Anthropology professor Ellen Moodie has been involved in numerous asylum cases for Salvadorans and other Central Americans in recent years, through either expert testimony or written affidavits. Moodie has been sought out because she knows the conditions in El Salvador from more than 25 years of research on the country, especially on its violence and crime. She’s also gained knowledge of the U.S. asylum process. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
We hear about people at the border seeking asylum, but not much about who qualifies. What are the criteria? And the public misconceptions?
Asylum is a form of protection for people with a “well-founded fear” of persecution on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
“Particular social group” is admittedly ambiguous. It’s when people within a specific context recognize a coherent group as at-risk, when harm, or fear of harm, is related to membership in that group. In Salvadoran cases I’ve worked on, groups have included crime witnesses; young women and girls who refused advances of gang members; victims of domestic violence, who aren’t protected by police because gender-based violence isn’t taken seriously; and police officers who wouldn’t collaborate with corrupt police.
A key element of asylum is that the government cannot protect the person. Police won’t help. Courts won’t convict. Also, people have to show that they can’t just go someplace else in their country, away from the community where they were in danger. They have to show they would be at risk anywhere.
Even if they’re not eligible for asylum – such as those with a criminal record – they could be saved by an order of “withholding of removal” or protection under the United Nations Convention against Torture.
As for misconceptions, one is that there’s an immigration crisis. In fact, border apprehensions have gone way down, likely the lowest in 40 years. And while the number of asylum applications has increased in the past decade, the rate of granting asylum has stayed steady, about 20 percent. There’s very little evidence of the fraud some claim.
What changes have been made in either the criteria or the process in recent months, and what might be the effect?
The U.S. government is trying to narrow grounds for asylum. Or to get rid of it. Criminalize it – even though it’s a humanitarian form of protection recognized globally.
As of last June, applicants for asylum based on gang violence or “private crime” (domestic violence) have to demonstrate that their government “condoned the behavior or demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect the victim.” But how do you prove that? More recently, it’s been suggested that family relationships be taken out of the equation, even though people are often targeted precisely because of their family relationships.
The border patrol and the military are also doing everything they can to stop people from getting into official ports of entry.
I can’t tell you the feeling when asylum is denied, when someone is ordered deported. In the cases I’ve done, I think of one Salvadoran woman who likely returned to an abusive relationship and is beaten daily; another who was repeatedly raped by gang members for not paying extortion.
In many parts of the country, that particular gang dominates; it is the de facto government. So if that woman who didn’t pay extortion, say, were somehow to find some new place to live, alone, away from her community, another cell of that gang would likely find out where she came from – and how she disobeyed them – and they might well kill her. It’s how they maintain power, through violence.
Many of these cases can be a matter of life and death. The murder rate in El Salvador is one of the highest in the world: last year, 60 per 100,000 – 10 times the U.S. rate.
In your affidavits and testimony, what are the points you make about El Salvador or the region generally?
History is crucial. Take gangs. Gang members aren’t born bad, aren’t somehow evil in their essence. Salvadoran gangs emerged as a form of family and protection among young refugees in Los Angeles, displaced by war in the 1980s. A war pumped by U.S. military aid.
Some of those gang members were deported to El Salvador, and some of those deportees joined or formed more gangs, in a tough postwar situation – marginalized youth had few ways to survive. And then the response of the Salvadoran state – zero-tolerance, iron-fist – made things worse. Way worse.
Paradoxically, as policing got fiercer, as judges tossed more young men in jail, gangs actually got bigger, and became more organized and powerful – became political actors. All major political parties in El Salvador have negotiated with gangs, paid them off. A good number of law enforcement types are complicit with gangs. Some are actually gang members.
Imagine how bad things are if people are willing to risk so much, crossing through Mexico, to get to the U.S. border where, if they are not blocked from crossing, they are still not likely to get asylum. It’s faith. It’s hope. They have to do something. They want to be safe. They want to live.