TIJUANA, México. - The MS-13 gang made Jose Osmin Aparicio's life so miserable in his native El Salvador that he had no choice but to flee in the dead of night with his wife and four children, leaving behind all their belongings and paying a smuggler $8,000.
Aparicio is undeterred by a new directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions declaring that gang and domestic violence will generally cease to be grounds for asylum. To him, it's better to take his chances with the American asylum system and stay in Mexico if his bid is denied.
May also interest you: Border lake backdrops sealing of Greece, Macedonia name deal
"Imagine what would happen if I was deported to El Salvador," he said Wednesday as he waited at the border to enter the U.S.
The directive announced Monday could have far-reaching consequences because of the sheer volume of people like Aparicio fleeing gang violence, which is so pervasive in Central America that merely stepping foot in the wrong neighborhood can lead to death.
The Associated Press interviewed several asylum-seekers this past week at a plaza on the border, and each of them cited gang violence as the main factor in fleeing their homelands. They planned to press on with their asylum requests in spite of the new rule.
The decision by Sessions came as the administration faced a growing backlash over immigration policies and practices that human-rights advocates view as inhumane, including separating children from immigrant parents. They leveled similar criticism over the asylum changes, which the White House says are necessary to deter illegal immigration.
"The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim," the attorney general wrote Monday, overruling a Board of Immigration Appeals decision granting asylum to a Salvadoran woman fleeing her husband.
U.S. officials do not say how many asylum claims are for domestic or gang violence, but advocates for asylum seekers said there could be tens of thousands of such cases in the immigration court backlog alone.
Many Central Americans seeking asylum say they are fleeing from gangs known as "maras," primarily the Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) and Barrio 18 groups. President Donald Trump has condemned those groups and the violence they commit in the U.S., referring to members as "animals."
The gangs were formed by young Central Americans mostly in Los Angeles decades ago and spread to the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras when members were deported. Today, Honduras and El Salvador in particular routinely post some of the world's highest homicide rates.
In Central America, maras stake out and battle over turf, attacking anyone who unwittingly crosses through their area on the way to school or work as a possible rival.
Gangsters sometimes forcibly take over people's homes. They extort bus drivers and small business owners, killing those unable or unwilling to pay. They threaten teens and young men in attempts to recruit them, and force girls and young women to be their girlfriends.