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Seeking asylum, Part III: THE WAIT

Editor's note: This article is the final installment of a three-day series on the Gonzalez family's experience pursuing asylum in the United States. Read Part Onehere. Read Part Two here. To find out more about how we reported this series, click here.

Estéban, Lizet and their father, Jonathan Gonzalez, wait on the green-cushioned benches of Judge Patricia Crain’s Jackson County juvenile courtroom as other cases are heard. Seated among the neat rows, 14-year-old Estéban wears a bomber-style jacket, Jonathan a tucked-in, button-down shirt and 11-year-old Lizet a black patterned coat.

When it’s their turn, their lawyer, Kevin Stout, leads the three of them to the front on the defendant side. An interpreter sits between them, relaying Crain’s questions into Spanish as she asks their names, how old they are and what brought them here.

The children, through Stout, are asking Crain for more time in their father’s care in Southern Oregon until they are scheduled for deportation back to El Salvador, where they fled gang violence in December.

Before she decides to extend their waiting period until February 2019, Crain asks Estéban another question: Is he afraid to go back to the country that was home for all but the last six months of his 14 years?

It’s the kind of question that he and Lizet will face again and again from agents of U.S. law. How effectively the children, or at least Stout, demonstrate that their fear of persecution is both credible and inescapable in El Salvador will determine whether they will be granted protection in the U.S. as asylees.

Asylum is granted based on evidence that a person is being persecuted or credibly fears persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June released a recommendation for immigration courts to curtail granting asylum to those fleeing gang and domestic violence — in the past, some have received asylum claiming those types of violence placed them in a certain social group. Citing data that asylum applicants from Central America had jumped from 5,000 in 2009 to 94,000 in 2016, Sessions suggested a number of those cases were either not applicable for asylum or fraudulent, which border officials also have said contribute to the backlog.

“An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family or other personal circumstances,” he said. “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

It was gang violence that drove the Gonzalez family — Lizet, Estéban and their mother, Gabriela — out of Lourdes, El Salvador: habitual death threats extended to even Lizet. Murdered classmates and community members served as frequent reminders of the threats’ credibility, the Gonzalezes say. The children were separated from their mother at the border and sent to a New York care center before being reunited with their father, who entered the country illegally 11 years ago and lives and works in the Rogue Valley.

Because asylum remains under federal scrutiny, Stout is also pursuing protection for the children through a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status visa, which is granted based on evidence of parental abuse, abandonment or neglect. He says they may be able to argue for neglect based on their separation from their mother following their unlawful border crossing.

The family’s public Christian faith, however, is what Stout sees as the children’s argument for persecution. The family attended church multiple times a week and Estéban would also go out to evangelize in their hometown. They were robbed by gangs once as they left church.

The Mail Tribune also met once with another brother and sister who experienced similar treatment. Like Estéban and Lizet, the teenagers said gangs targeted them to move drugs because their church attendance and lack of tattoos made them less suspicious to authorities. They fled rural Guatemala and were staying with an uncle in Southern Oregon.

“Now that we’re here, we can’t go back,” the sister said in April. “Because they know we’ve left. And if we try to go, they will actually kill us this time. Because we already ran away once.”

Those siblings, ages 17 and 18, ran away from their uncle’s home shortly after that interview. Stout never heard from them again.

Whether the Gonzalez children will be deported remains in limbo as the Justice Department (which oversees immigration courts) tries to expedite thousands of backlogged cases.

After the Gonzalezes almost missed their first immigration court date in Portland that Lizet was assigned, the appointment was rescheduled — for a date in 2021. Estéban has not yet been scheduled to appear in immigration court.

This waiting game is more common than not, as an estimated 733,365 cases (of varying kinds, not only asylum) are stacked up in the immigration court system, according to data from the Immigration Court Backlog Tool.

But the Gonzalez children find ways to build a life in the Rogue Valley amid the possibility that their window of opportunity to stay here might close. They rely on God, to whom they credit all strokes of good fortune. And they prevent themselves from constantly wondering about the future.

“We can’t just get stuck on thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?’” their father says. “We need to be in the moment.”

That means learning English and attending schools in Ashland. Joining a new community of students was stressful and isolating at first, but got easier with time, the siblings say.

Lizet says she got some initial support from a fellow student who is bilingual. With the help of multiple English classes each week, by the end of the school year, she depended on her translations less and less.

“She doesn’t help me very much anymore,” Lizet says.

Estéban says he was placed first at Ashland High School for a day before administrators moved him to the middle school. He worried in the beginning about what other students might be saying about him in a language he couldn’t yet understand.

Both children say they have since adjusted to their surroundings. Estéban ran on his school’s track team in the spring. Lizet visited Crater Lake with her class.

But when asked whether they worry about their mother, who was deported shortly after they crossed the border, Estéban’s chin falls and he exhales heavily.

“Sí,” he says.

Jonathan says gangs have targeted Gabriela’s nephew for recruitment. Though the nephew was sent away to protect him, he says, Gabriela is still a potential target.

Because the children are pursuing legal protections in the U.S., Stout says it likely will be years before they will have an opportunity to be with Gabriela again. Until then, they talk on the phone.

Neither of the children has met someone else here who can relate to their experiences, they say, but they also haven’t told their new friends about their journey. Estéban says it just hasn’t come up.

For now, the Gonzalezes’ most important objectives are to learn English and, Jonathan says, “to adapt to the system.” And from Lourdes, El Salvador, Gabriela tells the children they should not come back.

As a family, they have found community at church, which they still attend, four times a week.

“We only depend on God,” Estéban says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Placement of children seeking asylum falls to school districts

Estéban and Lizet are not the only children of uncertain immigration status that Southern Oregon school districts have enrolled. When children arrive seeking refugee, asylee or special immigrant juvenile status, it falls to district administrators to determine where they are placed. Often that process is complicated by a lack of records, whether on immunizations or academic progress.

In accordance with a 1982 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed children public education regardless of immigration status, school districts don’t ask incoming students about their status. But in districts or schools where employees build relationships with students, family circumstances become known.

Phil Ortega, who oversees safety and attendance in Eagle Point School District, says that the instability of some immigrant students’ lives sometimes comes to light when they miss school — part of his job is to check in with the parent, guardian or sponsor on record.

More than once, he says, he’s heard a similar story.

“‘I’m sorry, Mr. Ortega, they were detained,’” he quotes the response. “Now we have to track these kids to find out their whereabouts.”

That involves calling Portland’s immigration court to check on the student’s status. Sometimes, it means receiving the response that the student was “transitioned out of the country.”

Mail Tribune illustration by Paul Bunch