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The U.S. granted them asylum. But new rules would've doomed their cases.

Trump admin. proposes new asylum rules
Trump administration proposes new rules for asylum seekers, redefining who qualifies for protections 07:16

Although terrified, Jorge said the first day of his kidnapping by gangs in El Salvador was relatively calm. The second and third days, however, were starkly different.

The gang members who had kidnapped Jorge over his refusal to sell illicit drugs on their behalf became increasingly aggressive after they discovered he was gay. Jorge, who was 18 at the time, said they undressed him, hit him with their guns, forced him to perform oral sex on them and attempted to rape him. By the time he managed to escape, his body was covered in bruises.

"I thought they could've ended up killing me," Jorge, who asked for his name to be changed, told CBS News in Spanish during an interview this month.

Jorge and his family turned to local authorities for help, to no avail. Instead, he said gang members soon found out he had tried reporting them to the police. Threatened with death, the Salvadoran teenager embarked on a miles-long trek to the U.S. southern border.

After asking for asylum at an official border crossing near San Diego, Jorge spent days in a Border Patrol station before being transferred to the for-profit immigration detention center in the California desert town of Adelanto. He called his five months at Adelanto a "traumatizing experience," noting he spent much of his time there seeing a psychiatrist and contemplating about his "death sentence" — a potential return to El Salvador.

On April 27, 2017, the date of the court hearing that would determine the fate of his asylum claim, Jorge was emotionally and physically drained and nervous that he did not have a lawyer. But he was also afraid of being deported. "That day, I fought with all my strength. I was alone," Jorge recounted. "I described my case to the judge. I spoke with my heart in my hands, expressing my fear of returning to my country."

When the hearing concluded, Jorge was unsure what decision the judge had reached. He was instructed to get ready to leave the Adelanto detention center, but was not initially told whether he would be placed on a deportation flight to El Salvador or released and allowed to stay in the U.S. He learned he had won his case only when officials allowed him to reach out to his family in El Salvador.

"The first thing I thought was that I was not going to die," he said. "I felt that urge to fight, to push forward without having that fear that there was someone outside waiting to kill and harm me."

Jorge's successful case is not common. Over the past three years, U.S. immigration judges have granted asylum to roughly 12% of applicants. The humanitarian protection has become increasingly difficult to obtain — especially for Central Americans and those without representation — due to a series of policies instituted by the Trump administration, which argues there is widespread abuse of the asylum system by economic migrants. 

In fact, new rules proposed in June would've likely doomed Jorge's asylum petition and all but ensured his deportation to the country where he was persecuted.

The 43-page proposal would rewrite the rules that govern who qualifies for safe harbor on American soil, disqualifying victims of gang violence, gender-based persecution, domestic abuse and torture staged by "rogue" government officials from U.S. refuge. Human rights groups say the rules would also make it harder for asylum-seekers to seek protection from anti-LGBTQ persecution.

Though many of the changes in the proposed rule are technical in nature, its implementation would constitute the most far-reaching modern restriction on humanitarian programs Congress created to ensure the U.S. did not send people back to danger.

Because he was persecuted by private criminal actors and because that persecution stemmed from his resistance to being coerced by gang members, Jorge would've been unlikely to receive a favorable decision from an immigration judge had the proposed rules been in place. Even if he had proven he qualified for asylum under the proposed rules, judges would still be encouraged to deny his application because he traveled through a third country before arriving at the U.S. border.

While the Trump administration has said the proposed changes will allow officers and judges to weed out meritless asylum cases more efficiently, advocates for immigrants and lawyers believe the rules would erect insurmountable procedural barriers for people seeking refuge from genuine danger, particularly migrants fleeing the violence endemic in parts of Central America.

"These rules are designed to destroy asylum," said Karlyn Kurichety, an attorney with the legal services provider Al Otro Lado who helped Jorge obtain his green card last year. "These rules would make it impossible for asylum-seekers to seek safety for a variety of reasons that are totally unrelated to the persecution they are fleeing."

"Would I still be alive?"

As a child in El Salvador, Alfredo said he sometimes felt "life had no meaning." The abuse was so severe that he did not return home on certain days.

Alfredo, who also asked for his name to be changed, left El Salvador as a 14-year-old, journeying north with a group of neighbors to escape years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his grandparents, his primary caregivers. "The abuse was so bad, and life was so intolerable, that I fled for safety the first opportunity I had," Alfredo wrote in his asylum application.

After entering the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor, the Salvadoran teen was sent to a government-overseen shelter for migrant children before being released to his father, who had been living in California. He came of age in America and learned English in U.S. classrooms. Though he found safety in the U.S., Alfredo was still vulnerable to deportation because he lacked legal status.

For more than a year, the teenager navigated a byzantine immigration process that included two interviews at the asylum office in Los Angeles. During one of the interviews, the asylum officer grew visibly emotional as Alfredo described his abuse, as well as the sense of safety he felt in the U.S., according to Mona Iman, a lawyer with the Immigrant Defenders Law Center who has been representing the Salvadoran teen. 

"All three of us were in tears," Iman told CBS News. 

On June 13, 2019, Alfredo received a letter from the U.S. government: "You have been granted asylum in the United States." After years of traumatizing experiences, he was relieved. "It felt like the best birthday gift," Alfredo told CBS News during an interview this month. "It's like they take something heavy from you. You feel free."

However, had the asylum rules proposed in June been in place, Alfredo would've likely lost his case. The abuse and mistreatment he suffered in El Salvador as a child would've likely been categorized as an "interpersonal dispute" — which the proposed regulation categorically rejects as a ground for asylum.

The fact he crossed the border without authorization would have been a "significantly adverse" factor under the proposed rule, which would encourage the asylum officers who granted Jorge protection to deny his application, even if he established well-founded fear of being harmed in El Salvador.

June's proposal, which would also allow immigration judges to predetermine certain cases without allowing migrants to testify in court, received more than 87,000 public comments in a 30-day period. The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are expected to issue a final version, which may or may not be altered based on the comments. Victoria Palmer, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Friday the review of comments is ongoing and that a date for the final regulation has not been determined.

Among those who submitted comments opposing the changes were unions of current immigration judges and asylum officers who would implement them.

"[The proposal] seeks to upend a carefully crafted asylum system and to nightmarishly pervert its purpose from protection to punishment for those seeking refuge in our country," the asylum officers wrote. "Where it once sought to identify and welcome those with meritorious claims of persecution under international law, it now seeks to erect indiscriminate, callous, and unlawful barriers."

Alfredo, who graduated high school last year and is now working as a framer in southern California, says the proposed rules would not be fair. Instead of implementing them, he said the U.S. government should be more empathetic to the plight of other asylum-seekers.

"It makes me sad because I think about me," he added. "What if I would've been sent back to El Salvador? Would I still be alive? Would I still be eating? What would I be doing? No good thing comes to mind."

Alfredo's fellow asylee, Jorge, agrees. The 22-year-old Salvadoran immigrant said the U.S. should continue to offer people fleeing danger the humanitarian protection he won that day in 2017 inside a detention center courtroom.

"It would not be just. Many of us come fleeing our countries for different reasons — be it gangs, sexual orientation," Jorge said. "If we take that decision to leave our countries, to leave our families, to leave our places of birth, it is because we are not okay and run that risk of dying."

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