“I lived in El Salvador with my sister. Things began to turn ugly, dangerous … we lived in a neighborhood overrun by gangs, and my older sister, who, for the very same violence had left the country years before, decided she’d better take me out of there and travel to the U.S. before something bad happened to me…”
This is the everyday life that many young people experience in El Salvador. This young man we will call Francisco, to protect his identity, is only one of hundreds who crossed borders to escape the violence that assails them in Central América.
To save their lives, they take the road to the United States. Those who manage to reach there and be reunited with their family members encounter another reality, different than they imagined, and have to learn how to live in their new home with rejection, lack of understanding, more violence, and the feeling of not being accepted.
“When we arrived here (the United States) things were not easy … I did not speak English, in school they discriminated against me because I did not speak English. When I tried to speak to other Salvadoran children, they told me, they always told me ‘I don’t speak Spanish,’ and that made me feel like I didn’t even want to go to school,” said Carlos, one of the young people who spoke to The Américas Program and reached the U.S. three years ago.
The “American Dream” of many adolescents who come to the U.S. turns little by little into a nightmare. Many suffer exclusion, persecution by gangs, marginalization and criminalization, because now President Trump’s administration defines them as criminal immigrants.
“I arrived in the U.S. two-and-a-half years ago. Everything was hard for me. My mom had married another man and had had two more children. I found myself with two brothers I didn’t know, and I also found here gang members who, when they learned I was from El Salvador, began to hunt me down,” says Martin, another of the young people welcomed by the program Unaccompanied Minors.
El Salvador, his country of origin, does not have policies of prevention against violence to protect them when they are being chased by gangs; the U.S. does not have policies to receive them and integrate them in their new life, and their families were not prepared to co-exist with them after being separated for so many years.
“The Latino community in the United States had no plan for the arrival of these young people. These youths come with traumas from their country. They come and find a family they do not know, they arrive in communities that also have gangs, and they find their families do not live as they thought, and the untreated traumas they bring from their country and the new traumas caused by the clash of cultures make the problem bigger,” explains Alex Sánchez, Director of Homies United, an organization that works with youth at risk who fled their countries in Central América because of the violence.
Between the years 2016 and 2017–according to official data from the General Office of Migration of El Salvador–, 5,768 minors below the age of 18 were repatriated from México and the United States. And according to the latest numbers presented by the administration of President Barack Obama, that country received more than 50,000 Central American minors who were fleeing from the violence.
“Everything has been very hard. When I began to go to school I felt frustrated because I didn’t speak English. I felt like someone who didn’t exist or someone who didn’t belong in that place … English is still hard for me, and sometimes I didn’t feel accepted for not speaking the language … Everything has been hard, but many of us are learning because we want a better life,” says Mario.
Until February of this year, all minors under the age of 18 who reached the borders of the United States could request asylum there because of the situation of violence reigning in the countries of the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras).
However, one month after the GOP president entered the White House, all these minors who are in the process of seeking asylum, and those who keep arriving at U.S. borders, are in a legal limbo.
The Republican President has deprived them of any chance of remaining in the United States, signing an executive order that denies any petition of asylum related to the immigration crisis caused by violence in Central América.
According to the president, one of the reasons why he signed this program of protection to minors is a series of assassinations and crimes committed by members of the MS-13 gang, made up of young Central Americans, in the majority Salvadorans, in various cities of the United States.
“Trump has found in these youths his boogie-man for adopting a policy in cities that are experiencing an influx of immigrants. The president is attacking these communities with the excuse that these young people are gang members and that they come to harm the country,” said the director of Homies United.
Meanwhile, in El Salvador, the Salvadoran police and government attribute the murders, violent deaths, and violence to the gangs; but they affirm also that there are groups made up of police and military personnel who are killing youths “who are linked to gangs.”
The only solution Trump’s government has devised for the problem of immigration and the people who remain undocumented in the United States is deportation. However, this medicine may be more dangerous than the illness itself.
“If there were a massive deportation of young people in El Salvador —which is a possible scenario — these deported persons could face a greater risk, given the context for which they left the country in the first place. It would depend on whether the risk that motivated them to leave for the U.S. was patent, or if they had a family to receive them, or if they have opportunities to dedicate themselves to a productive life; otherwise, they might look for refuge in a gang,” says Saul Baños, Director of the Foundation for the Study for the Application of Rights (FESPAD in the original), in El Salvador.
Baños also explains that if the U.S. carries out the mass deportations of young people, regardless if they are gang members, this will make the situation of violence that El Salvador is living even worse, and could also result in the packing of the penal system, which already finds itself overpopulated.
“My cousin tried to kill me in El Salvador because I refused to join the Mara, but getting involved with the Mara is for me getting involved with the Devil … it’s signing a death sentence, and I still have hopes for a better life,” says one of the young immigrants.
Carmen Rodriguez is a writer for the Américas Program.
By Carmen Rodríguez
Translated by Jonathan Tittler.