El Salvador / Migration

When Safety Is Danger

Thursday, April 16, 2020
John Washington

There is no better argument for the need of asylum than, when you are not granted it, you are killed. That sort of post-mortem evidence, however, is evidence that comes too late. The point of asylum protections is that you shouldn’t need to prove your fears by seeing them realized. And yet it’s exactly what happened to at least 138 Salvadorans who, since 2013, applied for asylum from the United States, were denied, deported, and then killed, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. HRW researchers also counted another 70 instances of people who were subjected to sexual violence, torture, or were disappeared upon their asylum denial and deportation. 

U.S. policy has long prioritized its own politics above the needs, or even the lives, of Central Americans; how the United States is willing to ignore the reality on the ground in its insistence on expelling migrants; how the United States is willing to turn a blind eye toward the ongoing cases of corruption, impunity, and turmoil in Central American governments. The relationship in regards to migration is particularly complex, as decades of US policies have stoked the very situation that spark the need for flight and protection in the first place. Today, even during a deadly pandemic, while the United States clamps down its borders and shutters its refugee and asylum programs, deportations continue. The United States is thus not only refusing to accept or protect migrants, it is deporting a virus, undermining efforts at slowing the spread and putting Central Americans at extreme risk.

The Human Rights Watch report underscores the urgent need for asylum protections that I interrogate in my forthcoming book, The Dispossessed, which looks at the ancient origins of asylum practice—I trace first asylum decrees to the early Semitic religions; its first institutionalization to Ancient Greece—as well as contemporary policies, all while I follow a few Central Americans who are denied asylum from the United States and witness the dangers they face upon deportation. Today, as the U.S. refugee program is in peril of being almost completely shuttered, and as asylum protections are increasingly out of reach, stories such as those profiled in the report—especially as more and more people around the world are uprooted and unroofed by war, economic despoilment, and climate change—make clear the ongoing and vital necessity for asylum protections.

A woman was murdered in Casa de Piedra, in the municipality of Panchimalco, outside of San Salvador. On the night of April 7, authorities registered two other murders in city. Photo from El Faro: Víctor Peña.
A woman was murdered in Casa de Piedra, in the municipality of Panchimalco, outside of San Salvador. On the night of April 7, authorities registered two other murders in city. Photo from El Faro: Víctor Peña.

The report focuses on asylum, but also highlights the changes in international relations between the United States and El Salvador. President Nayib Bukele came into office last year promising change: but in terms of his attitude to the United States, it was more a reversion to the bootlicking obsequiousness Salvadoran administrations showed in the 80s and 90s, when doing US—or the IMF’s—bidding took precedence over treating its citizens with basic dignity. In the last six months El Salvador has agreed to start accepting asylum seekers that the US doesn’t want, or refuses to protect, and, with US funding and training, has inaugurated its own Border Patrol. Both moves were clear concessions meant to pacify the erratic whims of the Trump administration. At the same time that El Salvador has begun guarding its borders and promises to accept asylum seekers who seek protection in the United States, the country continues to forcibly displace and expel tens of thousands of people a year. Last week, El Salvador backtracked a step, admitting the country isn’t quite ready to receive asylum seekers.

As my colleagues at El Faro, Gabriel Labrador and Jimmy Alvarado, recently put it, “The Salvadoran state does not know how to protect the deportees who are returned to their communities of origin.” “Those who identify that they need protection, who claim they would be vulnerable if they return to their homes, are not being attended to,” Beatriz Campos, assistant attorney for the defense of migrants and citizen security told Labrador and Alvarado. “And so they migrate again, are attacked or killed,” Campos added.


