As though that weren’t challenge enough, this bail hearing, which will decide whether Maria Paula Castro Cedillos and her 14- and 17-year-old daughters can be released from detention while awaiting an asylum hearing, is being conducted by teleconference between parties in three states.
Castro Cedillos and her daughters, all of whom are wearing plastic rosaries around their necks, and government-issued navy windbreakers, are seated in front of a camera in a makeshift hearing room at a detention center in Artesia, N.M., where more than 500 Central American mothers and children who have arrived in the United States illegally are being held.
Their attorney, William Elias, is on the phone from El Paso, 200 miles from Artesia, and the interpreter is with Bain here in Virginia, as is the lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security. All such hearings were held in Arlington until they were reassigned to judges in Denver in late September.
What’s at stake is not just this family’s freedom but its future, and the difficulties all three members have in telling their stories go well beyond language. What they told the asylum officer when they were picked up at the U.S. border in July doesn’t line up perfectly with what they’re saying today.
And whatever you think should be done about the border crisis, no one could envy Bain’s job in sorting out whether the story is essentially true despite the apparent inconsistencies. If the judge grants bail, they will avoid deportation for now, although the full asylum application process could take months.
So once more, Bain asks, speaking just as slowly as she wants Castro Cedillos to, did the Mara-18 threaten her family because of their religious beliefs?
Castro Cedillos, who is 38, responds at length, but doesn’t fully answer, again picking up speed as she goes: “Yes, in part. They followed us with guns and hit us and we crashed and my daughter spent eight days in the hospital and three of those she was in the ICU.”
But was that for religious reasons? “There are people — Catholic, religious people — and they look for them,’’ Castro Cedillos answered. “They’ll kill priests and people who pray; they mark people who go to church because they made a pact with the devil to have more power.”
Elias, her attorney, cuts to the bottom line, asking, “Are you afraid to go back to El Salvador?’’ And then, “Why is that?”
“Because just a short time ago, on May 9, they were following us with guns and we crashed; they were trying to kill us.’’
Angela Fiorentino-Rios, the Department of Homeland Security lawyer, has a number of questions: Is it your intention to resume a relationship with your common-law husband?
“Yes,’’ Castro Cedillos says, smiling for the first time. “I would thank God if that would be his will.’’
“Is it true you and your daughter were never physically beaten by the gang members?” Rios asks.
“Not personally hit, no, but it’s their fault we had the accident, and my daughter still has the scar on her forehead.”
Did you know the people in the car? And you think they were following you because you hadn’t paid the “rent” – protection money, in other words?
Oh, yes, Castro Cedillos said emphatically, because the messenger they sent to her house on May 15 had told her that if she didn’t pay “$50 or $100 every week . . . they would either kill us or kidnap my daughters.”
Do you recall saying that the night of the accident was “Black Friday,” when gang members would go around randomly killing people? So do you believe they were part of “Black Friday,” and terrorizing people randomly?
“In a way, yes, because they were going around everywhere,’’ she answers, “but they were looking for us that day.”
The DHS lawyer tries to get her to pick one or the other: “When did you come to that conclusion” that she’d been targeted? “I’ll move on soon, Judge.”
The messenger threatened them on May 15, she insists. Yet “according to the asylum officer, you responded . . . the gang members who ran you off the road weren’t the same ones who threatened you. Was it after that interview that you put it together in your head that yes, they must have been chasing you because of the rent?”
“I couldn’t explain over there” at the border “because they cut you off’’ in those interviews, “but I had come to that conclusion over there” in San Miguel, El Salvador.
In what has to be one of the most classic questions ever asked in a courtroom, the lawyer wants to know this: “Apart from saying they would kidnap your daughters and kill you, did the gang members say anything else to you?’’
“No, it was only that.”
And no, Castro Cedillos answers, they didn’t actually mention her religion. But the gang members did graffiti her house “because we go to church and they don’t like one to be Catholic.”
Three times, Fiorentino-Rios asked how Castro Cedillos knew that, and her final answer was, “I have a cousin and he tells us what he hears.” Her home had been tagged four years earlier, in 2010.
But on May 1 of this year, she says, she was first extorted by the gang because “they understand who the people are with family in the United States because they want some of the money.”
Even though, the judge asks, your common-law husband had already been in the United States for 14 years? And, explain again why you were so reluctant to report them to the police?
“Because when you report,’’ she said, “they kill you faster.”
“Many people in your situation,’’ the judge answers her, “are able to get away from the violence at least temporarily by going to another part of their country. Did you consider that?”
No, she says, because newcomers in any town in El Salvador are assumed to be gang members.
“You don’t look like a gang member to me,’’ Bain says, smiling, but not getting one in return.
“So was there another place you could have lived safely?”
“No,’’ Castro Cedillos said firmly, “because in all El Salvador there is no safety.”
Later in the hearing, which lasted more than two hours, Castro Cedillos’s daughters are questioned. Darlin, 14, says that a gang member has tried to recruit her to sell drugs to other seventh-graders, and Katerlin, 17, tells the court that on May 5, a gang member approached her in a store and “told me I had to be his woman and the woman of the group and sell drugs and when I refused, he almost choked me.”
And then? “He said he would leave me alone for a while to see if I would go into his group, and then he left.” She never saw him again.
The government attorney asks the girls if they remember the asylum officer asking them whether a gang member had tried to recruit them and telling him no.
“I didn’t understand very well,’’ Katerlin says.
Does she remember how she responded? No. Did she tell the truth? Yes. And does she have any memory of telling the asylum officer who asked whether they’d been recruited, “No, not us”?
“At that time,’’ Katerlin finally says, “my mother did not know about that.’’ And besides, “I almost didn’t really understand very well.”
When Darlin is asked if she, too, remembers saying no, she grins, points to the scar on her forehead and says, “No, I forget things.”
After hearing all the testimony, the judge says she doesn’t think the family members have come to the United States to better themselves economically. Instead, “it appears to have been the encounter with the gang in May” that made up their minds — and for that reason, she says, she is inclined to set a lower bond.
“It is in many ways a typical gang-violence case,’’ and perhaps even more serious than typical, she says, and sets bond at $8,000 for the mother and $4,000 for each of her daughters.
In a phone interview later, Elias, their attorney, argues that any inconsistencies are more than understandable to anyone who sat in on some of these initial interviews between immigrants and asylum officers at the border, as he has. Typically, new arrivals are terribly intimidated and “afraid to say what really happened” and the officers often “cut them off when they think they’re going to say something they don’t want to hear.”
Since the hearing, the father of the girls, who has a construction job in Morgantown, W.Va., has paid the bail for his daughters, who are with him now. He’s still trying to raise the money to bail out their mother, Elias said, and no date has been set for the family’s asylum hearing.
Asked how Castro Cedillos has fared in detention in New Mexico, where she has been since July, he says, “It’s bad to be detained, period. But Artesia’s a lot better than being in El Salvador.”