By Francisco Navas
September 22, 2018
Woman who fled poverty and violence in El Salvador more than 10 years ago says leaving would devastate her son’s care.
|Immigrants after crossing the US-Mexico border near McAllen, Texas.|
She gets to work at 4am, puts on her boots, hard hat and respirator and goes straight through noon. Drywall finishing is demanding labor but it pays better than housekeeping ever did. More importantly, the hours are better for her three children.
After 3pm, two of her children get on with their day’s homework and a few chores, as Blanca expects, and as she needs them to do, because in the afternoon her full attention must turn to her middle child.
Alfonso, 11, a US citizen by birth, is autistic and lives with severe motor, speech and emotional impediments. Together, the single mother and her son tie the knots of his shoes, regrip his fork as he eats. If a seizure strikes, she’s there to hold him. But in a week’s time, she may not be there.
Blanca waded across the Rio Grande in 2005 initially to escape poverty and after 2012 stayed away to avoid the growing violence in her native El Salvador, and settled successfully in the US.
|'People will die': Obama official's warning as Trump slashes refugee numbers.|
She had been allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds, presenting herself to her local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) office annually and always routinely being rubber-stamped to remain in the US. But something suddenly changed.
In late July 2018, she walked into the Ice office as normal, but there was a new officer overseeing her case. He refused even to take her usual reapplication form for a stay of deportation out of her hand. Instead he told her to report back with a plane ticket to El Salvador by Wednesday, 26 September.
“In El Salvador, me and my sons’ lives are in danger. And Alfonso wouldn’t receive any of the therapy and help he gets here. None of it. I can’t send them to school there. They won’t come back,” she told the Guardian.
|Two of Blanca’s sons in El Salvador in 2012.|
Photograph: Courtesy of Linette Tobin
Blanca shared her identity with the Guardian but asked that her last name and images of her or her teenage children not be used, out of security fears.
Since she and her family have made a life in Maryland since 2005, they have only gone back to El Salvador once, briefly – after her father’s sudden death in 2012. Blanca got the call from El Salvador while walking to mass and was shocked and mystified. “I spoke to him just four hours earlier,” she said.
When she got the next call, from a relative, “I was told to stop asking what happened.”
She took her younger son and Alfonso to El Salvador – and found the truth in her father’s open casket. “He had a gunshot wound in his head and a scar around his neck.” He had been choked and shot dead at 48. He had kept his struggle with local gangsters and extortionists to himself.
“I thought it was strange that the money I sent him ran out very quickly,” Blanca said. She was told he refused to carry on paying them, and was killed. Ten days later, the gangsters came for her, too. “They came to my family’s house saying that if I reported to the police they would kill me and my little sister,” she said.
Meanwhile, Alfonso had become gravely ill, vomiting anything he ate. A high fever and hives followed. Three local doctors couldn’t diagnose him, Blanca said. “They just told me to go back where he was healthy.”
|Blanca’s father, who was killed by local gangsters. Photograph: Linette Tobin|
In February, 2012, Blanca crossed the Rio Grande for the second time and Alfonso adjusted well once back home.
“Autistic people often have sensitive gastro-intestinal systems. Anxiety and disruption of routine can cause us to get sick,” said Sam Crane, the director of public policy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
Now, despite no changes in immigration law or the circumstances of her case, Ice will not review Blanca’s routine reapplication to stay, her lawyer, Linette Tobin, said.
Tobin has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see if Ice can suggest an avenue for her to file to reopen Blanca’s case. She is awaiting a response, but the clock it ticking.
Blanca fears for Alfonso’s wellbeing most of all. “I can’t leave [Alfonso] with someone strange he doesn’t know,” she said.
El Salvador’s infrastructure for people with autism is much less robust than the US system, said Crane. Blanca fears Alfonso would not survive there with her, and will suffer without her in the US.
“It’s an extremely compelling humanitarian case for avoiding deportation,” Crane said. “Alfonso’s school in Maryland is crucial to connecting the boy with speech and occupational therapies that will help him live independently as an adult,” she added.
Cases like Blanca’s have become increasingly common since February 2017, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a policy memorandumthat critics say has undermined a tradition of prosecutorial discretion when someone is in the US unlawfully.
|The Rio Grande river near Brownsville, Texas. Blanca has crossed the river twice.|
Prosecutorial discretion refers to the decision the Department of Homeland Security or its subsidiary agency Ice makes about when to apply the full scope of immigration law or not.
“The idea that someone like Blanca is protected as part of historical prosecutorial discretion has existed for six decades in our country,” according to Shoba Wadhia, a professor of law at Penn State University.
The memorandum followed two executive orders by the Trump administration implying all undocumented immigrants are a priority for removal. These have put Ice under “a lot of pressure to arrest and jail people during these check-ins”, says Benita Jain, a supervising attorney at the advocacy group Immigrant Defense Project.
“We have received reports that people who have been checking in to Ice as requested for years are [now] more frequently being arrested,” Jain said.
Ice’s public affairs office did not respond to a request for comment.
“Why don’t they worry about the people doing harm in this country? I came to work and I never stopped working,” Blanca said.
“Unfortunately, we [immigration lawyers] have been hearing stories like this, [that] DHS stopped allowing people to stay who are deportable but have compelling situations,” said Nadine Wettstein, an immigration specialist at the Maryland public defender’s office.
Some will have to go back into the shadows for a while. Blanca doesn’t want to keep secrets from her children. She said: “I tell them the nice aspects [of El Salvador], but keep the rest. But they say they’re not going anywhere. ‘I’m from here. I go to school here. My friends are here,’ they tell me. I can’t live without them, either.”