In the summer of 2018 I met one young man, José Ricardo Cortés, in the notoriously dangerous and gang-controlled Mejicanos neighborhood of San Salvador. After dodging forced gang recruitment and threats, José fled the country with his mother. They made it first to southern Ohio, then settled in Kentucky, where José began going through a troubled phase. He was made fun of because he was one of the few Latino kids in his middle school, and struggled to “correct” his accent, as he put it to me, and fit in. He started drinking, ran away from home a couple times, and got in trouble with the cops. He spent some time in juvenile detention, and was eventually deported. Upon return to Mejicanos, he was targeted again: he didn’t fit in, he had a funny, gringo-tinged accent, and the local gang picked on him and tried, again, to get him to join. After they told him they were going to kill him for his refusals, his aunt contacted Felipe, a community organizer who had shown me around the neighborhood a few times, and asked for help finding him a safe place to crash. Felipe (a pseudonym) helped him sneak out to a cheap, tiny hotel, basically a flophouse, in another part of town. José started dreaming of heading back to the United States. He would do it right this time. He would finish high school, get a job, put his life in order. He wanted to get the small tattoo of a diamond removed from under his left eye. He stopped drinking. 

I met José at his hotel one morning, and we spent a few hours talking. He had been looking for work—keeping his face tattoo covered under a small circle of a Band-Aid— but was struggling to find a steady job. As we wrapped up our conversation, he asked if I could spot him a couple bucks—he hadn’t eaten yet, and it was already mid-afternoon. We walked to a nearby mall and I told him I’d buy him a meal at the food court. He chose Taco Bell—three Doritos Tacos, and churros for dessert—because it reminded him of home. 

A couple months later, Felipe contacted me via WhatsApp, and told me that José had been murdered. He sent me a photo of him in his casket. A mortician had patched a bullet hole in his face with off-colored makeup.

Being deported to your death isn’t a new phenomenon. In the early 1980s the United States knowingly and sometimes deliberately tried to deport Salvadorans back to their deaths. As Robert S. Kahn reports in his 1996 book, Other People’s Blood, multiple Salvadoran deportees were denied protection and sent back to their deaths, including José Humberto Santacruz Elias, who was deported on January 15, 1981 and “disappeared on arrival”; José Enriquez Orellano, who was shot three times in the chest and then decapitated two weeks after he had been deported; Octavio Osegueda, who was shot to death in 1983 the day after he was deported; and a sixteen-year-old who, after being denied asylum and deported, was abducted by the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion—the same that carried out the infamous El Mozote massacre—and was never seen again.

According to another Human Rights Watch report, from 2014, “US border officials ignored [asylum seekers’] expressions of fear and removed them with no opportunity to have their claims examined; others said border officials acknowledged hearing their expressions of fear but pressured them to abandon their claims.” Ignoring claims of fear—something I’ve reported on extensively—seems a systemic problem with the US Border Patrol. When you ignore a credible plea for safety, when you plug your ears to cries for help, danger becomes death. Though HRW counted 138 cases, that number is certainly much higher. 

Most immigration attorneys I spoke with about asylum seekers deported to their death, while I was researching my book, told me they typically lose contact with their former clients after an asylum denial. More than one attorney, fearing the worst, told me they were scared to know what had happened to their clients after deportation. 

Last summer I was planning to visit one Long Island resident to hear about the story of her son, who was killed after being deported back to El Salvador, but she canceled our meeting at the last minute. The one-year anniversary of her son’s murder was approaching, and she said it was still too hard to talk about. Sometimes, she said, it was hard to talk at all.

A man killed near the entrance to the community of La Fortaleza, in San Salvador. He was killed on the afternoon of April 15, 2020 in an area that
A man killed near the entrance to the community of La Fortaleza, in San Salvador. He was killed on the afternoon of April 15, 2020 in an area that's become a border between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs. Photo from El Faro: Víctor Peña. 


When the modern asylum program was established after the atrocities of World War II, they were designed to protect people from politics—from the ideologies of racism and hate that targeted millions of Jews and other vulnerable populations in Europe. Today, the asylum system itself is becoming prey to nationalist politics: Trump and Trump-appointed judges slamming the door on refugees and asylum seekers not because their claims are not credible, but because of their own politics: the ideologies of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia. With borders currently on lockdown, and asylum and refugee programs shuttered, it’s not hard to imagine that Trump and his acolytes—both in the United States and elsewhere—will try to extend the state of exception. In times of crisis, we must reach out to the most vulnerable, not slam our doors on them. 

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