St Louis, MO — More than 100 immigrant rights, civil rights, faith, and domestic violence organizations demanded that Attorney General Loretta Lynch and U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan in St. Louis drop felony charges against Salvadoran asylum-seeker Zenayda del Carmen Sorto. The Justice Department is prosecuting her for allegedly not cooperating with her deportation before she was given an opportunity to apply for asylum.
“After my 16-year-old son was murdered, the police told me I should flee because there was nothing they could do to protect me. I tried to stay but after my abusive spouse nearly killed me, I knew I had to go. I can’t go back.” Zenayda explains. “I’ve been imprisoned for nearly a year, and even though it has been a horrific experience, I’m willing to stay here as long as it takes to present my case. I only ask to be able to present my case to a judge, because deportation to El Salvador would be a death sentence for me.”
Zenayda has been in U.S. Marshals custody at St. Genevieve County Jail in eastern Missouri since June. Before that, she was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since she arrived in the United States in November 2015. Her first asylum screening took place over the phone from an ICE detention center before Zenayda had spoken with an attorney. On the basis of this interview, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) denied Zenayda the chance to present her case to a judge and ICE attempted to deport her.
After intervention and months of advocacy by attorneys at the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), the Chicago Asylum Office had agreed to conduct a new asylum screening of Zenayda. Instead, ICE pressured her to accept her deportation and, when that failed, transferred her to the Justice Department where she now faces felony charges. An ICE agent also sexually assaulted Zenayda while she was in ICE custody.
NIJC and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) have launched a #SolidarityWithZenayda campaign calling for the Justice Department to release Zenayda from custody and for DHS to permit her to apply for asylum.
“Because of the Obama administration’s zealous efforts to block Central American refugees from protection and their criminalization of people who flee here seeking safety, Zenayda has spent nearly a year jailed by the federal government,” said Ashley Huebner, a managing attorney at NIJC. "First she was jailed as an asylum seeker fighting for her right to see an immigration judge, and now as the subject of criminal prosecution simply because she was seeking the recourse that our immigration law provides to individuals seeking asylum in the United States.”
“The act of seeking safety is a human right,” said Francisco Aguirre, a Portland day laborer leader from El Salvador who for two years took sanctuary in a Portland church after the Justice Department threatened to prosecute him for illegal re-entry. “My son was murdered in El Salvador and I had fled the violence that ultimately killed him. But that did not stop the Justice Department from trying to criminalize my efforts to seek refuge in the United States. Only the community coming together could stop these malicious charges. ”
Other pending cases include:
Martin Esquivel Hernández, who fled gangs in Mexico with his wife and young children and settled in Pittsburgh, is being prosecuted for returning to reunite with his family after unsuccessfully trying to cross the border. “This U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh has a record of working with communities to reduce crime and build trust, but he has turned his back on us,” said Guillermo Perez, President of Pittsburgh Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
William Diaz-Castro, Jose Isaias Lara-Serrano, and Yoni Manzanares, civil rights defenders and members of the New Orleans Congress of Day Laborers, face federal criminal re-entry charges and permanent separation from their families. William Diaz-Castro explained, "I love my family so much, and I could never abandon them. My greatest wish has always been to raise a happy family and be the father that my son deserves.”
New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice immigration organizer Fernando Lopez elaborated, “The U.S. Attorney and the Justice Department have the full discretion to drop the charges on these cases. No one should face felony charges for seeking safety or for crossing a border. The failure to drop these charges is an inherent contradiction with the Justice Department’s stated commitment to reform the criminal justice system and reduce mass incarceration.”