My Children have the Right to Live

For the sake of her children, Pilar found the courage to stand up to the violent gang terrorizing her family; with the help of DC-MD JFON, she finds the courage to fight for her children again in immigration court.

Gabriela was only 12 years old when she and her brother first came to the attention of the gang that ruled their small village in rural El Salvador. Her brother Eliseo was only 10, but he was tall for his age. He was also fast and quick-footed on the fields where his classmates played soccer. The gang reckoned he would be useful as an errand boy while they trained him for bigger jobs.

They wanted to train Gabriela for something else entirely.

Both children were terrified of the gang and tried everything they could to avoid their followers. But nearly every day they came home and told their parents of gang members waiting for them after school, pursuing them, threatening them with torture and murder if Eliseo and his sister didn’t give in.

A young girl  averts her eyes from the body of a victim murdered by a gang member in El Salvador.   Photo credit: Encarni Pindado for NPR
Bodies of victims killed by gang members are not an infrequent sight for students trying to make their way home safely.  Photo and story: Encarni Pindado for NPR

Their parents, Pilar and Osman, were terrified too, but they would not and could not allow the gang to take their children.   

“Our kids don’t want anything to do with you,” Osman told them bravely. “Please just leave us alone.”

The family lived on a small farm. They kept a few animals and grew corn, beans, and other staple crops. They were not well-off, but they managed.

But their simple refusal enraged the gang leader. He sent a group of his lackeys one moonless night to burn down their farm and destroy their crops. They left the family a house to live in, but no livelihood.

Pilar and Osman made plans to leave. They couldn’t all afford to go at once; Eliseo was considered more at risk, so he would go first with his father. They would head north to the United States. When Osman could send back more money, Pilar and Gabriela would join them.

They kept this plan secret, so that the gang wouldn’t realize that Eliseo was gone for good. But now the gang started focusing more on Gabriela. They had already threatened her with rape. This time, as she was walking home from school, a car screeched up next to her and one burly tattooed thug tried to pull her into the backseat with him.

Gabriela screamed, yanking hard as she could, wrenching out of his grasp. A group of her neighbors heard and helped her get away. Gabriela ran home to her mother, collapsing in her arms as she told Pilar what had happened—and what had nearly happened.

Pilar was sick with fear and anger. She had to do something. She couldn’t just let them take her daughter without a fight. She decided this time to confront the leader herself. 

“You will not have my daughter,” she told him, clenching her hands at her side so he couldn’t see how much they were trembling. “You will leave her alone. You will leave all of us alone.”

It was a moment of exhilarating defiance, but Pilar would pay dearly for it.

A few days later, three gang members broke into their home—thankfully, Gabriela wasn’t there—and began to ferociously beat Pilar, vowing to kill her if she didn’t bring back Eliseo and give Gabriela to them.

“Did you think we would let you defy us?” their leader snarled at her. “We are the authority here. We will take your children whether you like it or not.”

He struck her across the face. “You deliver them by tomorrow,” he said, “or we will come back and kill you. Understand? Either way, they are our property.”

Pilar and Gabriela left their village that night. They couldn’t wait for the money to arrive from Osman. Pilar went to her family and friends, begging and borrowing whatever she would need to join her husband and son in America.


Nearly three years later, Pilar stood before a judge in immigration court. Behind her, neatly dressed and in respectful silence, sat her children. Gabriela was now 16 years old; her brother was now a 14-year-old teenager.

Angela Edman, managing attorney for DC-MD Justice for Our Neighbors, stood next to her.

Angela slowly smiles. “And then she told her truth in a way that was stark and poignant and clearly touched everyone in the room.”

When Pilar and Gabriela crossed into the United States, they had immediately turned themselves into the border patrol. They both passed their credible fear interviews and left to join Osman and Eliseo, living in Maryland.

“What some people don’t understand is that the only thing passing a credible fear interview does is to keep you from being sent back immediately,” Angela explains. “You are still in deportation proceedings. The only thing you get is a trial. And defensive asylum cases—as Pilar’s case was—are very difficult to win.”

They are also very long. The family had first met Angela two and half years ago when they came to a JFON clinic. From that day onward, Angela worked tirelessly to present a solid case for asylum.

“We took separate declarations from each family member,” Angela says. “They were remarkably consistent; immigration judges give weight to that.” Angela also researched gang activity in their particular area of El Salvador and the control gangs have over every facet of life there. And then she had a stroke of good luck: a police report from the burning of their family farm in El Salvador.

“Pilar and Osman were too scared to report it,” says Angela. “But Osman’s father was just so angry about it that he went to the police himself to submit a report.” She shakes her head. “Of course, the police did nothing. But it did count as evidence.”

When Osman and his son had crossed the border, Eliseo also passed his credible fear interview. Osman, however, had been deported after crossing the border some years ago and was now ineligible for asylum. