The most distressing part of listening to three young Salvadoran siblings describe the horrific violence that led them to flee their country in the spring and join their mother in Prince George’s County, Maryland, was, perhaps, their matter-of-fact attitude.
The wiry 15-year-old boy, recalling how his friend Carlos was killed and his body mutilated by a gang that he refused to join, said with a small shrug, “He was just like me. He didn’t want to get in trouble.”
The boy’s twin sister described without emotion seeing a classmate’s photograph in “missing” posters at her school in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador.
“A month-and-a-half later, he was found dead,” she said.
The twins’ older sister, 18, with long hair and braces on her teeth, recalled that her math teacher was murdered after he publicly criticized the gangs.
“One day he was driving home from school, and they killed him,” she said simply.
Then there was the ordeal of their 20-year-old sister. She crossed the Rio Grande on a raft with her three siblings on April 28 but is still being held by federal immigration authorities at the West Texas Detention Facility.
The family’s troubles with the gangs began in 2010 when the oldest sister was raped after refusing to become the girlfriend of a member of the 18 Street gang.
Soon afterward, gang members demanded $2,000 from the four children, who were living alone after their father fell ill.
The eldest called her mother in suburban Maryland and said the gang members told her, “It will be very easy for us to get four bullets, one for each of you.”
Such a climate of fear and intimidation would harden anyone’s feelings, force anyone to adopt a blase demeanor in emotional self-defense.
It also explains why the youths were willing to risk the dangerous 15-day trip through Guatemala and Mexico by bus and on foot to the United States.
Our national debate over immigration features a continual tug of war over whether the new arrivals are fleeing brutality and abuse in their home countries or are merely trying to get ahead economically.
If it’s just about money, then sympathy is slight. If children are trying to avoid being killed or sexually abused, however, then the public is more compassionate.
The Salvadoran family’s experience shows how many of the young Central Americans at the focus of the current immigration crisis are effectively refugees from violence and deserve our protection.
The three siblings and their mother offered their story in a group interview at the headquarters of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. They spoke on condition that none of the children would be identified by name, because the mother, 37, whose middle name is Yesenia, is in the country without papers.
“Unfortunately, polls show the (U.S.) public thinks that these kids should be deported, because they have someplace safe to go at home,” Michelle Mendez, senior managing attorney for Catholic Charities in Washington, said.
“That’s absolutely not true, based on what we’re hearing and seeing,” Mendez said. Noting that Central American countries are small, she said, “There’s really nowhere to run.”
In addition, many youths have a legal right to remain in the United States, providing they can avoid deportation long enough to traverse the tortuous process of applying to stay.
Mendez, who is advising the Salvadoran family, said she believes all four children qualify for long-term legal residence, either under a special immigrant status for juveniles or under the right to asylum.
The four Salvadoran youths would have preferred to stay in their home country, where the eldest daughter was studying to be an architect.
“She didn’t want to come here — she wanted to be a professional,” Yesenia said.
They ultimately decided to leave when the MS-13 gang, a.k.a. Mara Salvatrucha, began pressuring the son to join and demanded that he store guns and drugs in the house. He stopped going to school, to avoid encountering gang members.
“There’s a point at which you can’t say ‘no,’ ” he said. “I was scared.”