Ed. note: The photo images for this story were altered or blurred at the request of those interviewed.
In his hometown of Guatemala, a gang was after 14-year-old Jefferson.
First, they tried recruiting him. When he refused, they threatened him. They even kidnapped and held him for two days. He was freed only after he agreed to join them. Otherwise, the gang would kill him and his younger brothers.
But Jefferson fled north instead.
“I gathered a little bit of money and I didn’t tell anyone,” said Jefferson, about leaving Guatemala without telling his mother there or his father who lives in the San Fernando Valley.
He traveled from Guatemala to the Mexico border by bus, crossed over, then boarded the train they call “La Bestia” (the Beast), used by thousands of other immigrants.
For a month Jefferson traveled, skipped meals and spent many sleepless nights until he reached Tijuana. When he saw that entering the United States through California wouldn’t be easy, he decided to enter instead through Arizona in May of 2018.
“I jumped (the border) and I waited for immigration (officers) to come,” said Jefferson, who asked that his last name not be used because his immigration status is uncertain, and he fears reprisals if returned to Guatemala.
Jefferson is one of 50,036 unaccompanied minors who entered the United States in Fiscal Year 2018 (Oct. 1, 2017- Sept. 30, 2018).
From Arizona he was taken to the Immigration “hieleras” (cold holding cells) before being transported by plane to a shelter in Florida. He remained there four months because of an obstacle Jefferson had not considered: his last name is different from his father’s.
“(In June) they contacted us, telling us he was in the custody of Immigration, that he had been detained in Arizona,” says Roslyn, Jefferson’s stepmother. Jefferson was adamant in wanting to “leave this place.”
Both Jefferson and his father underwent DNA tests to prove their relationship. The results took several weeks to return before that proof was conclusive.
A social worker then traveled with Jefferson by plane to Los Angeles, where he met his new family: a father he had not seen in more than eight years plus a stepmother and three younger half-sisters he had never met.
Jefferson now speaks a few English phrases and is adapting to his new country.
“It’s very pretty,” he says of the United States. “I like going to school.”
But his journey is not over. He still has an open immigration case and a court date in November before an immigration judge who will decide his fate.
Jefferson and Roslyn attended a pop-up free legal clinic at the United Methodist Church in North Hills this week, to discuss his situation with an attorney. They left with hope. Because of his age, they were told, Jefferson has a good chance of qualifying to stay in this country.
One-by-one, people sat with immigration attorneys, asking what their chances were to stay in this country legally. They all related similar, desperate journeys and a life now looking over their shoulders. They find the process for seeking asylum is far from easy. With President Trump and his relentless push for a border wall, the current administration in unsympathetic to the flow of asylum seekers from Central America.
Some, like Jefferson, left hopeful. Others didn’t receive the reassurance they were looking for.
Entire Family Flees
Maria, a 34-year-old Salvadoran who also asked not to use her last name, said her family had a comfortable life in their native El Salvador. Her husband had a stable government job and her two kids went to private school. They were in the midst of building their own house.
But that comfort came to an abrupt halt in 2016. Maria said three men dressed as police officers showed up at their home and her husband’s place of work. When the family went to the police to find out what was going on, they were told there was no case against him and no search warrant for his arrest.
The family was shaken, worried that either criminals posing as officers or corrupt officers wanted the information the father gathered for the government.
What happened next made their decision for them.
Upon leaving his school one day, their older son – then 15 – was approached by an armed man who told him “they knew where we lived and that they didn’t want to see him again.”
It was a threat Maria and her family took seriously.
In October 2016, without telling anyone, the father and their younger son – then 5-years-old—left for the United States. Maria and her older son followed in December.
“It was difficult. You’re fleeing with fear and you come with fear not knowing what could happen,” Maria said.
The house they had worked so hard to build was abandoned just shy of being finished.
“It was a dream we did not get to enjoy,” she laments.
After their exhausting journeys, the family turned themselves in to Immigration authorities when they reached the United States and applied for asylum. They were freed in the care of relatives.
Asylum Petitions Up, so are Denials
Receiving asylum as a form of immigration protection, has become increasingly difficult to achieve.
For years, domestic and gang violence were used as a basis to petition for asylum. But all that changed last year, when then Attorney General Jeff Sessions eliminated those categories from the process.
Sessions decided the asylum was for people fleeing from persecution, like religious minorities or political dissidents — and not to protect victims of violent crime.
The ruling has left thousands of cases, including that of Maria and her family, in limbo. She has received a work permit while their case remains open, but not her husband. Their next court date is in April.
“(The lawyers) don’t give us much probability for winning,” she said on March 23.
Immigration attorney Luisa Beristain concedes that asylum seekers face a more difficult battle in immigration court than ever before.
“(The cases) have always been difficult and complicated, but feasible,” Beristain said. “They have now become incredibly difficult.”
Statistics reflect that now that more cases are rejected than approved.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University (TRAC) revealed that in Fiscal Year 2016, there were 22,318 asylum decisions with only 9,714 granted and 12,190 denied (54.6 percent). Those numbers jumped to 30,253 decisions in FY 2017, with 11,591 approvals and 18,215 denials (60.2 percent).
In FY 2018, the figures grew again to 42,224 decisions, with 14,200 granted and 27,460 denials (65 percent).
Beristain said having legal representation is more crucial than ever, given that immigrants have “everything stacked against them.”
Having “the right information and a case expressed adequately” can make a difference in getting approved or denied, Beristain said.
But, she said, this is often hard for people fleeing in haste. They often lack documentation –- for example, never going to authorities in their own country to file a police report or not having access to those reports — and having endured trauma along the way.
“A victim of violence filled with fear is not going to have clear, credible testimony,” Beristain said.
But TRAC also found that the percentage of asylum seekers with representation, which can increase the possibility of approval to 50-70 percent, was shrinking.
The cost of legal help is an issue, said Guillermo Torres, director of Organizing for Clergy & Laity United For Economic Justice (CLUE), the pro-immigrant organization that organized the legal clinic in North Hills.
“Many in the immigrant community have never consulted with an immigration attorney because they don’t have financial resources,” Torres said. “But when they come to one of our clinics, sometimes they find that there’s a way to petition for legal status.”
As their April court date approaches, Maria wanted to know if she could appeal if her case is denied. The prospect of returning to her home country is not something she wants to even ponder.
“We don’t want to go back to El Salvador. We fear for our lives. They can kill us,” she said.