‘Secret Gang Databases’ Used to Reject Migrants Seeking Asylum
“I came here seeking protection and because I had no other choice. And I was accused of being in a gang, when I was fleeing the gangs, all based on evidence I’ve never seen.”
Immigration officers have recently partnered with foreign military forces and police to find out whether migrants crossing the U.S. border are affiliated with gangs in Central and South America, according to a new report from ProPublica. Using the foreign databases, U.S. officials can detain and deport those who they find associate with gangs. However, because of the new database, some migrants seeking asylum have been falsely accused of being involved in gang activity.
Fusion Center Created in 2017 to Support Border Security and Military in Central America
Working with the Department of Homeland Security and funded by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, a new “fusion center” that gathers intelligence is located in the heart of El Salvador. The center was founded in May 2017 as a multinational effort known as Grupo Conjunto de Inteligencia Fronteriza (GCIF).
Although the center supports military training and police efforts in Central America, little else is known about it. According to human rights activists, the use of the databases and the fusion center’s work has been kept relatively secret.
Former Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Office Director for Western Hemisphere Programs in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Richard H. Glenn made a statement before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee in January 2018, saying that Salvadoran law enforcement agents had been sent to McAllen, Texas, for several months in 2017 to “conduct research and report information to DHS” and “help DHS, state and local law enforcement identify, arrest or deny entry to gang members,” as ProPublica reported.
After the months spent in Texas, the officers returned to El Salvador to become a part of an elite team of agents working with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s collaborative “gang task force.”
Glenn continued that fusion center had allowed the agents to find “240 MS-13 members not previously known to U.S. law enforcement, and 46 not previously known to Salvadoran authorities.”
Salvadorans Falsely Accused of Being MS-13 Gang Members
According to ProPublica’s report, multiple immigration lawyers who represent migrants seeking asylum have attested to being unaware of the fusion center and its activities. Last year, a Salvadoran migrant man named Julio was accused of being involved in gang activities. Border patrol agents arrested Julio and separated him from his 4-year-old son in McAllen, Texas. After some time, Julio was released on an $8,000 bond and was happy to be reunited with his son.
According to Georgia Evangelista, Julio’s lawyer, agents never released any evidence supporting Julio’s alleged gang involvement. They also did not divulge where they had obtained the information. After Julio’s asylum hearing, the government dropped his gang allegation.
“If they want to accuse him of being a gang member, they have to tell us what the evidence is so that we can properly respond,” Evangelista said, as ProPublica reported. “I don’t believe there is any evidence. That’s why they’re not making the allegation anymore.”
Carlos, another Salvadoran man seeking asylum, was recently accused of being in the MS-13 gang. Agents separated him from his two children after a background check showed evidence that he was a gang member. Although Carlos repeatedly told the agents he had never been involved in a gang and even provided official documents attesting to his clean record and employment history, the agents told him he would be deported and would never see his children again.
It was only after Carlos had spent six months in prison in Laredo, Texas, that he was given a credible fear interview and released on bond. After much negotiation with attorneys, he was permitted to file for asylum.
After his bond hearing Carlos was released with no mention of the gang allegation. He has since been reunited with his family, but both Carlos and his lawyer, Laura Peña, fear that the gang allegation is still on his government record. “I came here seeking protection and because I had no other choice,” Carlos told ProPublica. “And I was accused of being in a gang, when I was fleeing the gangs, all based on evidence I’ve never seen.”
Efrén Olivares, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project who has worked on hundreds of family separation and asylum cases, said that what the State Department is asking is impossible. “The whole reason people seek asylum is because their own government can’t protect them or is complicit in the violence,” he said. “Returning home is not an option.”
Noel Clay, a State Department spokesperson, said if a person is falsely accused of membership in a gang as a result of information from the center, it would be up to each country’s law enforcement agency to correct the problem. “This is because the information shared through the GCIF platform is proprietary information owned by the host country,” Clay said.
Gang Infiltration and Influence on the Police Force in El Salvador, Human Rights Activist Says
Both human rights advocates and legal experts question whether gang intelligence is verified and Salvadoran law enforcement officers are properly vetted. “There’s a lot of gang infiltration and influence on the police force in El Salvador,” said Geoff Thale, vice president of programs for the nonprofit human rights group Washington Office on Latin America, as Nextgov reported.
Having been involved with human rights and law enforcement issues since the 1980s, Thale continued, “Do I think there’s retaliatory data that gets entered because cops are pissed off at somebody or because a street guy is paying off a cop to only put down names of his rivals on the gang list? Yeah, I think that’s very likely.”
“These are internal police lists and not public,” Thale said. “I would be shocked if there’s a way to clear your name from the database in El Salvador, because most of the time you can’t even do it here in the United States.”