El Salvadorian Family Finds That There Is No "Right" Way to Immigrate to the United States
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Jose Sorto tried to do it the right way.
The married father of two left his family in El Salvador and moved to Washington D.C. in 1998 and earned legal status working as a cook five years later, hoping to one day bring his wife, his daughter, Jocelyn, and his young son to live with him. All they had to do was survive in increasingly dangerous El Salvador. All he needed was time.
Last spring, however, time began to run out. Gang violence claimed the lives of Sorto's relatives in El Salvador and threatened his wife, daughter and son. So in July, Sorto applied to the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program, meant to expedite the processing of children and their families from Central American nations so that they wouldn't risk paying smugglers to make the trip to the United States on their own. CAM appeared to be a savior for Sorto and his family. But as Sorto would find out, in reality CAM was far too inefficient to help.
The CAM application process typically takes more than a year's time, a luxury that Sorto's family no longer had. They had to move twice during the application process, fleeing the MS-13 gang that was now targeting Jocelyn, 20, and Ernesto, 12. By April, they could no longer wait. It became too dangerous for the kids to even go to school. One Sunday evening, MS-13 members came to the Sorto family's home and threatened Jocelyn — they told her that if she didn't join the gang, they would kill her and her mother.
Not long after that, Sorto arranged for smugglers to take his family across the U.S. border. It wasn't what they wanted, but they had no choice.
They came by bus, weary of both Mexican immigration authorities and cartels, and crossed the Rio Grande into the United States by raft. U.S. Customs officers detained the family almost immediately, and took them to Laredo, where they separated Jocelyn from her mother and brother, who passed an asylum screening and were promptly released on bond because Ernesto was a minor. Although Jocelyn was under 21 and considered a minor by the CAM program's standards, she was over 18 and, as an adult undocumented immigrant caught at the border, was ineligible for immediate parole. She remains in detention in Houston today, awaiting a bond hearing.
The Sorto family's story is unfortunately emblematic of the U.S. government's failures in responding to the epidemic of violence sweeping through Central America and forcing families to flee their homes. According to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported Sorto's story in April, more and more Central American families are giving up on the CAM process and choosing smugglers instead. The State Department told the Times that among 8,001 applications since 2014, fewer than 200 have made it to the U.S. through the CAM program.
"It's so violent and unpredictable in Central America that a lot of people can't wait a year," Noah Feldman of RAICES, a San Antonio-based nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrant families, said in a phone interview. "There is really no correct, right way, no authorized way for people to flee the situation down there, so people are surviving and coming here the only way possible. I think [the Sorto] case also shows how many resources this country is using to detain someone like Jocelyn, who is not a threat to security and has no criminal history and came here seeking asylum. It just doesn’t make sense."
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In a phone interview from detention, Jocelyn said through an interpreter that she had hoped to come to the U.S. to get an education and one day become a cook. But for now, she spends her days in a small, closed-in cell that she shares with 30 other girls, reading the Bible and flipping through channels on the single TV. She said she hardly sees sunlight beyond ten or 15 minutes of recess each day. The faces around her are constantly changing — after waiting for months and months, many lose hope and agree to be deported. Jocelyn has been in detention since April 9.
"I worry a lot," she said. "The place where I'm from, I can't return. The truth is, I'm just really scared."
The court date for her bond hearing, May 31, came and went. Her case never made it on the docket and was rescheduled for June 7. Once again, the Sortos will have to wait.