LOS ANGELES — The little girl, a 6-year-old from El Salvador, never really knew her father until she was 5.
That’s when the man, a police officer, suddenly decided he wanted to rekindle his family life, and began demanding that she and her 23-year-old mother — his ex-girlfriend — spend time with him. He drank heavily and fought with the mother, often inflicting physical harm.
One day, during a fight with the mother, he pulled out a gun and pointed it at the little girl. That’s when the mother decided she and her daughter had to leave the country for the United States.
Immigration attorneys say the mother and the girl were detained in Texas in early May while crossing the border seeking asylum. Not long after, they were separated under then-U. S. policy: The mother is detained in Washington state; the little girl is staying with an aunt in the Los Angeles area, one of roughly 2,500 children who have been separated from family members after crossing into the United States under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
Beyond illustrating the hardships of separation, the situation the mother and daughter face also shines a light on the ramifications of a June 11 decision by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that reversed protections for asylum seekers who say they are fleeing domestic violence. The aunt, who has custody of the girl, agreed to speak about the situation only if no names were used because of fears for the family’s safety.
The mother and daughter had been seeking asylum under an avenue that widened dramatically after a precedent-setting ruling in 2014 by the Board of Immigration Appeals. The board found in favor of a woman from Guatemala who sought asylum in the United States after attempting unsuccessfully to evade her physically abusive husband within the country; her repeated calls to police were ignored. The case established that people fleeing domestic violence in countries whose governments fail to protect them are members of a social group that can qualify for asylum.
Sessions’s announcement effectively shut down that route to asylum. In his decision, which immigration advocates have vowed to fight in court, Sessions said people fleeing domestic or gang violence are victims of “private criminal activity” rather than persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group — the standard required by law to prevail in an asylum claim.
“The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune,” Sessions said.
In a recent speech to immigration judges, Sessions also suggested that fears of private threats have been used illegitimately to secure entry into the United States. Noting that the number of asylum seekers citing a fear of persecution skyrocketed from 5,000 in 2009 to 94,000 in 2016, Sessions said “powerful incentives were created for aliens to come here illegally and claim a fear of return. In effect, word spread that by asserting this fear, they could remain in the United States one way or the other. Far too often, that rumor proved to be true.”
The prospect that her sister might have no way to stay in the United States terrifies the aunt. She worries that if she is deported back to El Salvador, “she will be hiding and moving from town to town” to avoid her ex-boyfriend, she said, “or he will find her and kill her.”
The aunt, 33, came to the United States 20 years ago, at age 13, after her father died in a car accident. She said her mother was devastated and was struggling to put food on the table. “My brother and I decided to come here,” the aunt said. “We came, and thank goodness, we’re here.”
She relayed her sister’s story in a recent interview in the downtown office of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, where the nonprofit Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project is housed. The 6-year-old girl was sitting next to her, clutching a pink teddy bear and a Barbie doll, still in the box.
The aunt saw to it that the child left with another adult during the interview, explaining that she didn’t want to add to her trauma. But after about an hour, a knock came at the door. It was the girl, tears streaking her face, fingers digging nervously into a ball of Play-Doh. She had begun to worry that she’d again be separated from a relative.
The aunt said her sister and niece disappeared from El Salvador in February. Although her sister had obtained a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend, the aunt said he ignored it, showing up at her house one night with several colleagues from the police department demanding that she come outside. Family members feared the mother and child had been kidnapped, or worse.
But in mid-March, the aunt learned via text messages that her sister and niece were in southern Mexico, where they’d been detained by border agents. They stayed at a shelter for a few weeks.
One day, a representative from the Salvadoran Consulate came to the mother with alarming news: Her ex — apparently using his contacts as a police officer — had discovered where she was. Mexican authorities relocated the mother and daughter to Mexico City, and they resumed their northward odyssey, heading toward Texas.
The aunt claims to know little of how they traveled, saying only that the girl has mentioned taking a boat over a river.
When Border Patrol officers separated the girl from her mother, they assured her they would soon be reunited, said Steven Shafer, an immigration attorney who is representing the girl in her asylum case.
In May, the aunt received an unexpected call from her distraught sister in Washington state. “She didn’t know where her daughter was,” the aunt said. “She was asking me to please find her.”
The aunt called an immigration attorney, who dug up a phone number for a detention center in Austin. Acting on the tip, the aunt determined that the girl was there. Though they’d never met in person, the aunt and the little girl had Skyped many times. During a phone call from the Austin center, the girl begged her aunt to come get her.
After becoming the official sponsor of her niece, the aunt paid $1,700 in airfare to fly her niece and an adult chaperon to Los Angeles. The girl arrived in early June.
The mother still has several hurdles to overcome.
A 2005 law requires asylum seekers to corroborate their persecution claims, but it wasn’t uncommon for judges during the Obama administration to waive the requirement and accept credible testimony from asylum seekers or witnesses when evidence wasn’t available, attorneys said.
“Persecutors don’t leave notes,” said Maria Andrade, an attorney in Idaho who specializes in deportation defense. “They don’t leave a dead chicken on your desk,” she said, along with a note that says: “ ‘Love, Your Persecutor.’ ”
The mother’s attorney in Washington state declined requests for comment. Shafer said that attorney informed him that the mother brought documents proving her persecution claim, but she said they were confiscated when she was apprehended in Texas.
Attorneys with a Los Angeles law firm representing the girl believe her mother would have received asylum before Sessions’s decision — something that will be much harder, if not impossible, now.
Pineda, of the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, said the mother’s case is stronger than most “because she was persecuted by a government actor — a police officer. We do a lot of research on country conditions to demonstrate that people actually die — they are murdered by their partners,” she said, adding, “especially in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador, where domestic violence is rampant.”
This is why, the aunt explained, her sister desperately wants to remain in the United States: “She feels she is safer in prison over here than in El Salvador with her ex.”
Kuznia is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles and is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.