When Maria Velasquez’ son was 10, he was forced to act as a messenger for the violent gang MS-13 in Honduras, according to documents filed in federal court this week in Charlotte.
The boy, now 14, knew that some of the envelopes he carried contained money, which he guessed was connected to the gang’s extortion or drug operations. He and his mother fled to the United States.
After crossing the border, Velasquez applied for asylum for herself and her son, who isn’t named in court documents due to his age.
An immigration judge denied her application, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to hear her appeal. Velasquez and her lawyers are trying to reopen the case, but she has been ordered to report for deportation – on Wednesday, at 9 a.m. Her attorneys filed for an emergency stay on Monday.
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Late Tuesday, Velasquez was granted a temporary stay and a hearing was scheduled for Thursday.
“Ms. Velasquez will be murdered if she returns to Honduras,” the court filing for the emergency stay said. “(Her son), if he is not murdered, will be forcibly kidnapped and compelled to live a life of crime in service to MS-13.”
They are particularly afraid of the 14-year-old boy’s paternal uncle, a local leader in MS-13. The uncle is childless and is “grooming” Velasquez’ son for the gang because of their family connection, the documents said.
The teenager saw his uncle giving orders to men with guns at his grandmother’s house, he wrote in the court documents. Sometimes, after he saw him or his men arguing with someone, he would hear at school that the person had been killed.
After Velasquez and her son left Honduras, her sister was killed by MS-13 members who confused her with Velasquez, the documents said. The killing led U.S. officials to reconsider Velasquez’ case, eventually determining that she did have a credible fear of persecution in Honduras.
But so far, her application for asylum has been unsuccessful. She and her son aren’t alone – tens of thousands of people have fled gang violence in Central America since 2014, and many have struggled to get asylum in the United States, according to a July 2017 story from The Marshall Project and The Washington Post.
President Donald Trump highlighted MS-13 in his State of the Union address Tuesday, saying underage gang members have brought violence to the U.S. through illegal immigration. But more children are crossing the border as gang victims than gang members, advocates said in an August 2017 NPR story.
People seeking asylum due to gang violence in Central America have had a particularly difficult time in Charlotte, where immigration cases are decided for North and South Carolina, the Marshall Project-Washington Post story said.
The three Charlotte-based immigration judges decided 1,295 asylum cases on their merits between fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2017, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
They granted asylum in 18 percent of those cases. Nationwide, immigration judges granted nearly half of asylum claims during the same period.
The United States grants asylum to people facing persecution in several categories – race, religion, nationality, political opinion and “membership in a particular social group.”
A family is one example of a social group, said Charlotte immigration attorney Andrés López, who is not representing Velasquez but has experience with asylum cases.
“The challenge is in the details – showing that the threats are being made because of this, and not just because the country is violent in general,” López said.
Documents in Velasquez’ case argue that her son faces particular danger because he is related to MS-13 members, and at least two of Velasquez’ own relatives – her sister and her nephew – have been killed by MS-13 members in the past few years.
Velasquez’ son is old enough to understand what he would face in Honduras.
“I do not want to hurt anyone or be involved in doing bad things,” the teenager said, according to court documents. “I do not want to be like my uncle.”