the MS-13 street gangs, they said. It was a daily occurrence. They would go to the bus and get the shake down for food or money. Then the brothers were approached to join the gang, and were beaten and threatened when they refused. Silvia was threatened with rape and death if they did not join.

About five years ago, the siblings fled to the United States. They went to school as their asylum case proceeded. Pablo and Rene just graduated from South St. Paul High School. Silvia graduated from high school in 2006.

They do not have work permits. Silvia would like to go to culinary school and be a chef. Rene would like to be an art teacher. Pablo wants to go into business or construction. He had an appointment to talk with Brown College about a scholarship, but missed it when he was arrested for deportation.

The conversation with the three youths was relatively slow, the answers brief. But when asked what they wished people in Minnesota knew about their case, Silvia seemed to light up. She wanted people to understand the situation in El Salvador: “How hard is the life for young people.”

To them, asylum boils down to two words: safety and opportunity.

A very unusual reversal

The case could set a precedent for other youths who flee threats from deadly Central American gangs. If Silvia, Pablo and Rene eventually win their case, it is unclear how many other young people it could affect.

The Central American gang problem was an unintended consequence of U.S. immigration policy, according to Casper. The United States toughened its immigration laws in 1996, increasing deportations. Undocumented youth, notably youth involved in Los Angeles-area gangs, got sent to their home countries—and their home countries couldn’t handle them. Gangs exploded in Central America. They are international and extremely violent, he said.

The three Salvadoran youths had lost at several steps of their asylum case. An immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals had previously rejected their asylum requests. They had appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and that appeal is still pending. Those appeals did not guarantee that they could stay in this country. ICE had a deportation order and was enforcing it.

Their attorneys then began seeking to temporarily block the deportation, again racking up a string of losses until the U.S. Supreme Court gave them a whisker of hope by agreeing to review the request. Yet it appears that even before the Supreme Court took that action, DHS had already begun reversing course, releasing the three Salvadoran youth from custody. (That information was contained in a July 23 letter from U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.)

Why the government changed course remains a mystery. ICE does not comment on pending cases. The new approach could signal a policy shift, as the Obama administration reviews Bush administration decisions. Or it could mean that DHS didn’t want the Supreme Court to act on this particular request to temporarily stop a deportation, because of the precedent it could set.

Tim Counts, public affairs officer for ICE, declined to comment on why the government decided to agree to reopen the case and why it reversed its decision on deportation.

Kagan’s July 23 letter and DHS communications said the boys (and by extension their sister) were eligible to have their asylum cases adjudicated under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

The act was reauthorized in late 2008 and Casper said it discusses the prevention of “child soldiers” and gives the sense of Congress that “the United States Government should condemn the conscription, forced recruitment, or use of children by governments, paramilitaries, or other organizations.”

ICE declined to explain how the act applied to this particular case.

An early victory

The Twin Cities Daily Planet first reported on this case on Feb. 4, noting that the Immigrant Law Center had hired Casper to head the Appellate Litigation Project. This project is an effort to pursue cases at the Appeals Court to get a bigger impact by establishing broader precedents. The Washington-D.C.-based firm Latham & Watkins has also worked on the case with El Salvadoran youth.

The project got start-up money from the National Immigrant Justice Center and will leverage pro bono attorney help.

Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999. Email: