The Matter of S-E-G- and Child Refugees, Part I: The Facts

Despite the authenticity of gang threats to three refugees from El Salvadore, a U.S. immigration judge ordered them deported.
Despite the authenticity of gang threats to three refugees from El Salvadore, a U.S. immigration judge ordered them deported.

The children who have arrived in the United States from Central America are beginning to receive their court dates. Although they are refugees from violence in Central America, there is an overriding question of whether they will be treated as refugees by the American immigration system. The children my staff and I have spoken to tell stories of being threatened with death unless they join dangerous gangs. The gangs themselves have grown to the level of being quasi-governments in many parts of El Salvador and Honduras.

The problem in securing their futures is the way the immigration courts look at people fleeing gang violence in Central America. To illustrate, let’s look closely at the leading case decided by the Board of Immigration Appeals concerning such child refugees. The case I want to examine is called “Matter of S-E-G-” and it was decided in 2008. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) is the administrative appeals court handling asylum cases. Asylum officers and immigration judges are supposed to follow its rulings unless a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court overrules the BIA.

In this article I want to lay out the facts of the case and look at the immigration judge’s decision. Next week I will look at the BIA’s ruling in the case.

A 19-year-old-girl and her twin 16-year-old brothers came to the United States to get away from Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. That is the same violent gang that many of our clients say they are fleeing. According to the brothers, MS-13 members approached them when they were about 14 years old to recruit them into the gang. When the boys refused, they were beaten by the gang members and their money was stolen. The gang harassed them repeatedly and threatened to rape their sister if they did not join.

The gang finally issued an ultimatum. The gang members told the boys that if they continued to resist recruitment their dead bodies would be put into local dumpsters. The point was emphasized by the killing of a neighborhood child by MS-13.

A professor from the University of Central America in El Salvador gave expert testimony that the Salvadoran police are not able to control MS-13, and that, in fact, some police work with the gang. The professor testified that the average age for children targeted for MS-12 recruitment is 12 and that the gang retaliates against children who refuse to join, as well as against their families. Because MS-13 has a national network of gang members, children cannot simply move to other neighborhoods to get away from the gang.

This may seem like a terrifying situation for the three teenaged asylum applicants. They had been targeted for murder and rape by one of the deadliest gangs in Latin America and they had already suffered beatings and robbery. The immigration judge, however, rejected their asylum applications and ordered them deported.

In the next article in this series we will find out why.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.