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A legitimate fear of death doesn't always matter in the US asylum system

By Kate Morrissey, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — When Yovin Estrada Villanueva returned to his family home just months after fleeing for his life, even the dogs didn't recognize him.

He had lost weight in U.S. immigration custody, his sister said. His hair and beard had grown long.

He hadn't told anyone that he was being deported back to Honduras. His attempt to win asylum in the United States had failed.

Just over a year later, shortly before his 28th birthday, Villanueva was killed by the very people he fled.

He was shot while driving his mototaxi — a dangerous occupation in neighborhoods under gang control.

Villanueva's murder was not an isolated incident.


Nor was his deportation.

The U.S. asylum system, created 40 years ago to identify and protect the world's most vulnerable, has long resisted offering refuge to the country's closest neighbors to the south.

Today, those cases, like Villanueva's, are often related to gang or cartel violence. And they are often rejected.

The Trump administration has further tightened U.S. policies to deter Central American migration, arguing that harm caused by gangs amounts to "private violence" that asylum doesn't cover. This has made it even more likely that people fleeing in legitimate fear for their lives may be deported to their deaths.


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