By Andrea Cárcamo, CVT senior policy counsel
Right about the time I began representing asylum seekers from Central America as an immigration attorney, I started watching “The Walking Dead” (TWD), a TV show about the zombie apocalypse. I have never been someone able to deal with gore, but my husband and I figured out a system in which I run out of the room during violent scenes and return once he tells me the scene has passed. I have been able to watch multiple shows using this method, including the quintessentially violent show “Game of Thrones,” and, of course, the beginning of “The Walking Dead.”
I say “the beginning” because when the series shifted from humans and zombies killing each other into humans ruling over humans through torture and terror, I could no longer watch. After each of the few episodes I watched in which Negan ruled by torturing and displaying the dead bodies of those who disobeyed him, my chest stayed tight and I felt hollow. To my husband’s chagrin, I had to stop watching the series to keep my sanity. Weirdly enough, even after I stopped watching, scenes still interrupted my train of thought, and I wondered why I had been particularly affected by certain scenarios. After some time, I realized this reign of terror by Negan was a reality that I was exposed to through my job. The details in these episodes were replicated in the experiences I heard every day from asylum seekers from Central America, who escape real-life reigns of terror in which gangs are Negans, and the Ricks, Carls and Michonnes were my clients.
You may think this is absurd because TWD’s plot is based on the zombie apocalypse, and therefore there are no working governments. However, my clients from the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — fell outside their government’s protection because they were poor and lived in gang-controlled areas. I am familiar with this because it was part of my job to research it. For an individual to qualify for asylum, she must show that her government is either unable or unwilling to protect her. As an attorney representing asylum seekers, I have spent countless hours doing research on these governments’ inability and unwillingness to protect my clients.
But it is the collective experiences hundreds of clients have shared that illustrate all too well the similarity of their lives to TWD’s rule under Negan. Most of my clients mentioned they could no longer go out on the street after specific hours because the neighborhood gang imposed a curfew, and violating it could mean a beating or even death. As part of my job, I had to send notices to clients’ parents living in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. When I tried to send notices to families in El Salvador, I was informed that not even the mail could be delivered to certain neighborhoods — it was too dangerous. Most of my young female clients had been raped (by gang and non-gang members), with no repercussions for the perpetrators’ actions. Many of my female clients were forced to be a gang member’s “Haina,” a term used for the girlfriends of gang members, with death as punishment for not complying with the gang member’s wishes. Gangs use children and women to watch the neighborhood to see who comes and goes, and to take drugs across different parts of the city where they live. Gangs are masters at identifying vulnerable children and creating an addiction to drugs in their developing years, thereby making them completely dependent on the gang and even subjecting them to sexual assault and trafficking. Sadly, one of my clients was such a kid, and his level of suffering in the hands of the gang is something no child or adult should ever experience.
The gangs are able to impose a tax called “renta” without intervention from law enforcement. People in Northern Triangle countries often have to choose between letting their families go hungry or risking death at the hands of a gang. A considerable number of the women I talked to fled after they had been threatened or had already faced the gang’s bullets because they had not been able or willing to pay the tax imposed by the gangs. One of my clients left her country with her son after she saw her friend’s seven-year-old son dead on the street, where the gang had left him after killing him for everyone to see. Just as Negan knew that beating someone to death in front of everyone would make them listen, gangs know the most painful way to hurt a mother is through her child.
The governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are an illusion to individuals who have no choice but to live in gang-infested areas because they are poor. In the rare cases that gang leaders are jailed, they have access to cellphones due to corruption and ineffectiveness of the government. Access to phones has allowed these gang members to continue extorting individuals and raping women even though the gang member was in jail. Some of my female clients came to the United States because un-jailed gang members had taken a picture of them and sent them to jailed gang leaders through their phones, who chose them to rape as if they were shopping on Amazon. Once the jailed gang member made his choice, the woman was told that she could either be killed or report to the jail to be raped. While some get raped, many die for refusing, and others who choose to flee face the dangerous trip to the United States.
Gangs have more power than police officers at times. One of my clients had several cousins who were police officers in El Salvador, and yet she was incredibly afraid of contacting the police. When a close cousin of hers was killed, another of her cousins in the national police tried to conduct an investigation, but gang members prohibited him from entering the area where the murder took place. He had no choice but to comply, because he was powerless against the gang. Let me reiterate that — an investigator from the national police was successfully prevented from continuing his investigation by the gang. In fact, many asylum seekers are police officers who escape with their family facing persecution by the gang because they were trying to do their job and protect individuals.
What we have come to in the U.S. is the callousness and dismissal of asylum seekers who flee from a life that mirrors the storyline from a post-apocalyptic horror show. That so many of my clients have lived, for all intents and purposes, in Negan’s world is almost too much to bear. But these are the facts: many of those at the U.S. southern border are fleeing from reigns of terror led by gangs, and their governments are useless in protecting them — or even complicit in allowing the terror to continue. The answer is not to demonize asylum seekers and to cut all their options to the point they are stuck in Negan’s world to die. Today, as the tenth season of “The Walking Dead” is underway, my current work with the Center for Victims of Torture only drives home the parallels between fiction and reality. I still cannot bring myself to watch the show. But I can try in my own way to help those who feel as if they have, finally, escaped Negan’s world.