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Salvadoran sisters harassed by gang denied asylum because they grew up

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 4/15/2021 By Bob Egelko
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: A group from the Barrio 18 gang walk in shackles to the San Salvador Justice Center in El Salvador. © Salvador Melendez / Associated Press

A group from the Barrio 18 gang walk in shackles to the San Salvador Justice Center in El Salvador.

A federal appeals court has revived the asylum claims of twin sisters who left El Salvador after being sexually harassed and threatened by a street gang, then were told by U.S. immigration officials that it was safe to return because they were no longer teenagers.

Guadalupe and Maricel Melendez Morales, now 23, fled to California in 2017 after five months of harassment by gang members who followed them home from school, made threatening comments and sexually assaulted one of them at gunpoint, the court said. The sisters said they did not go to the police because the gang would have found out.

The U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals did not decide whether the abuse amounted to persecution, the legal grounds for asylum, finding instead that the young women had not shown they would be in danger if they returned to El Salvador.

The board said the sisters would be relatively safe because they were now older than 20, and most victims of sexual violence in El Salvador were teenage girls. The board also said they had not shown that they would be unable to relocate safely elsewhere in El Salvador or that its government would be unable or unwilling to protect them.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected those conclusions Tuesday and told the immigration board to reconsider the case and determine whether the sisters had been persecuted as members of a “social group,” young Salvadoran women who were treated as property.

The board’s finding that the sisters had “aged out of danger” was “implausible on its face, and the record confirms that young women older than 20 face considerable violence,” the three-judge panel said.

Despite the board’s assurance that the women could relocate safely, the court said, “El Salvador is a small country and gangs are pervasive.” And a witness with knowledge of conditions in the country testified that “gang members have infiltrated the police at all levels,” raising doubts about the government’s ability to provide protection, the court said.

The panel consisted of Judges William Fletcher, Paul Watford and Andrew Hurwitz.

“Their journey to asylum has been difficult and longer than it should have been,” said one of the sisters’ attorneys, Jean Reisz, a University of Southern California law professor. She said an immigration judge and the appeals board had ordered them held without bond for years while their case was pending.

The judge and the board “ignored the evidence and denied lifesaving relief to the twins based on unlawful conclusions” that the court has now overturned, Reisz said.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: begelko@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @BobEgelko

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