Two brothers who spent 14 years apart sit at a kitchen table in a mobile home outside of Minneapolis. The elder one, David, looks around at the freshly painted blue walls with pride. He’s adding new window frames, flooring and appliances bit by bit to make a home for his family.
David left El Salvador on Sept. 1, 2005. He was 20 and the journey to Minnesota, where his father was living, took 22 days.
“You remember the whole trip, counting each day to get here,” he says. “We didn’t come on the plane.”
His younger brother, Josue, did take a flight. A special refugee program run by the US State Department gave him a chance to arrive legally in Minnesota. The program, which began in 2014, was intended to keep families like theirs, desperate to reunite and escape violence, from sending children on dangerous overland routes to the US border. The Central American Minors program was discontinued by the Trump administration in 2017. Josue’s permission to live and work in the US will expire in September 2018. Their status in the US is insecure, which is why the family asked not to be identified by their full names.
When David left their home in La Paz, gangs were beginning to take control of the neighborhood. He was working weekends as a shuttle driver; once, he was stopped by men who put a machete to another brother’s neck. David gave them the money they asked for.
Over the years, it became too dangerous for David to make a living. “We were always a really close-knit family,” says David. At times, three children — he is one of eight children — would sleep together in one bed.
But he decided with his family that it was time to leave. He paid several smugglers, called coyotes, a total of $6,500 to take him on a bus to Guatemala, a raft over the border into Mexico and then to hide them on buses and bribe police to get further north. They spent three days crossing the desert on foot to the Rio Grande. After three attempts, they crossed into the US, evading US border agents.
As David talks about the journey, his two young daughters, in braids, have a tea party with several stuffed animals and figurines while his toddler son rolls around in a walker. All three were born in the US.
David says it felt like the immigration agents could kill you, but you couldn’t surrender because the coyotes wouldn’t let you. They needed to keep you in the group because they got half of their payment after you made it to Texas. David was locked in a room in a house in Houston until his family sent the remaining fee.
He was scared the whole time.
“People can tell you how difficult it’s going to be. But you really don’t know. There was one guy who got left behind in the desert. We didn’t go back for him,” he says. He remembers seeing bones on the ground in the desert, the remains of other migrants who didn’t make it. “I thought, ‘If immigration gets me, I’m not sure I’m going to do this again.’”
When David left El Salvador, his youngest brother was just 6. Josue used to call him “Papa.” “I missed him a lot, hoping he’d get there OK,” Josue says.
As Josue got older, the violence in El Salvador got worse and the coyotes became even more dangerous. By the time he was a teenager and all his older siblings had moved out of the house, to the US or other parts of El Salvador, he lived with his mother in a neighborhood between two gang territories. MS-13 was on one side and 18th Street on the other. By the time Josue was 16, he saw his first murder victim, lying dead on the floor of a market at 6 a.m. with bullet wounds. He and his mother witnessed shootings. A 10-year-old who was already part of a gang threatened Josue and stole his phone. When he was 17, at an internet cafe, men came in and pointed long rifles at him and demanded money.
For the most part, Josue lived his life between home, church and school, carefully weighing his everyday decisions about where to go. He couldn’t visit his grandmother, aunts and uncles because they lived in other towns, controlled by other gangs. Josue was careful about what he wore — no tennis shoes, no hats — to avoid any kinds of misunderstandings. He stuck to button down shirts and his school uniform to help signal that he was part of the Christian church and not affiliated with a gang. He had one friend who was convinced — forced really — to join a gang.
“It’s not living, to be with them,” Josue says. But there aren’t many options for the children the gangs target. “In El Salvador, you really don’t have many aspirations for the future. You don’t have dreams.”
Josue’s time in Minnesota has been different.
“Since I’ve been here, I get out of work — 11, 12 a.m. — I can go out without being scared. There, you can’t go out.”
Josue sits at the table, talking about his scattered memories of three of his brothers and his father, whom he knew only through phone calls for most of his childhood. That is, until 2016, when the US government gave him and his mother permission to join his father, Eli, who has been living in Minnesota since 2001.
Josue is 18 now, living with his parents in a small town about 20 minutes from David. Their homes are surrounded by wide-open boulevards and farm land, dotted by construction sites for new housing. The whole family is evangelical Christian and goes to church every Sunday. David works at a company that makes kitchen counters; Josue build chairs for commercial spaces and residential homes. They both pay taxes and feel that they are part of the growth and prosperity of their community in Minnesota.
