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Trump’s New Ban Leaves Few Spots for Refugees, Even the Hunted

8 Mar


SAN SALVADOR — Veronica picked up some modeling clay, molded it into little human figures with her hands — and then dug holes into the sculpture’s face.

“Look,” said Veronica, 9, showing off the creation to her aunt. “That’s how Mamá ended up.”

For more than a year, Veronica and her sister have been in hiding here in El Salvador, hoping to receive refugee status in the United States. The two girls were doing homework at their dining room table when masked men burst in and gunned down their grandparents — the community’s only two health workers — on rumors that the couple had been tipping off the police about gangs in the neighborhood.

Like many thousands of others, Veronica and her sister applied for sanctuary in the United States under a special Obama administration effort to grapple with the violence that has gutted Central America and sent waves of its people on a desperate march toward the American border.

But on Monday, the Trump administration announced a four-month suspension on all refugee admissions to the United States so security procedures can be improved and, perhaps most significantly, cut the number of total refugees allowed into the country by more than half.

“We can’t remain in the same place,” said the girls’ aunt, Reina, who is seeking refugee status for her nieces, witnesses to the double homicide. “We got a call last weekend telling us that they’d find us under whatever rock we were hiding.”

When President Trump first tried to freeze the nation’s refugee program in January, the courts jumped in and thwarted his executive order.

But one vital limit that the courts did allow — and which Mr. Trump’s new order continues — is a drastic reduction in the number of refugees admitted to the United States this fiscal year, from 110,000 under President Barack Obama to Mr. Trump’s revised cap: 50,000.

And those seats are mostly taken already.

More than 37,000 refugees from around the world have been admitted to the United States since the fiscal year began in October. By Monday morning, with seven months to go in the fiscal year, fewer than 12,700 slots remained under Mr. Trump’s limit.

In a statement on Monday, John F. Kelly, the homeland security secretary, said the new executive order would “make America safer, and address long-overdue concerns about the security of our immigration system.”

“We must undertake a rigorous review of our visa and refugee vetting programs to increase our confidence in the entry decisions we make for visitors and immigrants to the United States,” he said. “We cannot risk the prospect of malevolent actors using our immigration system to take American lives.”

Altogether, the United Nations referred more than 100,000 refugees from around the globe last year for resettlement in the United States. The Obama administration accepted nearly 85,000 of them in the 2016 fiscal year, before raising the ceiling considerably for 2017. Now Mr. Trump’s order will effectively leave tens of thousands of families in limbo, all vying for the sliver of seats still available.

Veronica and her sister — whose last names are being withheld to protect their identities — have been waiting to find out whether they will be among the chosen. They and their father have been interviewed a total of four times, but months have passed.

Members of El Salvador’s most notorious gang, MS-13, have made menacing phone calls suggesting that more killings are coming, the family says. So the girls, their father, aunts and uncles abandoned their houses and ran. But in a country the size of Massachusetts, there are only so many places to hide. They have already moved twice.

Officials and immigrant advocates in Central America fear that as the Trump administration cites the danger of admitting potential terrorists cloaked as refugees from nations like Syria, it is disregarding the tens of thousands of people here who are being terrorized by street gangs that actually originated in the United States.

In 2014, the Obama administration began setting up a program to offer refugee status or special entry for some Central American children, hoping to stanch the tide of minors making the dangerous journey to the United States on their own.

More than 11,000 people have applied through the program, and just over 2,400 had been admitted to the United States by Feb. 22, according to the State Department. In Mr. Trump’s first month in office, 316 people were admitted, the department said.

The undertaking has always been slow. With the bar for eligibility high, and the application process lengthy, comparatively few of the people at risk applied. Many children chose to flee the country rather than wait for approval and risk danger while their cases were reviewed. American officials expanded the program in July to include additional family members, not just children.

But countless adolescents all over El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are hoping to leave their countries because gang members are stalking the young, forcing boys to join their ranks and threatening to rape girls.

“I have a client who has not left his house since July,” said Berta Guevara, a lawyer at the Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador, which helps people with their refugee applications.

Ms. Guevara said that many people in danger now believe that the United States no longer wants them.

“A one-month delay to a person who, on any day if they are seen, they will be killed — to that person, every day is a terrible day,” Ms. Guevara said.

Even before Mr. Trump’s executive order on Monday, officials at the Department of Homeland Security said they had not been taking on any new cases since the president first sought to suspend refugee admissions in late January, effectively freezing new applications to the program.

The new executive order will prolong that freeze for at least another 120 days, leaving children under threat in the region with some daunting choices, including staying where they are or making the long, dangerous trek to the southwest border of the United States to apply for asylum or some other form of humanitarian relief.

“There’s still this ambivalence in regarding the Central American situation as a refugee crisis,” said Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington organization that offers legal assistance to unaccompanied immigrant children.

“There’s a perception in today’s world that refugees are people who are fleeing war, and that gang and drug violence is not war,” she said.

Longer term, the Obama program in Central America could also be under threat because of its frequent reliance on a special provision called humanitarian parole, which allows certain immigrants to enter the United States temporarily even if they do not qualify as refugees.

Some Republicans who want to limit immigration call humanitarian parole an overused back door to entering the United States. And Mr. Trump, in an executive order last month that sought to tighten border security, took aim at “the abuse of parole and asylum provisions.”

Veronica’s aunt, Reina, said she was more scared than ever. Arrests have been made in the case, prompting more threats in recent days.

“I have been offered help to leave the country, but I just cannot leave here until these girls are safe,” Reina said.

She said she already borrowed $6,000 to pay a smuggler to take her 15-year-old son, who also witnessed the killings, to Dallas.

Oscar Torres, a prosecutor who runs the homicide division in the area where Reina’s mother and stepfather were killed, acknowledged that the entire family was in grave danger, whether they witnessed the murders or not.

Of the seven people who participated in the killings, he said, four are in jail pending trial, one is still wanted, another was killed in a shootout with the police and a minor is out on bail. One of the accused is a gang leader known as El Tigre. Gang members are particularly known to kill the families of potential witnesses when a gang leader has been accused, he said.

“If these guys come to be sentenced, they are not going to like that their gang leader, their homeboy as they say, was convicted, so this family becomes a target,” Mr. Torres said. “Where do these people go? What path is left for them?”