Children and young people are at high risk of being recruited into a life of violence, especially when their families and societies do not protect their rights. Indeed, gangs in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras forcibly conscript many children who have been abused and abandoned by those who should have cared for them.
Yet when these conscripted children seek to leave gang life and apply for asylum in the United States, the door to safety is shut in their face.
Two children – Miguel* and Juan* – recently came to the United States under these circumstances. To support their cases for asylum, clinicians in Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) Asylum Network conducted forensic evaluations of the children to assess whether their psychological symptoms were consistent with their narratives of persecution. Such an evaluation is a critical part of an asylum seeker’s application for protection.
In order to qualify for U.S. asylum, a person must prove they are persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. U.S. asylum law has recognized that forcing children to join gangs can constitute persecution which merits consideration for asylum. However, dehumanizing rhetoric – which deems them unworthy due to their former gang affiliation – has made asylum an increasingly dim prospect for these youngsters.
Children like Miguel and Juan do not always choose to become involved with a gang. Sometimes it is the only option to save themselves from abusers or from gang members. When these children try to leave, they are deemed an enemy of the gang. Because local police forces and other state security bodies are often corrupt, or unable or unwilling to step in and protect children from gangs, these youngsters are no longer safe in their home country.
Miguel and Juan’s stories help us to understand why these children deserve protection.
When Miguel was nine years old, he decided to move out of the home he shared with his mother, sibling, uncle, grandmother, and various other relatives. Miguel had endured constant verbal and physical abuse by his uncle and could no longer take it. When he informed his mother of his plan, she told Miguel, “the door is open,” further devastating young Miguel. Miguel found himself living on his own, and juggling work and school. At approximately 11 years old, he quit school to focus on bare survival. At 13, a confrontation with his uncle left him shaken and scared. Miguel did the only thing he could at the time – he sought to protect himself from his uncle by joining the gang in his neighborhood. Miguel did what he was told within the gang and got the safety he desired; when his uncle hired hitmen, gang members convinced them to stop pursuing Miguel.
Because local police forces and other state security bodies are often corrupt, or unable or unwilling to step in and protect children from gangs, these youngsters are no longer safe in their home country.
Juan* fell prey to local gangs in El Salvador when he began living with his aunt. Previously, Juan lived with his mother and her boyfriend, but his grandmother took him in to save him from abuse by his mother’s boyfriend. However, in his grandmother’s home, Juan’s uncle beat him, and his uncle’s oldest son sexually abused him. Juan’s grandmother and uncle refused to believe him when he told them of the sexual abuse, which continued for some months. Around the age of 12, Juan finally went to live with an aunt, which he described as a better situation. At his aunt’s house, Juan was frequently visited by an uncle who worked in law enforcement, which often involved investigating gang activity. Because of this relationship, Juan was targeted by gang members and was forced to perform tasks for them, serving as a lookout or delivering money.
Despite the involvement of Miguel and Juan in gang activity, both resisted high-stakes orders by the gangs, even though it placed them in grave danger. When Miguel was ordered to kill his uncle and anyone present at the uncle’s home, he tried to leave but was captured by gang members. Miguel was issued an ultimatum: “kill them or you die.” He knew it would be wrong to kill his uncle’s children or to leave them fatherless, but he also knew that his refusal to follow the gang’s orders made him “a dead man walking.” Thus, he fled from Honduras to the United States to try to save his life. Similarly, Juan left for the United States after he was threatened with death by gang members for his failure to surrender his uncle to the gang. He fears retaliation if forced to return to El Salvador.
The fact that Miguel and Juan were caught up in gang activity should not prevent them from gaining protection in the United States. Both children are remorseful about their prior acts. The PHR clinician who evaluated Miguel noted his desire to change, stating that he asked himself “who he had become?” Miguel expressed horror at his prior behavior and committed to bettering himself. Also, Juan recognizes that the gang activity was wrong and feels “a significant amount of remorse” for his involvement.
PHR’s evaluations of Miguel and Juan indicate that neither of the boys poses a danger to others. Both were involved with gangs at a very young age only because they saw no other option for protection from severe abuse. Nevertheless, they risked their lives in order to break the cycle of violence and reject the gang’s commands. As Miguel’s evaluation explains: “When faced with the possibility of renewed abuse from his uncle, he joined the gang for protection, which led him into illegal activities.” Miguel described his situation prior to moving out at the age of nine: “All I wanted was to be a child, but I was robbed of that.” PHR’s clinician concluded that Miguel’s decision was made because of his precarious situation and was influenced by his suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression due to his abuse and neglect. Miguel’s desire and commitment to change, including his participation in therapy and consistently following his medication treatment plan, were mentioned in the clinician’s report to further illustrate that he should be allowed to remain in an environment where he can fully recover.
The clinician evaluating Juan specifically examined his risk for violence and criminal behavior. The evaluation explains that Juan “demonstrated adequate regard for rules and for the rights of others.” Though he knows that his involvement in gang activity was wrong, he noted that he never became a “full-fledged member” and has no intention of participating in future gang activity. The clinician found that Juan “does not present with major criminogenic risk factors” and deemed his narrative and fear credible.
Taking a trauma-informed approach, it is clear that children like Miguel and Juan need protection and care to recover from their traumatic pasts. They deserve fair access to the U.S. asylum process, and safety while their pleas for protection are being considered.
*Names have been changed.
 Gang conscription is not a classic asylum claim, but it has been recognized numerous times in U.S. jurisprudence. For example, in the cases Quiroz Parada v. Sessions, No. 13-73967, 1, 17 (9th Cir. 2018) and Lukwago v. Ashcroft, 329 F.3d 157, 170 (3rd Cir. 2003), children were conscripted by gangs on account of their membership in a particular social group, which was defined as “Minors in Northern Triangle countries between the ages of 10 and 15 who lack protection due to abuse and neglect by family members charged with their care.”