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Stepping Onto U.S. Soil Is the Beginning of Legal Battles for Central American Kids

For the Salvadoran kids who escape gang violence and actually make it to the United States, stepping onto U.S. soil marks the end of their grueling journey, but the beginning of their legal struggles.

Such is the case of Manuel Portillo, who, at 16 years old, left El Salvador to live with his parents in Austin, Texas, where they had moved to send money home. A year later — like many other kids from El Salvador seeking asylum — Portillo had to go to court and argue his case to seek refugee status, but he couldn’t find a pro bono lawyer that would help him. He missed his court date in fear of being deported and continued going to school and working at a local restaurant.

But he was arrested one night when he was driving without a license. “When I saw a judge later, he said I just had to pay a fine because of the license — but then he said I’d have to go into the hands of immigration officers,” Portillo told Vice. He was sent to a detention center for eight days.

Forty-nine percent of kids fleeing Central America between 2014 and 2015 had no legal representation to help them navigate the system and get asylum. Those who have access to a lawyer are five times more likely to stay as refugees.

Things could improve for these kids with the Day in Court for Kids Act proposed by House Democrats, which would provide legal representation for migrant youths. “We are talking about children running for their lives in many instances,” said Rep. Luis Guitierrez, one of the co-sponsors of the bill. “We need to make sure they have access to a lawyer, translator and a fair chance to navigate the American legal system so that they can get justice if they qualify for asylum and are fighting deportation.”

Portillo was lucky enough to have attorney Jacqueline Gurany step in and reopen his case. He was released from the detention center on bond thanks to her. “Manuel actually has a very strong asylum claim. He lived with [his] grandmother in an area dominated by gangs, [which] start to recruit boys at age 9 or 10 in the neighborhood,” Gurany said. And his uncle was nearly killed by gang members.

“I’m surprised Jacqueline helped me — and I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be here,” he said, “and I’ll keep fighting to stay.”

Read more about the future improvements on legal representation for migrant youth seeking asylum here

READ: Could the U.S. be Blamed for Gang Violence in El Salvador?

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El Salvador’s Election Leads To Landslide Win For The President’s New Political Party

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El Salvador’s Election Leads To Landslide Win For The President’s New Political Party

El Salvador has held its midterm elections two years into the term of President Nayib Bukele and the president has been handed a major victory. Although Bukele’s name was not on the ballot, Nuevas Ideas candidates relied on their connection to the conservative president, and his image was plastered on campaign posters around the country.

The strong showing for Nuevas Ideas came despite allegations of voting fraud from Bukele and other party members. While, international commmentators point out that with his new supermajority, there are very few checks on Bukele’s power.

President Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party wins a supermajority during midterm elections.

In what many are calling a first test for President Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas political party, the midterm elections delivered a landslide victory to the president and his party. With more than half the votes counted, the president’s party won a supermajority of at least 61 out of 84 seats in the country’s Legislative Assembly.

The midterm elections have completely upended the traditional political system that has existed in the country since the 1994 peace agreement. Not once has a single party had such a major victory. These elections also represent the collapse of the two-party system that has governed El Salvador for more than 25 years.

With the added votes of the GANA party, a small party that has pledged loyalty to the president, supporters of Bukele will control over 70% of the legislature, effectively removing all limits on the 39-year-old president’s ability to implement his agenda.

The election results remove any checks the authoritative president once faced.

Bukele will become the country’s most powerful leader in decades following these results, which is causing alarm among administration officials in Washington. Joe Biden’s administration has already voiced “worries” over Bukele’s tactics. These have included disobeying supreme court rulings and sending troops into the national assembly to coerce legislators into approving his spending plans.

Even before official results were in, the 39-year-old president, an ally of former US president Donald Trump, tweeted “VICTORY” over images of fireworks.

Bukele’s harsh crackdown on gang violence and his adept social media campaigns against corruption and traditional politics have made him popular with Salvadorans who are tired of endemic violence in one of the world’s most crime-ridden countries.

