More than 200 people the United States has sent back to El Salvador have been killed or seriously abused — including sexually assaulted and tortured — according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.
The group's investigation found that from 2013 to 2019, 138 people were killed and more than 70 others were beaten, sexually assaulted, extorted or tortured after they were sent back to the Central American country.
The report, released Wednesday, highlights the risks Salvadorans face when sent back to a country facing a humanitarian crisis, racked by extreme levels of violence. It emphasizes how efforts in the last few years by the Trump administration to restrict legal immigration — particularly asylum — have hit Salvadorans especially hard.
"This has been a brick-by-brick erection of a legal wall by the Trump administration in an attempt to effectively end asylum in the U.S.," the report's co-author, Alison Leal Parker, told NBC News. "Salvadorans are by no means the only nationality, but they are one of the populations that will suffer greatly from this."
"A living hell"
Juana, who requested that her real name not be used because of safety concerns, is a Salvadoran woman who suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her partner and fled for the U.S. border with her 2-year-old daughter in 2015.
But Juana and her daughter are back in San Miguel — one of El Salvador's most violent areas — in the same neighborhood they fled nearly five years ago.
Eight percent of all homicides in El Salvador in 2018 happened in San Miguel, making it the second deadliest municipality in the country, according to the State Department's Overseas Security Advisory Council.
"This is a very dangerous place. There's no safe place here because people get killed all the time," Juana told NBC News in Spanish. Gang members "left me all beaten" at work in April, she said, adding that it's been difficult to hold a steady job since criminals are always looking to extort and assault her.
Shortly after Juana got to the U.S., she was detained in a holding cell known as a "hielera" for its cold temperatures ("hielo" is "ice" in Spanish), separated from her toddler and deported the following year without her child, even though she passed her credible fear interview.
"Being separated from my daughter really affected me," Juana said. "That's not a thing you can just overcome easily."
Officials working the case found that Juana's former partner, her daughter's father, had reported her for human trafficking as part of his abuse. The Salvadoran government later determined she had not committed such a crime, and after a year and a half, Salvadoran and U.S. officials intervened to reunite mother and child.
For Salvadorans, doors are closing
Gang members shot and killed Adriana in 2017 after the U.S. dismissed her asylum claim and deported her back to El Salvador in 2015, according to the report, which changed Adriana's and other victim's real names to avoid identifying some of the people interviewed during the research.
Adriana, a former Salvadoran policewoman, was seeking asylum in the U.S. after being threatened by gangs.
The U.S. has deported many Salvadorans like her "who flee the country because they have tried to enforce the law," Parker said. Typically, these are people who have worked on investigations or trials of gang members.
"The consequences for these police officers and law enforcement can be life and death," Parker said.
The U.S. has been denying asylum applications from El Salvador even though the number of applicants increased from about 5,600 to over 60,000 from 2012 to 2017, a growth of nearly 1,000 percent.
A rise in asylum requests from people fleeing El Salvador suggests that the violence and human rights abuses in the country, "including one of the highest murder rates in the world and very high rates of sexual violence and disappearances," have worsened, according to Human Rights Watch.
Gabriel G. was targeted by gangs for being in the Salvadoran military and unsuccessfully sought U.S. asylum. Gabriel told Human Rights Watch that he and his family are continually harassed by gang members after he was deported in 2018. The death threats are constant, he said.
Salvadorans facing deportation are often subjected to an immigration system that is "harsh and punitive," plagued with court hearing backlogs and limited access to comprehensive legal advice, as well as "prolonged and inhumane detention," according to the report.
Two U.S. attorney general decisions, one by Jeff Sessions and one by William Barr, narrowed the categories of people who can claim asylum in ways that particularly affect Salvadorans. The decisions limited the ability to seek asylum for those fleeing gang and gender-based violence or fleeing because a relative was assaulted or killed — all common reasons Salvadorans leave their country, according to the report.
High risk for longtime U.S. residents
The report emphasized the high risk of harm for longtime U.S. residents who return to El Salvador, what Parker called its "most surprising" finding. Those deportees may stick out in El Salvador as easy marks for gangs that control much of the country's territory.
Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans could be deported from the U.S. in the coming years based on two Trump administration efforts to end immigration programs such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
About 47 percent of the estimated 1.2 million Salvadorans living in the U.S. who are not citizens are in the country legally as lawful permanent residents or through TPS and DACA. The rest are undocumented.
Work authorizations for TPS holders are set to expire in January 2021 and DACA's future won't be decided until the Supreme Court rules on whether to keep or overturn Trump's decision to end the program.
Rollbacks of legal immigration protections make at least 900,000 Salvadorans who are undocumented, DACA or TPS holders vulnerable to deportation, subsequently "sending them to face murder and attacks on their safety," Parker said.
The U.S. determined that only 18.2 percent of Salvadorans seeking asylum from 2014 to 2018 qualified for it. During the same time period, the U.S. deported 111,000 people to El Salvador, the report said.
Human Rights Watch said many of those denied asylum and sent back were later killed.
Under the one-year-old Migrant Protection Protocols, known as the "Remain in Mexico" policy, thousands of migrants waiting for U.S. immigration hearings have been sent to Mexico, in areas the State Department has deemed unsafe because of "organized crime activity — including gun battles, murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion and sexual assault."
The report calls on the Trump administration, as well as lawmakers, to "address due process failures in asylum adjudications" and adopt laws that take into account the "global realities prompting people to flee their homes," instead of implementing policies that "shift responsibility for immigration enforcement to countries like Mexico" to avoid obligations over migrants' safety.
"Evidence continues to pile up showing that the U.S. government is knowingly signing a death sentence by forcibly returning vulnerable people to the very place they fled. It’s our responsibility to demand accountability, restore our asylum and refugee systems, and uphold our nation’s core values,” said Sen.Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement reacting to the report.
The organization also recommends implementing additional protections under international law to help people who may have been denied asylum and will likely face risk of serious harm or death upon their deportation to El Salvador.