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Driven by death threats from El Salvador, a family finds safety at a West Philly synagogue

Philadelphia Inquirer - 9/8/2019

Sep. 7--When David Centeno and Milagro Delgado call her mother back in El Salvador, she begs the couple: Don't come home.

It's too dangerous. Keep the children safe in America.

Only recently, she told them, a street gang murdered a neighbor, then issued an order that no one attend the funeral. Nobody did.

It's the same violence that claimed one of the Centeno-Delgado family's children, a son kidnapped and murdered at 15; that drove them 3,500 miles from their Central American homeland; that landed them, of all places, in the care of a West Philadelphia synagogue.

At a time when the U.S. government is aggressively pushing away asylum-seekers, Kol Tzedek embraced them, providing not only emotional and legal support but raising money for housing nearby, for food, clothing and health care.

"It feels like a miracle," said Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari.

The family -- two parents and five children, 19 years to 18 months -- say they're overwhelmed by a fresh sense of safety. And gratitude. And relief.

"We are not in fear that when you go out to buy food," said Delgado, 38, "they will find you and you will not return home that day."

A family that comes from a nation that's half Catholic now recites Jewish prayers and blessings.

The couple are not naïve. They know their request for asylum could be denied and they could be forced to leave. Ultimately, only about 20 percent of claims are approved.

They're up against a president who sees asylum -- an established, legal means for people in danger to stay in the United States -- as "a scam" and "a hoax," and who strives to impose new limits and drive seekers to other countries.

In late January, shortly after the Centeno-Delgado family came to America, the Trump administration implemented its "Migrant Protection Protocols," a policy commonly known as "Remain in Mexico." It compels asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico -- where attorneys say some have been kidnapped, threatened, and robbed -- while awaiting a hearing in U.S. Immigration Court. That supplements the administration's "metering" policy, where a restricted number of asylum-seekers are processed each day.

The Department of Homeland Security maintains that strict procedures are needed because "misguided court decisions and outdated laws" have made it easier for undocumented migrants to enter this country, "including those who "fraudulently claim asylum."

Asylum cases can go on for years, inching through an understaffed, overwhelmed system. The number of people who came to the United States and then applied for asylum soared from 28,000 in fiscal 2010 to 143,000 in 2017, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

For those seeking asylum, time can be friend and enemy, leading to helpful changes in law or political leadership, or sudden deportation for people who have lived here for years.

It's unclear what might be in store for the Centeno-Delgado family as their case moves forward. They're still haunted by the past.

In an interview, Centeno, 59, wept as he described his macabre search for his lost son, Nelson, in 2015, how he clawed through the dirt of a mass grave, finding only the butchered remains of other, unknown children.

"There are things that are so hard and difficult to tell, that you never forget," Centeno said.

The family's public demand for an investigation brought them not justice but death threats -- propelling them on a nomadic, years-long quest for security.

Once, they lived in La Paz, a department in south-central El Salvador, and sold fish at the market La Tiendona in the capital, San Salvador. They started small in 2006 but quickly were wholesaling tons of seafood.

Government officials demanded payoffs to allow the family to operate at a desirable site. Taking notice of the thriving enterprise, gangs routinely raised the price of extortion payments.

Between paying the officials and the criminals, Delgado said, their business was going broke. But they saw no choice.

In El Salvador, gangs, or maras, are powerful and pervasive, their violence responsible for most of the 20,000 killings between 2014 and 2017, according to the International Crisis Group, a world peace organization.

They operate in 94 percent of El Salvador's 262 municipalities and, in many areas, rule daily life, forcing residents headed to work or school to pay money at roadblocks, and extorting greater sums from shops and businesses.

The gangs' forcible recruitment of young men and women, the Washington-based Latin America Working Group wrote in a recent analysis, drives many Salvadorans to first flee their homes, then the region, and finally the country.

After Nelson's death, the Centeno-Delgado family was told: Hand over a son to join the gang, or everyone will be killed.

They quickly moved to eastern El Salvador, then to Guatemala -- pursued by gangsters, they said, but helped by Doctors Without Borders, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and by Scalabrinian priests, an international religious community serving migrants and refugees.

After two fearful years, they legally moved to Mexico in April 2017. And there, in Tabasco state, they would have stayed, they said. They founded a successful fruit business, selling coconuts, oranges, and bananas. Centeno drove a Ford Ranger, and patios framed the sides of their new house.

But in November 2018, they were discovered by gang members.

The family headed north, toward a refugee camp in the state of Coahuila. After their bus was stopped by armed men who punched Centeno and pawed at the children, they decided to head for the U.S.

At the border, the Centenos did everything that federal agents -- and immigration critics -- demand of new arrivals.

They didn't sneak into the country. They presented themselves to U.S. authorities at the port of entry in Laredo, Texas.

They requested asylum, and underwent a "credible fear" interview, a high-stakes discussion in which an immigration officer decides whether an asylum-seeker truly would face danger if deported.

They passed. And more, the family was granted "parole," that is, instead of being detained while their asylum case went forward, they were permitted to leave and live in the U.S.

Parole is discretionary, granted only occasionally and only to those who can prove their identity, demonstrate they pose no public danger, and have a sponsor to provide housing and financial support.

Denials are common. Authorities at five U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices -- Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Newark, and Philadelphia -- denied parole at an average rate of 96 percent, according to a federal lawsuit filed last year by Human Rights First, the ACLU and other organizations.

El Salvador is the smallest, most densely populated country in Central America, a place where thousands of people rely on money sent to them by family members living in other countries.

It's also a nation where people perceived as different because of their sexuality or gender preferences are commonly ridiculed and assaulted. This year, a 29-year-old transgender woman who was deported after being turned down for asylum in the U.S. was beaten to death in San Salvador.

During their flight for safety, the Centeno-Delgado family made what turned out to be a key contact with a group of transgender migrant women, who connected them with Showing Up for Racial Justice, an advocacy organization that recruits sponsors for asylum-seekers.

In Philadelphia, Rabbi Fornari, who is transgender, had signed up with his partner to become sponsors.

They expected to provide food and shelter for one person.

When the call came, they were asked to provide for seven.

Members of Kol Tzedek -- a growing, social-justice-focused Reconstructionist synagogue in Cedar Park -- quickly agreed to jump in.

Many were moved to action by the Trump administration's tough treatment of migrants -- and, like the rabbi, by more personal considerations. In Italy during World War II, the rabbi said, people hid his family members from the Nazis.

"People risked their lives," he said. "One or two generations ago, somebody did this for my family, and our families."

A GoFundMe campaign raised $63,000 of the $65,000 needed for a year of the family's expenses, including an apartment not far from the synagogue.

Now, with January coming into sight, money and housing issues loom.

The rabbi hopes for an angel, maybe a developer or property owner with a spare unit where the family could live free of charge.

They want to be self-supporting, they say. But under U.S. immigration law, Centeno and Delgado cannot yet get permission to work. At the soonest, that approval could come in July.

What do they want from America? The same as everyone else.

A safe place to live. Space to grieve their losses. Jobs to pay the bills. Education for their children.

"They are kind and gracious and loving, with us and with each other," Fornari said. "They've lived through things that nobody should have to live through."

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