His case has been pending since then, despite multiple, grueling interviews over Skype with the asylum office in San Francisco. Javier at least has a lawyer, Shara Svendsen, to help navigate all of the asylum proceedings. She told me that some interviews went for as long as four hours at a time.
Yet Javier can’t go back to El Salvador because he fears that the gangs would kill him. “I’m afraid they’ll kill me or that they’ll do something bad to my life … I can’t go back to El Salvador or Honduras,” he said. “News travels fast. When they find out you’re back, at any moment, others might want to come find you and do something bad to you.”
In a May interview with NPR, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen acknowledged low asylum-approval rates, saying that “at the end of the day, only 20 percent are actually given asylum by judges, meaning 80 percent of the people coming here are either fraudulently claiming it, which is breaking the law, or they do not have a case that fits within our statutory framework.”
Advocates disagreed, saying that the situation on the ground differed entirely from the secretary’s assessment. Gui Stampur, the deputy executive director of the Safe Passage Project, responded that “the secretary of homeland security should meet and interview asylum seekers and hear their stories, and then she will learn that that’s not the case.”
Other advocates attributed the administration’s hostility to asylum to political posturing. Omar Jadwat, the director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, argued that “very little of what [the administration] has said even begins to grapple with the reality that these are people coming to the United States to seek protection from persecution.”
Officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
A denial of asylum status is not the end of the line for most children. They’ll get what immigration lawyers call “another bite at the apple,” a curious culinary analogy for a deadly serious issue, in which they can have their case heard before an immigration judge, and perhaps might have access to other forms of legal relief like protection under the convention against torture, or a special legal status for children abandoned by their family.
Still, their chances are not that much better in immigration court, where judges face increasing political pressure from the Trump administration to clear cases, despite an increasingly large case backlog. Over the past year, 56,498 immigration-court cases, and about 23 percent of all juvenile immigration-court cases, ended in a removal order. These orders typically end in a deportation if immigrants lose their appeals.
According to Jennifer Podkul, the policy director at KIND, there is no government program for the safe repatriation of children to their home country. Instead, the federal government has some partnerships with NGOs in an attempt to safely repatriate children, all in line with what they call the “best interests” of the child.