This project was supported by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
For hundreds of Central Americans that cross the U.S. border every year fleeing gang violence, there is no guarantee that they will make it past a credible fear interview and be granted asylum. Even immigrants that come as a family, fleeing the exact same threats, are unsure whether their cases will result in similar outcomes.
That’s what happened to the Chávez family. Ten members of this Salvadoran family fled their country unexpectedly after the Barrio 18 gang murdered Jorge, the 55-year-old father of the family. Once they arrived in the United States and requested asylum, two members of the family were rejected, one of whom was deported; one was released on bail, but has yet to go before authorities; and the others were detained, and are now awaiting a day in court to see an immigration judge.
The family’s nightmare began on a September night, at their grandfather's funeral. He died from natural causes. But in a matter of hours, members of the family found themselves mourning another loss. A man approached Jorge Chávez (his name has been changed at the request of the family) and requested he accompany him to a location a few blocks away.
Chávez was holding his granddaughter, so he put her down, and followed the man. His wife and daughter followed at a distance, terrified. Nobody knows what was said, but the family knew the criminals and saw them shoot Jorge him in the middle of the street: three shots to the stomach and three to the face.
That was just beginning of the saga. Members of the family then had their houses looted by criminals. Neighbors warned: "Do not come back, they are looking to kill you." With the help of their friends, Jorge's wife, children and grandchildren packed a few belongings and some documents and left El Salvador.
After a long journey by bus, they crossed the Rio Grande and were delivered to Border Patrol agents in the area of Eagle Pass, Texas, with the goal to seek asylum in the United States. By then it was October.
They were transferred to the ICE residential center in Dilley, in South Texas. From there, their paths diverged, leaving them alone to face a harsh immigration system that was under extra pressure from President Donald Trump. In recent months, Trump had put pressure on the system to respond to a surge in Central American migration; the number of migrants leaving Central America has now surpassed the number of migrants leaving Mexico.
On top of this, there is no detailed regulation for complex cases such as the Chávez family’s.
“Concerned by rising humanitarian protection claims at the border, the administration has gone to great lengths to limit access to asylum there, both during preliminary interviews as well as in immigration court hearings later in the process,” Muzaffar Chishti, Sarah Pierce and Hannah Jacks, of the Migration Policy Institute, conclude in an analysis.
Immigration lawyer José Pertierra, who practices in Washington, D.C., believes the Trump government intends to "completely dismantle the asylum system (...) and is doing everything possible to prevent people from qualifying for asylum,” referring to an executive order that prohibits those fleeing gang violence or domestic abuse to request asylum.
According to Pertierra, most asylum applications fail because Central Americans cannot categorize their fear into one of the five bases established by immigration law: persecution due to political opinion, religious group, nationality, race or social group.
Here’s what happened to the various members of the Chávez family. Names have been changed at the request of the sources:
*Raúl’s and Roberto’s cases were reconstructed thanks to testimonies shared by their sisters, who have talked with them by telephone from the detention centers, and from information provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).