He was 10 when the gangsters flung rocks through the windows, and 12 when they beat him black and blue. At 15, a gang member shot at him while he was shopping at a grocery store — and killed his cousin instead.
At 17, he left Honduras for the United States.
He applied for political asylum, telling a judge that if he returned home, the gang that had slain his father would kill him, too.
Now 20, working as a gardener and living with his mother and siblings in Los Angeles, the man is one of a growing number of Central Americans asking for asylum. His claim was denied, and lawyers from the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles are helping him appeal. He asked not to be identified because he fears for his safety.
In the last five years, “credible fear” applications at the border have increased sevenfold, from just under 5,000 to more than 36,000, driven largely by an influx from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Advocates for the immigrants say the surge can be traced to worsening gang and drug violence in Central America. Others say people who cross the border are simply becoming more aware of asylum as an option.
“People used to think the only thing you could do was sneak across,” said Judy London, directing attorney of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the Los Angeles pro bono law firm Public Counsel. “They’ve learned that you can just go up to a border agent and tell them you want asylum.”
With the jump in asylum applications has come concerns about possible fraud and abuse.
On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing to address reports that the asylum system is being exploited, including by Mexican drug traffickers.
“If indeed we allow that process to be abused … then those that we disserve the most are those who are genuinely persecuted,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).
Even with the recent increase, the number of asylum seekers is lower now than in the early 1990s, when a coup in Haiti and a court settlement in favor of Central Americans resulted in a flood of claims.
Most asylum applications are still made from inside the country, rather than by claiming credible fear at the border. People who are in the U.S. legally — on a tourist or business visa, for example — file “affirmative” applications, which have also increased, though not as rapidly as credible fear applications. Combined, the two categories have more than doubled in the last five years, exceeding 80,000 in fiscal year 2013. The number of people winning asylum has increased only slightly, with about 30,000 cases approved in 2012.
Statistics show that an immigrant’s chance of winning asylum depends largely on where he or she is from.
In 2012, more than 10,000 people from China were granted asylum, compared with just 126 Mexicans and 234 Hondurans, according to federal data. Immigration court figures, which do not include cases approved in an initial hearing by an asylum officer, show a success rate of nearly 50% for Chinese versus 1% for Mexicans.
Still, the process buys time. Almost 90% of credible fear applicants pass an initial screening interview, which allows them to live and work in the U.S. until their cases are resolved — often a matter of years.
To qualify for asylum, a person must have suffered persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. If the persecutor is not the government, the applicant must show that the government failed to offer protection.
Chinese immigrants typically claim they were persecuted by the government for belonging to an underground church or trying to have a second child. It is harder to win asylum when the oppressor is a non-state actor such as a gang.
“Central America is a war zone more violent than the days of the civil wars,” said Deborah Anker, director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program. “But we’ve been denying these cases systematically.”
U.S. foreign policy is also a factor in which asylum cases get approved, according to Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco.
“No matter what we say in terms of the law being neutral, the U.S. continues to favor applicants fleeing from quote unquote communist-dominated countries,” Hing said. “Policywise, the U.S. is trying to support the governments of Central America and Mexico; so politically, the U.S. has that in the back of its mind in asylum adjudications.”
Still, immigration attorney Eric Price tells his Mexican and Central American clients that it may be worth filing an asylum case, even if they end up losing.
“Three uncertain years in the safety of L.A. is much better than three years of certain threat in Guatemala,” Price said. Besides, he added, the denial of asylum doesn’t always result in a deportation order, thanks to an initiative by President Obama that allows immigration officials discretion in whom they deport.
At last week’s congressional hearing, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) accused some asylum seekers of “gaming the system,” adding: “They essentially get free education, free healthcare.”
Fraud has been an issue, with underground asylum industries thriving in some ethnic communities.
Last year in New York, 26 people, including six attorneys, were indicted on charges that they manufactured asylum claims and coached Chinese clients on how to lie to immigration authorities. One church employee allegedly provided religious training so applicants could pass as Christians.
Thomas Mayer, a San Gabriel immigration attorney, said Chinese immigrants sometimes ask him to make up a persecution story for them. He refuses, but the demand is growing.
To weed out impostors, Mayer administers a quiz: “Name two important Christian holidays. What is baptism? Who was John the Baptist?”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for a more restrictive immigration system, said asylum should be limited to those fleeing repressive governments or genocide.
“Giving asylum to all kinds of people who are just using it as a path to a green card is not right,” Krikorian said. “Only by keeping the bar high, so the only ones who get asylum are the ones who are really, really deserving, can it remain politically viable.”
But immigration attorneys say the bar can be too high.
“It doesn’t make sense to me why you have to have your feet amputated before you could qualify for asylum in the U.S.,” said David Bennion, a Philadelphia immigration attorney. He is representing the Dream 30, a group of young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, recently returned to Mexico or Central America and have now filed for asylum.
He is basing their claims on an untested theory: that people who have spent most of their lives in the U.S. speak and dress differently, making them targets because they are thought to have wealthy relatives.
“Judges are not shocked to hear a Chinese national say he worshiped in an underground church,” said Bruce Einhorn, a former immigration judge who directs the asylum clinic at Pepperdine University School of Law. But, he said, “a lot of judges get Mexican asylum cases and say out loud, ‘Mexico? Mexico?’”
For the time being, attorneys say, physical scars and extensive documentation are often required for a case from Latin America to be taken seriously.
The immigrant from Honduras, who is haunted by his cousin’s death, is sure he will die if he returns. The nation’s gangs, he said, are merciless: “They don’t stop bothering you until they kill you.”