Manuel* was 15 when the local gang in El Salvador tried to enlist his older brother, Daniel. Daniel, trying to protect Manuel and his other brothers from being recruited, refused to join; gang members took him away, and, the next day, his strangled body was found in a ditch. Manuel had witnessed the abduction and knew his life was now in danger. He fled his home and embarked on a new life: one of fear, hypervigilance, and transience.
We met Manuel in Tijuana, where Physicians for Human Rights was conducting a field investigation to document the violence faced by asylum seekers and the extent to which the physical and psychological impacts of that violence corroborate their accounts of persecution. At migrant shelters and other safe havens, we met dozens of people, like Manuel, who told harrowing stories of the extreme brutality they had experienced in their home countries – and whose physical and psychological scars bore out their narratives.
The medical evidence collected by our doctors clearly refutes the sensationalized rhetoric of the Trump administration, which claims that the 60,000 migrants who wait along the U.S.-Mexico border are simply economic migrants trying to game the asylum system.
When Manuel left home, he first tried to flee to neighboring cities in El Salvador, but his whereabouts were continually discovered. After two years of being on the run, and travelling thousands of miles on foot, he finally reached the U.S.-Mexico border with the hope of seeking asylum in the United States. But instead of finding refuge, Manuel came face to face with the U.S. administration’s cruel and illegal metering system. Upon arriving at the border crossing, Manuel was handed a slip of paper with a number scrawled on it and told that he would have to wait weeks, and possibly months, for his turn to present his case to U.S. authorities.
As Manuel waited, terrified, staying in make-shift camps, gang members found him and almost beat him to death. He managed to escape, but he still carries the psychological and physical scars of the brutal assault. One of those scars, documented during PHR’s clinical evaluation, is a hyperpigmented, linear scar across Manuel’s chest, highly consistent with his story of being hit with a metal rebar pipe. The scar runs next to a tattoo of Daniel’s name, a tribute Manuel had etched into his skin to honor his dead brother. The tattoo was how the gang members who attacked Manuel confirmed his identity – and tried to kill him.
PHR’s report of Manuel’s case, and many others like his, provides a critical insight into the influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. We documented dozens of stories of people fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua at the hands of both gangs and corrupt government authorities. By applying medical expertise and psychological screens, we concluded that a majority of these asylum seekers had findings highly consistent with their narratives of having survived physical and sexual violence, extortion, death threats, and other extreme violence. We also found that most suffered from a combination of depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
What we did not find was evidence corroborating the U.S. administration’s claims about asylum seekers, a false narrative being used to prevent Manuel and people like him from seeking safe haven in the United States. We encourage the administration to reconsider. Sadly, Manuel’s case is not extraordinary – it is emblematic of the threats faced by so many in these countries. Rather than politicizing and misrepresenting asylum seekers, the Trump administration should respect their legal right to seek international protection and ensure the process is fair, humane, and swift. Their lives, as we show in our report, depend on it.
*Names changed for security reasons.