“This country has helped us a lot,” David says. He looks around at the remodeling he is doing in his kitchen. The neighborhood is spotted with construction projects, new homes being built with the labor of people like David and his family. “But we have helped them a lot.”
The Central American Minors program was part of the Obama administration’s efforts to keep tens of thousands of young people like Josue from taking dangerous journeys like the one David made.
It was part of a larger effort to curb migration. The Obama administration supported the Mexican government in its efforts to detain migrants who crossed its southern border, and gave assistance — $2 billion from 2015 to 2017, according to the State Department — to Central American countries to help stabilize the situation. It also provided support for the military to try to stop drugs and weapons from moving north. Gen. John Kelly was then the head of the US Southern Command, including Central and South America and the Caribbean. At the time, he supported policies that gave aid to embattled countries.
“The cost of investing now to address Central America’s challenges is modest compared with the costs of letting festering violence, poverty, and insecurity become full-blown crises,” he said in a statement to Congress (PDF).
It is against this backdrop of rising violence and instability that the CAM program was created. It specifically addressed people who were desperate to get their children out of El Salvador to live with them in US. These parents, like Eli, are often people from El Salvador with long-term, but technically temporary status themselves. They were granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to live and work in the US after the 2001 earthquake in El Salvador. To participate in the CAM program they filled out forms and did DNA tests to confirm their children’s identities; only biological children or stepchildren were eligible. Then the children applied for refugee status at partner agencies.
In Josue’s case, it was the International Organization for Migration in San Salvador. He had four interviews over the course of a year, some with local workers and finally with American officials. The last one, he remembers, lasted five hours. He told them about his encounters with gangs and about his family in the US, even if they were undocumented. His mother was interviewed too; parents or caregivers still in their home countries could be considered for refugee status. When refugee status, and the legal permanent residence that comes with it, was denied, Josue and his mother, like most people who applied via CAM, were given temporary permission to live in the US on humanitarian considerations. They got their documents and were on a flight two weeks later.
From the time CAM took its first applications in December 2014 until the program was terminated in 2017, more than 14,000 people, children and their eligible family members, applied. To date, 3,260 have come to the US, 1,797 as refugees and 1,464 with humanitarian parole, according to the State Department. It was a small lifeline for young people facing violence, though.
At the peak of the mass migration, in the 2014 fiscal year, more than 70,000 children traveling alone were apprehended by US Border Patrol agents at the US-Mexico border. But the number of children desperate to escape is still high. In 2017, the agency apprehended more than 40,000 children, or “unaccompanied alien children,” as the government classifies them.
President Donald Trump put the wheels in motion to end CAM in his first week in office in January 2017. One of several executive orders related to immigration called for a strict interpretation of parole, that it only be applied on a case-by-case basis to those who specifically ask for it. CAM applicants applied for refugee status but were often given humanitarian parole to join their parents in the US.
At the time, Kelly was leading the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes Border Patrol and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In March 2017, he told CNN that he would do “almost anything to deter the people from Central America to getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up through Mexico and to the United States.” But he did not talk about reuniting families.
He said he was considering separating parents and children who arrive at the US border. On Monday, the ACLU sued the government for allegedly doing just that. The formal announcement of the end of the CAM program was made on Aug. 16, 2017, just after Kelly was appointed Trump’s White House chief of staff.
The State Department said in a report to Congress that it would instead focus on a program that transfers vulnerable Central Americans to Costa Rica, where US officials can consider them for resettlement in the US. That program, called the Protection Transfer Arrangement, has resettled just 120 people since it began in July 2016.
“The CAM Parole program was implemented as part of an integrated strategy to address factors contributing to increases in migration from Central America to the United States,” USCIS explains on its website. “However, as indicated by the President’s Executive Order, DHS is pursuing a new strategy to secure the US southern border.”
What this new strategy means for Josue and his family is that they will be trying to adjust their status — to ask for Josue and his mother’s parole to be continued or for them to be granted permanent residency with green cards — in uncertain conditions. As policies change in the Trump administration, it’s unclear where they stand as a family living in the US.
And there are many other families like them. USCIS says they have received applications from CAM parolees to extend their stay in the US, but did not have the numbers “readily available.” PRI has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get more data. There are also some 200,000 Salvadorans who, like Eli, have lived in the US with TPS for 17 years; his status will expire in September 2019, unless he too has some grounds to get a green card — say, if he married a US citizen — or parole at the discretion of USCIS.
