STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What happens to Central American migrants when the United States sends them back? A new Human Rights Watch report says some are killed. The report documents 138 killings of Salvadorans who sought refuge in the United States and were returned to El Salvador instead.
Now, before you look at this news through a partisan lens, consider this - the victims were deported during both the Obama and Trump administrations. Elizabeth Kennedy is a social scientist who co-authored this report. And she is on the phone now from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Welcome to the program.
ELIZABETH KENNEDY: Thank you so much for having me. Good morning.
INSKEEP: These 138 people, were they asylum-seekers, people who sought refuge in the United States because they said they faced danger?
KENNEDY: We sought to include a mixture of persons. So the majority were asylum-seekers. There were also some people who had wanted to seek asylum, but were not able to do so. And then there were some who had had temporary protected status and committed a crime that was then classified as a felony, and others who had DACA, for example, and had done nothing wrong.
INSKEEP: OK. So there's a variety of things, a variety of ways that people ended up being deported. But I want to focus on that majority. You're telling me there's a majority of cases in which people went to an American judge or an American immigration officer and said, I fear going back, I could be killed - and they were told by the United States, no, we don't believe you, you don't have a credible fear - and they were sent back and killed?
KENNEDY: That is correct. So it is important to clarify that there were some who had presented themselves to a migration officer, attempted to seek asylum and were not able to do so because of longstanding weaknesses in the United States program. Then there were others who were detained while they sought asylum in front of an immigration judge. And their cases were denied. And the very fears that they had that they presented before those officials or the judge were realized when they were returned.
INSKEEP: Who's killing them?
KENNEDY: So the majority of the cases of killings were by gangs, although we also found cases in which police, death squads or other private actors had committed the killing. And then an important point that we discuss in the report is most crimes are not investigated in El Salvador. So having definitive answers on who killed a person is always difficult since less than 5% of cases are solved.
INSKEEP: That raises a larger question in such a chaotic and violent place. Was it difficult to gather credible information at all to put in your report?
KENNEDY: You know, it's very important to understand the context of El Salvador currently and historically. It indeed has one of the world's highest homicide rates. It's got thousands more disappearance, rapes and crimes that don't get recorded. There's also longstanding trauma carried over from its civil war that ended in 1992. This does put a greater burden on researchers or journalists, for example, that want to cover this topic ethically because it means you need to be able to give people the space and the time to trust you.
So we put a lot of care and effort into protecting everyone who trusted us with their story. And we also did a rigorous triangulation process in which, once they told us about their neighborhood, we did systematic searches of the Salvadoran press for that neighborhood. We also searched Salvadoran criminal sentencing tribunals in addition to talking with authorities and others who lived in those neighborhoods to make sure that what, you know, they could or couldn't say, we were able to document through other sources.
INSKEEP: Just a few seconds left here, but somebody today is going before an immigration judge seeking asylum or before an immigration officer. What do you want the official in that situation to take away from your report?
KENNEDY: First is to believe asylum-seekers because what they tell us could happen, what they fear does happen if they're returned and, you know, even before when they decided to flee. Another piece would be that we were able to document 138 who were killed, and we know that's a minimum number. We found more cases.
We also were able to determine definitively that, you know, officials don't record migration status, that in the neighborhoods we call particularly and chronically violent, the press often can't enter to report on it. When the state was involved...
INSKEEP: Yeah, meaning that there may be even more deaths out there that you can't document yet. Elizabeth Kennedy of Human Rights Watch, thank you very much for the time.
KENNEDY: Thank you. Have a wonderful day.
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