University of Notre Dame | October 14, 2016
“We have found you and we have given you time to enter the [gang]. You have had two opportunities to join and we will kill you if you don’t,” the note said. It was addressed to Ariel, a 14-year-old boy living in El Salvador with his mother and sisters. It continued to outline that the gang would slit his throat and kill his family if he did not pledge allegiance to their group. Knowing the police would be no help, his mother, Maria, knew she had to get Ariel out of El Salvador in order to save his life.
El Salvador was recently named the murder capital of the world, with a murder rate 22 times than that in the United States. Gang violence is a major contributor, with two main gangs warring for control and recruits. And the gangs don’t take loyalty lightly. Maria and Ariel had already watched a family member killed at the hands of the gang. They knew if they stayed Ariel would be forced to pledge or die.
After a treacherous 19-day journey, Ariel and Maria successfully crossed the border into the United States. Once in Texas, they declared their intention to seek asylum, telling police of what awaited them back in El Salvador. They were held at a family detention center for many months until bail was posted by family in northern Indiana. When they moved to be with family, their asylum case made it to the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC). Through its three locations, NIJC provides legal services to more than 10,000 individuals each year and has a better than 90 percent success rate in winning its cases, a rarity in the legal world. Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at NIJC and an adjunct professor in the Law School, notes that more than half of asylum cases are denied.