But the processing backlog for someone in the US to adjust their status is long. At the end of September 2017, there were more than 620,000 pending applications. In the three months prior, USCIS received 165,000 applications and processed about 150,000 of them. The agency did not respond in time for publication to several inquiries about current applications and backlogs. But if someone’s status expires before their application is reviewed, or if their application is denied, they must leave the country or risk deportation.
Ana Pottratz Acosta, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, says many take a “belt and suspenders” approach to trying to stay in the US, applying for all avenues that could work. She and her students are among several groups in the area who host periodic legal screening events, to help people know if they are good candidates for various immigration statuses. Some people who came to the US via CAM might be candidates for asylum, for example, which would allow them to stay in the country while their cases are reviewed and get them green cards if they are admitted. But it’s not a good bet for everyone; the terms are set by the United Nations Refugee Convention.
“There is a very clear standard,” says Pottratz Acosta. “Not every case we screened last fall was a viable asylum case.”
Josue doesn’t know what exactly he’ll do. His only family are in Minnesota and El Salvador. But he doesn’t think it is safe to go back to La Paz. The gangs could target him.
“They think you have money because you’ve lived here. It’s very complicated. I don’t know what to do next.”
His family, it seems, is in a long cycle of being separated and reunited, only to be separated again.
The worst part of the war in El Salvador for Eli was being caught in the middle.
When the war first came into his life in 1979, he was working on a cotton farm in La Paz. Eli was 21 and had become the “writer” on the farm, the person who weighed and recorded how many bushels each worker brought in and how much they should be paid.
He was eating lunch with the farm’s administrator in the small house that served as the farm office. Men came in wearing masks and carrying rifles and pistols. They made them get on the ground, face down. He felt the barrels of two guns on his body, one to the back of his neck and one to his lower back.
It was, he says in Spanish, “a terrible moment. I can feel it right now, again.”
He moves his hands into the shape of a gun and points to the places where he can feel the steel. It was almost 40 years ago and he remembers every detail. One of the fighters yelled the word, “Look!” and the administrator lifted his head. A fighter angrily shoved his head back into the ground.
“I was shaking with fear. I thought they would kill me.”
The guerrillas, it turned out, were looking for weapons. They didn’t find any. The men yelled, “Long live the revolution!” and painted the letters “FPL” on the walls before leaving Eli and his colleagues, who were frozen in fear on the ground.
FPL, or the Popular Liberation Forces, was one of the militant leftist groups that would later join four other organizations to fight the government in a civil war. This particular group focused on gaining rights for labor unions and farmworkers, in Eli’s case through armed negotiations. Over the next few months, the FPL convinced — or coerced, depending on whom you ask — many of the workers at the cotton farm to join their cause. They held the farm hostage and said they would stop the harvest until the owners agreed to their demands. Many workers joined their cause.
Eli did what they told him to do — they had guns — but he did not become part of FPL.
“I was already evangelical Christian. I didn’t want to go around with a gun,” he says. “Having rights — the only way to establish that is through peace, not war.”
He tried to steer clear of the conflict. In over a decade of fighting between the military and a coalition of guerrilla groups, he says, “people don’t even know how many lives were lost.”
There are some estimates, though. A UN Commission on the Truth for El Salvador declared in 1993 that a decade of war, during which the Salvadoran government received military aid from the US, claimed more than 75,000 lives.
“Violence was a fire which swept over the fields of El Salvador; it burst into villages, cut off roads and destroyed highways and bridges, energy sources and transmission lines; it reached the cities and entered families, sacred areas and educational centres; it struck at justice and filled the public administration with victims; and it singled out as an enemy anyone who was not on the list of friends. Violence turned everything to death and destruction,” wrote the commission.
That report was called “From Madness to Hope.” For Eli, though, hope has not grown his home country.
“Right now the country is in a situation that is the same or worse than a war,” the 61-year-old says as he tells the story from the lobby of a public library. Four of his children have made it to the US and four are still in El Salvador. “There, when you’re a young person, your only option is to join the gang. It is horrible. Horrible.”
Sonja Wolf is a researcher at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, a university in Mexico City, and author of “Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador.” She says what happened to Eli in the war and what happened to his sons with gangs are connected — and have a lot to do with US policies. The US intervened in the civil war and gave significant military aid to the government, but the rebels were stronger than expected, says Wolf. The war dragged on for 12 years and many Salvadorans fled, especially to the US.
