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Asylum ruling hits close to home

News accounts of children and their parents who flee violence in their home countries in search of safety in the United States may seem to be unfolding far away — on the Mexican border, or in detention centers where children are still being held after being separated from their parents — but the story of Estéban and Lizet from El Salvador is happening right here in the Rogue Valley.

In a three-day series beginning in today’s Mail Tribune, reporter Kaylee Tornay tells the story of the two Gonzalez children — their names are changed to protect their safety — who fled El Salvador after gang members threatened to kill first Estéban, 14, and then Lizet, 11, and their mother, Gabriela, if Estéban did not join the gang. The children are living with their father, who immigrated to the U.S. illegally 11 years ago in search of better pay to help support the family.

The children are living their father while their applications for asylum make their way through the courts, but their mother was deported back to El Salvador.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration appears determined to severely restrict asylum cases from El Salvador and other countries plagued by deadly violence from gangs that got their start in the U.S. In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered immigration judges to stop granting asylum to immigrants claiming to be victims of domestic or gang violence. That decision, which is within the attorney general’s authority, reverses a 2016 ruling from the Board of Immigration Appeals. That ruling reinstated the asylum claim of a Salvadoran woman who told authorities she was fleeing years of abuse from an ex-husband who had raped her, because the board found the Salvadoran government had shown it was incapable of protecting her.

The same standard applied to gang violence if applicants could demonstrate that the government of their home country could not protect them. Sessions’ ruling takes immediate effect, although the American Civil Liberties Union already has filed a lawsuit challenging it. On Thursday, a federal judge was hearing arguments in that case when he learned that federal authorities had moved to deport one of the plaintiffs and her daughter while they were in the process of appealing their deportations, even though the Justice Department had promised to wait until the case was decided. The judge ordered the government to “turn the plane around” and bring the two back from El Salvador, and threatened to hold Sessions in contempt.

At a time when economic immigration has slowed to a trickle, the administration has taken aim at those immigrants who are coming here seeking not jobs, but safety.

That contradicts international agreements the U.S. is a party to, including the United Nations 1967 Protocol, which says signatories are obligated to provide protection to those who qualify as refugees.

U.S. policy under the Clinton administration is partly to blame for the violence that now prompts Salvadorans like the Gonzalez family to seek asylum here. After the country’s civil war ended, the U.S. government allowed the refugee status of thousands of Salvadorans to expire, sending young men back with the gang affiliations they had formed on the streets of Los Angeles. The ensuing violence was the impetus for many Salvadorans to flee.

Even before Sessions’ June ruling, most asylum claims by immigrants from Central America were ultimately denied, including 79.2 percent of claims from El Salvador. After the ruling, immigrants who follow in the footsteps of Estéban and Lizet will have virtually no chance to even make their case.

Actions like these tarnish the United States’ reputation as a champion of human rights and a protector of the oppressed.