Juanita: A Migration, Deportation, and Displacement Story (El Salvador)

Hear my prayer, LORD!
  Listen closely to my cry for help!
  Please don’t ignore my tears!
I’m just a foreigner —
  an immigrant staying with you,
  just like all my ancestors were. – Psalm 39:12 (CEB)

I am now in Guatemala. Both here and El Salvador we have met and heard the stories of deportees. I will share one story from El Salvador. Warning, this story includes violence.


Juanita lives in El Salvador. She lived with her father, two adult daughters, and grandson. The gang began to target her. It escalated to the point that they beat her up and threatened to kill her. She knew the threat was real because her mother had been killed by the gang five months before.


Juanita went to the police and they said they couldn’t protect her, and she should leave the country. She arranged for her daughters to live somewhere else to protect them from the gangs and left that night at 3:00 am. The date was February 2, 2019.

It took her nine days to get to the border taking several busses. The busses were stopped several times by the police asking for papers. She managed to get to the border and took a cab into the desert. She had been injured in the beating and was unable to walk easily.

They walked through the desert towards the border. At one point they heard voices and she hid in a tree. Then everyone began to run and jumping in the river. She was afraid and did not want to go in the river. She saw a woman with a child drowning and began to yell for the men to help them. The commotion alerted the police.

Police in pick-up.

Juanita was apprehended just over the border at Arizona and was sent to detention. The detention center was traumatic, and she saw much abuse. She passed her initial credible threat interview and entered the asylum process. While waiting for asylum she would be able to bring her family to the U.S. (to be processed under the same claim).

Because she did not have any family or connection already in the U.S., she was required to pay a $25,000 bond to leave the detention facility. Note, this is not a criminal bond. If there is no connection, an asylum seeker is more likely to “disappear” into the U.S. The bond helps guarantee that they will show up for all of their appointments throughout the asylum process.

The average annual salary in El Salvador is less than $3,000. She did not have the money for the bond. She would need to stay in detention without her family throughout the asylum process, which could take years.

During the four months she was in detention, the gang began to threaten her daughters. She voluntarily returned in June 2019 to help protect her family. When she arrived, she collected her daughters and grandson. The gang began to bully her daughters. One month later, one daughter was kidnapped by the gang and raped by four men. The police found her two days later. She had been in university but has been too traumatized to return.

Next to the church we are having meetings at – the man on the right is armed. This is common.

Juanita looked for protection from the gangs. The International Red Cross placed her at IRCES (Calvin Reformed Church of El Salvador), who opened a shelter in their building for deportees. IRCES is the church that hosted us while we were in El Salvador. Juanita and her family have now been placed in a new location but are still forcibly displaced from their home. Juanita continues to live in fear that the gang will find them.

37,316 people were deported from the U.S. and Mexico to El Salvador in 2019. The government has built a facility to receive the returnees, but it is religious and non-governmental agencies that fulfill their physical, psychological, emotional, and logistical needs when they return.

Many streets are gated and the people who live there hire armed security to control who can enter. Some require you to leave your identification with them until you return.
A view of the street by the church. There are no yards, porches, or kids playing the streets. People lock themselves into their houses.

One of our speakers said that the entire country of El Salvador is incarcerated because people live behind locked doors, concrete walls, razor wire, and armed guards. There are more private security guards in El Salvador than public police. I witnessed this everywhere we went in El Salvador.

The United Nations High Council on Refugees has identified all three countries of the northern triangle as having various reasons that would qualify people for international protection (ie: official refugee status). From research I’ve done and many of the organizations we have spoken to here, the governments do not want this because it makes official the government’s inability to protect its peoples’ human rights. There is also pressure from the U.S. because it would make official the humanitarian crisis and significantly increase the asylum cases.

Meanwhile, people like Juanita continue to live in fear.

Despite the suffering, Juanita said she knows that God has been with her the entire time and will guide her and her family to safety. Her dream is that they would be able to live safely and without fear in El Salvador. However, she believes she will be forced to migrate again.

What we can pray for:

  • Encouragement and safety for Juanita and her family.
  • Thanksgiving for churches like IRCES who see the need of their neighbors and invest time and money to provide safety and care.
  • Action by UNHCR to recognize the situation in the northern triangle for what it is and declare the need for international protection.


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