But the US government did not want to admit that these civilians were fleeing violence in the conflict and would not grant asylum. Many Salvadorans lived in the US undocumented, often in insecure communities where gangs were already thriving. They were struggling to make money and to adjust, so many young people joined gangs themselves. As the war ended, the US began deporting Salvadorans, some who had spent most of their childhoods in the US, back to their home country.
The Salvadoran government responded with “Mano Dura,” an “Iron Fist” approach that has largely been unsuccessful in curbing violence.
"The response by the US government was not to look at the conditions in the local communities to provide a social response, but to see the gang problem as imported by bad people,” says Wolf. "The Trump administration is only adopting very similar responses." While there are some mayors and states trying to help solve social issues, the federal response is to arrest and deport people.
Eli says, deportations or not, Salvadorans will continue to try to escape gang violence. “The people will continue to come because they are desperate,” he says.
But Eli came to live in the US entirely by chance.
In 2001, Eli was visiting his brother in New York on a tourist visa. His nephew bought him the plane ticket. That’s when an earthquake struck El Salvador. The damage was so bad that the US government gave him and about 200,000 other Salvadorans in the country TPS to live and work in the US while disaster relief was underway.
Eli intended to return to El Salvador, but his house was damaged and there was very little way for him to safely earn a living there. So he moved to Minnesota to be near relatives and to work so he could send money home. David joined him there the next year.
TPS for Salvadorans continued for the next 17 years because of the destruction, and later the violence. But Eli’s wife and Josue could never come.
“She always went to apply for the visa to come and never got it,” says Eli. Two years ago, David came across a single Facebook post about CAM. Immigrant advocates say the program was not publicized well, and David agrees.
“I just saw that little thing on Facebook,” David says, looking at Josue across the table. “If I hadn’t seen that, he might not be here right now.”
The first lawyer Eli talked to didn’t know about the program. Finally, they found the International Institute of Minnesota, which helps resettle refugees in the area and helped Eli begin the process of applying for his youngest son and wife. It took about a year; Josue and his mother arrived in Minnesota in September 2016, with two years to live and work in the US legally.
“Even to know that it would be two years, that it was temporary — were to just happy to be able to come,” says Josue.
Eli talks about the long years waiting, the violence and being separated from his children in vivid detail. He thinks it’s the first time he’s told the whole story in one long sitting. He worries about his children who are still in El Salvador; they are grown and have their own families but he suspects they don’t tell him about all of their troubles. The family is continuing to apply for them to join them in the US too.
Only one thing about the whole ordeal makes Eli tear up: Remembering what it was like to reunite with his wife. His pastor at church paid for them to stay together in a hotel for two nights.
“I was never with another woman for all those 15 years,” he says. She was never with another man, either.
David remembers in Spanish what he liked about America when he first arrived: that Americans are kind to animals. “And I thought, 'If they could only treat us and think of us the same way they do their animals … ' Instead, they treat us like terrorists and they think of us as bad people.”
David says that since coming to Minnesota he has not tried to hide from the government. His name and address are on applications for his other brothers and sister to come to the US. He hopes that this moment is an opportunity for the US government to reform immigration, to create a policy with humanity. When he first got to the US, it was the kindness of Americans that drew him in.
“I like the way that they treat the animals. The kindness they showed the animals and land and the vegetation,” says David. “And I thought, ‘If they could only treat us and think of us the same way they do their animals, us the Hispanic people. If only they would treat us and know us, who we are, as humans.’ Instead, they treat us like terrorists and they think of us as bad people.”
ICE arrests have increased about 30 percent in the first year of Trump’s presidency, according to an analysis of government data by the Pew Research Center. And that increase comes from people who don’t live on the border and who don’t have criminal records. The St. Paul region, which covers Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska, has seen a 67 percent increase in arrests from the 2016 fiscal year to 2017. From October 2016 through September 2017, ICE arrested 4,175 people in the area.
“What if immigration takes us? What would happen to our house and our family?” David says. It’s the reality of their situation, but there’s no use asking, “what if,” he says. “We try not to live like that.”
“My dreams are to watch my kids growing up, and watch them become professionals.”
His father, too, has built his life in Minnesota. Ten years ago, Eli bought a small house, where he now lives with his wife and Josue. He says he’s grown old with his neighbors and spends the time he’s not working in a factory working his “first job” in his church. In the summer, he puts swings out in the front yard for children to play on. “I get up early in the morning to go to work in the summer and the kids are already out there swinging,” he says.
“I pray to God that there is a legal way to have us be here,” Eli says. “Just give us something, so we can be here legally.”
Heidi Romanish contributed to this story with interpretation and translation.