More Immigrants Seeking Asylum Cite Gang Violence

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Increasing numbers of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans are entering the United States illegally and applying for asylum on the grounds that their lives are imperiled by gang violence in their home countries, according to immigration lawyers and advocacy groups.

Although the number granted asylum barely surpassed 700 last year, asylum applications by people from those three countries have almost doubled, which lawyers attribute primarily to fear of gang violence.

The lawyers hope to persuade judges to more readily grant asylum to those who have risked reprisal by resisting extortion demands by gangs, testifying against gang members, renouncing their own membership in gangs or trying to avoid being forced to join gangs.

Gang violence has grown to epidemic proportions in the three countries since the mid-1990s, when the United States began sending Central American-born members of the rival Los Angeles-based Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 gangs back to their home countries. The deportees helped fuel the rise of ferocious sister gangs in Central America, whose estimated 60,000 members are now battling each other, the police and residents in hundreds of communities.

Many of those who say they fled gangs end up in the Washington area, which has one of the nation's largest Central American immigrant populations.

Jose Hernandez, a soft-spoken 19-year-old currently living in a shelter in the District, said he left El Salvador in 2004 after a close friend was gunned down in his home town of Yayantique. Both Hernandez and his friend had been resisting entreaties to join MS-13.

A few days later, Hernandez said, several tattooed gang members grabbed him on the street, held a knife against his stomach and warned him to join "or you'll end up like your friend."

Such accounts are common, said Eric Sigmon, who runs a project for the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children that finds pro bono lawyers for unaccompanied minors stopped at the U.S. border. Of the roughly 1,500 Central American children interviewed since the project began 16 months ago, about half cited fear of gang violence as a reason for embarking on the dangerous trek north.

"These are not kids who are leaving just because they feel like it one day," Sigmon said.

Brittney Nystrom of the Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition, which provides a similar service to adult illegal immigrants held in five detention centers in Virginia, said that "literally every week" she comes across an illegal immigrant who left his or her country because of gang violence or fears returning because of it.

Immigration lawyers have responded with a budding effort to win asylum for their clients. And the growing awareness of gang violence may well explain why the number of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans filing asylum claims in U.S. immigration courts jumped from about 7,000 in fiscal 2004 to more than 13,000 in fiscal 2006.

Geoff Thale, an expert on Central American gangs at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit advocacy group, dates the trend to spring 2005, when asylum lawyers first began contacting him for background information on gangs in Central America. Since then, Thale has received about 100 such calls, two or three a week.

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