BY AMBAR ESPINOZA
Charlie Garcia entered the United States illegally 13 years ago. He made his way to Minnesota, found a job, married an American citizen and had a son. But fearing he would be deported and permanently separated from his family, Garcia decided to play by the rules. When his son was six months old, Garcia returned to El Salvador to file paperwork. But because he had entered the United States illegally, Garcia was automatically barred from re-entering the country for 10 years. So he applied for a waiver. His sister Roxana says Garcia had been in El Salvador for a year, waiting for a decision in his case.
“Many of us even encouraged him to go back illegally, but he would say no,” said Roxana Garcia. “He always had faith that his paperwork would go through. He would say, ‘I know that my paperwork will be approved. I know I’ll re-join my wife and see my son.’ ”
But Charlie Garcia never saw his family again. Roxana Garcia remembers the morning one year ago, when her brother made her pancakes in their mother’s house in Santa Ana. It was the last time she spoke to him.
“When he was saying good-bye as I left for work he said, ‘When I’m gone you’re going to miss me because I’m the one that cooks for you.’ I thought to myself, that’s a really odd thing to say,” she said.
Later that day Roxana Garcia received a telephone call telling her that her brother, their cousin, and a friend had been struck by a car while they were bicycling home. She rushed to the scene and found her brother lying dead in the street near a gas station. About three miles away, police found the bodies of Garcia’s cousin and friend. The police arrested a man and he was charged with accidentally hitting and killing all three men. The case was closed. But Garcia’s sister isn’t satisfied.
“It wasn’t an accident,” she said. “It looked as if someone had shot Charlie.”
Roxanna Garcia says when she found her brother’s body, she saw bullet wounds in his head and leg. She suspects he got caught in some random gang violence, and the authorities didn’t want to investigate.
El Salvador has the second highest murder rate in the world, after Honduras. Gangs commit most of those homicides – an estimated 20,000 gang members terrorize El Salvador with impunity. Santa Ana – where Garcia died — is one of the country’s most violent cities. Garcia’s widow, Alyssa, says her husband was afraid the entire time he was back there.
“There would be sometimes when he would be walking and there would be cops all over and there would be a dead body by a tree, or someone would be missing, or sometimes he heard gunshots outside, when he was inside the house,” she said.
In El Salvador, police admit that they rarely fully investigate deaths – even suspicious ones. Santa Ana’s police inspector Jaime Rodriguez Palma said that’s because witnesses are hard to find.
“Citizens for fear of being identified don’t [come forward as witnesses] in the moment, because these [gang members] have instilled terror within this zone,” said Rodriguez Palma.
In some neighborhoods in El Salvador, gangs are known to tag threats on the walls, such as Ver, oír, callar o morir, which means “See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing, or die.”
What happened to Charlie Garcia is not an isolated case, according to Greg Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C.
“Our lawyers have sent us dozens of examples of people who have been going through the regular process and have either been assaulted or kidnapped and killed either in Mexico, in some cases in other countries like El Salvador,” said Chen. “We have many, many more cases of people who have just been stuck waiting for months or years because of a process right now that just doesn’t make sense.”
Those lengthy waits have prompted a proposal by the Obama Administration to streamline the process. Under the plan, undocumented immigrants who marry U.S. citizens could file their waiver applications and wait for a decision in the United States.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter controls on immigration, considers this a pro-illegal immigration move.
“If they apply for the waiver in the United States and they’re turned down, then what do we do? Somebody has to go look for them and remove them from the country, which frankly isn’t going to happen.”
Krikorian said cases like Charlie Garcia’s are tragic, but they shouldn’t be used to weaken the rules. “It’s just hard to use individual sob stories as a rationale for changing the whole structure of immigration policy and I’m afraid that’s often what advocates end up doing,” he said.
But Charlie Garcia’s widow, Alyssa, says she hopes the proposed rule change would prevent others from experiencing such a terrible loss. She acknowledges immigration is a controversial topic, but she says the situations that prompt people to leave their countries are not as black and white as many people think.
A decision on the rule change is not expected before the end of the year.
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