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Evelyn Hernandez – A Rape Survivor – Was Imprisoned Under Anti-Abortion Laws, Now She’s A Free Woman

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Evelyn Hernandez – A Rape Survivor – Was Imprisoned Under Anti-Abortion Laws, Now She’s A Free Woman

It’s no secret that countries across Latin America have some of the strictest abortion laws in the world – El Salvador is no exception. In fact, it’s the only known country that that regularly prosecutes and imprisons women as a result of its abortion ban – even in cases where the women suffered  miscarriages, stillbirths and other obstetric emergencies.

But over the last decade, activists, lawyers, and international women’s groups have rallied behind Salvadoran women imprisoned for “obstetric emergencies.” Since 2009, more than 38 women have been released from jail, 16 remain incarcerated, and at least three — including Evelyn Hernandez — are in the middle of legal proceedings.

Evelyn Hernandez, of El Salvador, has been found innocent after a retrial.

Evelyn Hernandez’s case had made international headlines when she was tried for homicide charges after experiencing a stillbirth – when she didn’t even know she was pregnant.

But after years of maintains her innocence of any wrongdoing, Hernandez has finally been found innocent by El Salvador’s judicial system.

“I was made the victim of a justice system that is anything but just. I know that there are countless other women who have experienced the same in a country where miscarriages are still considered a crime and reproductive rights are nonexistent. We must stand up and demand that the Salvadoran government release all the remaining women who have been wrongfully put behind bars like me. The fight does not end here,” Hernandez said after the trial.

Her defense attorney added in a tweet, “I am about to explode with happiness.”

Amnesty International described the verdict as a “resounding victory for the rights of women in El Salvador” and called on the government to “end the shameful and discriminatory practice of criminalizing women”.

El Salvador has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world.

Since 1998, El Salvador has had a complete and total ban on abortion – with zero exceptions – including in cases where the woman’s life is at risk for the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. In fact, El Salavador is the only known country that regularly prosecutes and imprisons women as a result of its abortion ban – even in cases where the women suffered  miscarriages, stillbirths and other obstetric emergencies.

Typically, women found guilty face between two and eight years in jail but in many cases – as was the case with Evelyn – charges are increased to aggravate homicide, which carries a minimum sentence of 30 years.

Today, more than 20 women are in prison under trumped up charges of manslaughter, homicide, or aggravated homicide after being accused of having an abortion. In total, at least 50 women have been imprisoned.

Evelyn’s case had been in the headlines for years after repeated appeals by prosecutors.

Evelyn’s case started when she was a victim of sexual violence in her community – having allegedly been raped by a gang member at 18-years-old.

She was first arrested after the body of her baby was found on the property of her rural home. Evelyn says she had experienced severe stomach pains and bleeding and went to the toilet, where she passed out. It’s here where her baby was stillborn. But in 2017, a judge ruled that Evelyn knew she was pregnant and tried to conceal the baby’s birth. She was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison, of which she has already served 33 months.

In July 2017, the judge ruled that Ms Hernández knew she was pregnant and found her guilty. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison of which she has already served 33 months.

Evelyn’s lawyers appealed the judge’s decision. They said forensic tests showed that the baby had died of meconium aspiration, inhaling his own stool. This can happen while the baby is still in the uterus, during delivery or immediately after birth. 

The lawyers said the test proved that Evelyn had not tried to abort the baby but that it had died of natural causes. “There is no crime,” defense lawyer Bertha María Deleón said during oral arguments. In 2019, the country’s Supreme Court agreed and annulled Evelyn’s 2017 conviction and ordered a retrial with a new judge.

Evelyn’s case could have a major impact on several other women across the country accused of similar crimes.

Credit: Oscar Rivera / Getty Images

According to human rights experts, there are at least 17 other women who have been jailed under the country’s strict abortion laws. Campaigners have successfully managed to free about 30 other women over the last decade  – after winning hard-fought court cases.

Evelyn’s retrial is the first case to be heard under new President Nayib Bukele, who took office in June, and women’s groups are hoping he could usher in a more lenient stance on the issue. 

President Bukele has said that he opposes abortion but has expressed sympathy with women suffering miscarriages who then come under suspicion.

“If a poor woman suffers a miscarriage, she’s immediately suspected of having had an abortion. That’s where the issue of social inequality comes into play,” he said while he was running for president.

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