It was impossible to get much of what the attorney wanted; Rosa’s brother said he would get the death certificate of their nephew, who had been murdered by the gang, but he was turned away at the national registry office; only the murdered boy’s mother or father could get the record, he learned. And both of them were dead as well. But Zelda told Rosa not to worry; she had been through this asylum system twenty years before, and most likely all would turn out okay, somehow.
But Rosa did worry. In the month before the final hearing, she and the boys went to Seattle twice to meet with the attorney to prepare their oral testimony, now that the case with its proof, written declarations of the facts, and the attorney’s legal argument had been filed with the court. Facts and dates, so many of them, kept slipping through her head, and she couldn’t remember any longer when the gang had first approached her boys to recruit them, and when and exactly where she had started hiding the boys. She dreamt, a few nights before the hearing, that she said the dates wrong to the judge, and he, a towering figure, pointed his finger at her. The judge’s finger kept getting longer and longer until it pierced her chest, and she woke sweating. Lucas was now 16 and Gilberto was 14; they were happier in school at last, after a rough first year of being taunted for not speaking English, for being newcomers, and for not knowing how to use a computer.
At the final hearing, she testified first, then the boys, and then the expert on gang violence in El Salvador that their attorney had found. The judge listened silently. The government attorney questioned all four of them, and asked over and over how they knew that the gang was targeting the boys any more than any other boy in El Salvador was targeted by the gangs. If every teen boy in El Salvador was a gang target for recruitment, then the judge would not award asylum to the family. They would have to prove that there was a characteristic of these particular boys that made them a target of the gang.
Rosa’s attorney had prepared them for these questions, and Rosa said, as she had said in her written declaration, that her boys were targeted specifically by the gang because of their extended family’s well-known opposition to gangs. She spoke of her nephew’s murder because he refused recruitment, and of her sister’s rape for refusing to let her child be recruited. She told the judge of two other nephews’ severe beatings by the gang, and of their fleeing the country. She said that her family, her seven brothers and sisters still in El Salvador, and their children, were marked by the gang for their opposition, and had all left the capital to live in rural areas. All her nephews had left the country to live in Mexico or the US, and the gang did not target her nieces. She told the judge that there was nowhere to hide if they returned to El Salvador, since the 18th Street gang had a network throughout the country, and would find them and kill them for their trying to escape.
When she came down from the witness stand, Rosa was shaking. She sat with her head bowed while her boys testified about what had happened to them in El Salvador. The government attorney was seemed just as hard on the boys as he had been on Rosa, even though the attorney had told them he probably wouldn’t be, since they were so young. Then the expert on gangs in El Salvador testified by telephone; he said that it was true what Rosa had said of her experience, and that it was certain she and the boys would be marked for death if they returned.
The judge said that he would write his decision in the case and send it in about six weeks, and then the hearing was over. Rosa and the boys went back to Wenatchee. The attorney had said that it was nearly impossible to win these cases, since the law was so harsh. She had said, though, that it was important to do a good job on the case and present all the evidence, since the case would most likely have to be appealed. Only a well-prepared case would have a chance on appeal.
Five weeks later, the attorney called. The judge denied asylum to Rosa and the boys. The judge made many mistakes of law and when he denied the case, the attorney said. That means an appeal will have a strong basis. Did she want to appeal or return to El Salvador? If she appealed, and the appeal argument was good, she might have another year or even two before the decision. Rosa’s decision was instant: I want to appeal, she said. I can’t go back. I came here to protect my boys. They will be killed as soon as we return.
The attorney appealed the case in January 2012. Rosa asked her sister Zelda why things were so different for her, why Zelda got legal status based on a war, and why Rosa didn’t. “I think that everything changed in twenty years in this country,” Zelda said. “Back then, I think people here had more hope about life. Now, I don’t see that. I don’t think it’s to do with the truth. The truth is that the war El Salvador is in now is much worse than the war of the 1980s. We would never have thought that was possible. Thank God we can’t see ahead. It would be hard to go on.”