President Donald Trump’s administration has made several significant shifts in the country’s immigration policies, including a travel ban on those from several Muslim-majority countries; reducing the number of refugees admitted to the country; and enforcing policies that make it harder for individuals to seek asylum in the United States. A case in western North Carolina highlights the impact of the changes for asylum-seekers.
Host Frank Stasio talks to Blue Ridge Public Radio reporter Cass Herrington about her reporting on a 21-year-old woman from El Salvador who fled gang violence when she was 16. Herrington shares the personal story of this woman — who wishes to be called “Rihanna” for her safety — and follows her case through the courts. This week an immigration judge in Charlotte canceled a hearing on her immigration case and issued an order for her removal back to El Salvador.
Stasio also talks to Atenas Burrola about the challenges individuals face while navigating the asylum system in the United States. Burrola is the director and co-founder of Mi Maletín, a non-profit legal organization.
Herrington on how the gang MS-13 treated Rihanna and her family after killing her father:
They tried to recruit her. They threatened to kill her. And the way that the gang operates in El Salvador is they can infiltrate in the schools. So there are teachers affiliated with the gang and some of her teachers threatened to rape her. She was forced to do her classmates’ homework. So all through her childhood into her teenage years, she was still confronted with the gang. And then ultimately things reached a head when she was 16. They said: If you don't join us, we will kill you. And that's when she decided to leave home.
Burrola on what knowledge new migrants have about the legal system in the U.S.:
What the regulations say is that any individual who expresses a fear of return to their country is supposed to be given this orientation telling them about the process — what's called the credible fear process — initially and how to apply for asylum. What we see once we reach individuals is that many of these individuals don't remember having been given that orientation, or if they were given it, they didn't really understand what it says. They’re read a form, and then they're asked to sign a form, amongst probably a dozen other forms that they're asked to sign immediately after crossing the border. [They’re] held in these pretty horrific conditions that a lot of reporting has been done on recently … Most of them have no idea what's going on.
Herrington on misconceptions about the gang MS-13:
It actually started here in the United States in the ‘70s and ‘80s. At the time, that was El Salvador’s Civil War, which the United States was involved in. And so it was born out of a need to protect the refugee community in Los Angeles from other gangs that were going on. And then when individuals involved in the gang were deported back to El Salvador, that's when the presence burgeoned there. And now it's classified as an international criminal enterprise. And the FBI has identified activity in 42 states, including North Carolina.
Burrola on the effects of the administration’s work to incentivize judges to clear their dockets:
Even though our immigration judges are administrative judges — they're not Article III judges — they still are judges and should be treated as such. And what the administration is doing is it's stripping away at that independence by essentially telling judges what to do … And what this is actually doing is it's speeding up the order of deportations, but it's actually causing even more delay in cases that do have relief, like Rihanna's. This is the second time that her case is going up on appeal. It's very likely because she has a form of relief that the Board of Immigration Appeals is going to send it back down. So it's just causing more wasted time, effort, energy, money for both the judges and the attorneys who are working on it.