8:48 a.m. PDT July 18, 2016
February 18, 2014.
Maria Francisca Gomez remembers the date well; it was the last day she saw her son.
In the midst of the violence and corruption in El Salvador, Gomez’s son Francisco Javier went to renew his voting card and pick up medication for his father. However, while out, he was taken by military soldiers.
With no luck in finding her son, Gomez and her daughter fled to the United States earlier this year, seeking political asylum. She now waits in Oregon, having submitted her application to the asylum office, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Unable to apply for refugee status, Gomez and her daughter Karina Letran, 38, came to the United States knowing they may not be able to stay.
Seeking asylum is one way people from other countries can gain residency in the United States. There are also refugees, immigrants, and migrants.
Asylum seekers make a smaller percentage of people coming to the states, but a notable group nonetheless. In the 2015 fiscal year, the United States granted asylum to 25,199 people. This is in addition to the 69,933 refugees who were resettled, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
An asylum seeker is defined by the United Nations as someone “whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed.”
While a refugee applies for refugee status through the United Nations, then is resettled in the country assigned; a person seeking asylum flees to a country and then applies for asylum through said country’s government.
There are two different ways of applying — affirmative asylum, the process Gomez and her daughter are undergoing; and defensive asylum, which is used when going against deportation.
After entering the United States, asylum seekers have one year to apply for asylum. If they apply after that year, they have to provide proof of extraordinary circumstances — such as severe PTSD or an illness — that prevented the person from applying, or proof of a change of circumstances that made it impossible for them to apply before — such as a change in a political party that influences their asylum.
Immigration attorney Elizabeth Hawkins said it can be overwhelming for people to come to the United States, possibly for the first time, with no connections or without speaking English, and having to find a lawyer and endure the application process.
“It can be very difficult to not only recount something traumatic, but then have to be grilled about it,” she said.
But that ‘grilling’ is important to make sure the application is as credible as possible.
“It’s not enough to prove you’re afraid to go home,” Hawkins said. “To do a good job, you have to put the individual case in the country’s broader context — you have to prove the government (of your home country) is the persecutor or the persecutor is a group the government is unable or unwilling to protect you from.”
Applicants also have to fit into one of the protected groups for asylum seekers, saying they are being persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, political group or social group.
This can be difficult in such instances as Gomez’s in El Salvador.
In 2015, there were more than 3,760 reports of “disappeared” persons in El Salvador, up from the 2,222 reports in 2014. It is estimated that more than 70,000 people have gone missing.
Much of the violence today, about 80 percent, is attributed to the gangs that run the country.
Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street are the two dominant street gangs in the country. They have divided the country into territories and are often paid off by political candidates, said local human rights defenders working in El Salvador and with Gomez.
The gangs typically target and recruit young men, they said. If the young men are not willing to join, they are tortured or killed, or they just “disappear” — also known as being “forcible disappeared.”
For Salvadorians like Gomez, this puts them in a difficult position when applying for asylum, fitting indirectly with political and social groups.
Once asylum seekers have submitted the applications, they have their fingerprints taken and schedule an interview with the federal asylum office.
The waiting time for an interview can take two or more years, though children are prioritized. However, 150 days after submitting the application — the period known as the “asylum clock” — they can apply for a work permit, which has to be renewed each year. They are given a Social Security number as well.
After the interview, there is more waiting. If they are granted asylum, seekers can stay indefinitely, they can apply for travel documents and they can apply for their children to join them.
Hawkins said after a year, they can apply for a green card, part of a path to citizenship. However, she said “many miss their country and wish they could go back.”
On average, about 1 million people seek asylum worldwide every year, according to the United National reports. In mid-2014, there were more than 1.2 million asylum seekers.
At least 1.66 million people submitted applications for asylum in 2014, the highest level ever recorded. With an estimated 274,700 asylum claims, the Russian Federation became the largest recipient of new individual applications in 2014, followed by Germany with 173,100 and the United States with 121,200.
“National asylum systems are there to decide which asylum seekers actually qualify for international protection,” according to the United Nations. “Those judged through proper procedures not to be refugees, nor to be in need of any other form of international protection, can be sent back to their home countries.”
At the end of 2014, there were approximately 1.8 million people around the world waiting for a decision on their asylum claims.
Gomez, to this day, does not know if her son is alive or where he might be.
No matter what she did, she said, the military and government did little to nothing to help, and even made things worse — waiting hours or days before searching for him, threatening her and her family for pursuing the case in court, sending soldiers to her home at night.
She was told, “If they are not criminals or delinquents, they will come back,” she said.
Gomez said she fears for her other children and her grandchildren.
“All (asylum seekers) have something in common,” Hawkins said. “They want to be safe.”
Coming to America
News of refugees coming to the United States and parts of Europe this year was met with resistance from many. This ongoing series will address those concerns and discuss the different ways and reasons people come to the United States.
All of the Coming to America stories, photographs and other resources can be found at www.StatesmanJournal.com.
Refugees: Someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Asylum Seekers: Someone “whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed.” They travel to the country from which they seek asylum, apply and wait to be approved.
For more information and the latest statistics, read the United Nation’s annual Asylum Trends report.
Famous asylum seekers
- Karl Marx
- Edward Snowden
- Virginia Vallejo