WASHINGTON — When 12-year-old Joel Salazar lived in El Salvador, he was beaten by gang members on his way to school for failing to pay “la renta” — extortion money. His mother, who already had fled to the United States, told Joel to leave the country before gang members killed him.
In 2014, Joel traveled through Guatemala and Mexico with his uncle and a smuggler, then spent eight days trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. He was separated from his uncle, who was deported back to El Salvador, but Joel was able to cross into the U.S. on a raft. But he was caught and sent to a detention center before being reunited in Boston with his mom, whom he had not seen in 10 years.
“It was really hard to be in the cell I was put in,” he said, crying. “Then I was moved to a children’s center and stayed there for 12 days before being flown to my mom. I hugged her and kissed her.”
Joel is one of five Central American children and mothers who told their stories at an AFL-CIO news conference in Washington, D.C., Wednesday to condemn recent federal deportation raids across the nation, announced by Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson on a Jan. 4 statement. The focus of the raids, Johnson wrote, was on adults and their children who were apprehended while crossing the southern border illegally after May 1, 2014.
“We’re here to declare again, over and over again, that the AFL-CIO … and its affiliated unions are standing up in solidarity with the immigrant community saying, enough is enough,” AFL-CIO Vice President Tefere Gebre said.
He said U.S. policy has made it impossible for Central Americans to live in their own land.
“We ask our government, instead of arming the police in Central American countries and supporting coup d’états … we should have an economy plan for those countries that lifts up workers, that provides safe workplaces, that provides education, that provides growth of wealth in those countries so people don’t leave,” he said.
But Mark Krikorian, executive president of the Center for Migration Studies, pointed out in a separate interview that it isn’t up to the United States to reduce corruption and improve stability in these countries.
“We can help, but those societies have to develop on their own,” he said in a phone interview. “Maybe [the U.S. can help] through increased opportunities for trade, lowering trade barriers or making investment easier or helping improve governance there but ultimately its up to them.”
Krikorian said the number of Central Americans getting deported by these raids is “miniscule.” In the same Jan. 4 statement, Johnson said 121 individuals have been taken into custody and are in the process of being repatriated. To put it in perspective, in 2013, DHS reported that 438,421 had been deported that year.
Still, Gebre, who escaped violence and poverty in Ethiopia by immigrating to Sudan as a teenager, asked for an immediate end to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids.
“I asked for refuge because my country was unlivable because of government-sponsored violence. I’m glad that the Sudanese government didn’t send me back to Ethiopia to my death,” he said. “This is close to me, what’s happening to Central American refugees. The land of the free, the home of the brave, can’t be the land that sends people back to their death.”
It’s a risk that’s all too real for the women and children at the press conference. Rebeca Alfaro arrived to the U.S. in 2009 after gang members murdered her husband and, three months later, her mother. She had to leave her infant daughters behind.
“One day, when I was at work, gang members broke into my house and stole everything,” she said during the AFL-CIO press conference. “That’s when I decided to come here. The trip was very difficult because I had no money and didn’t know where to go or who to talk to … I had to board La Bestia but I finally made it to the U.S. When I got here, I still had no place to live, no work and no food, but, thank God, I was finally able to move on and bring my two girls … If I were deported today to El Salvador, I know I would die.”
Geyso Lemus fled to Los Angeles in 2004, leaving behind her 6-month-old son, Anderson. She said it was difficult to be here without any family and without a job but the worst part of it was knowing that, as long as Anderson remained in El Salvador, his life was at risk.
“When he turned 10 years old, my mother sent him here,” she said while Anderson stood near her. “It wasn’t easy. He got to the border and he was caught by immigration officers. He was sent to a center in Chicago.”
In El Salvador, Anderson told the crowd, he was bullied by gangs and almost got lost on his way to the U.S. He has since obtained asylum here.
“Gangs would tell me that if I didn’t join them when I turned ten they would kill me,” he said. “I feel safer in the United States now that I’m with my mom. I don’t have anything to worry about.”
Oscar Chacon, director of pro-immigration reform group Alianza Americas, said the undocumented immigrants are faced with extreme poverty and some of the highest homicide rates in the world.
“It is terrifying that our own government decides to remove the Peace Corps program from these countries and issue a travel warning for them but at the same time thinks it is OK to send immigrants back,” he said.
Maria Rodriguez left three daughters behind when she fled El Salvador.
“I didn’t want to be in this country because I clearly know it isn’t my country, but the situations that bring us here, no one wants to die like that,” she said. “And politicians can’t see this. I just want to ask them to get in our shoes for five minutes and realize what we go through … They should visit those countries to realize what the situation is like over there and know we aren’t lying.”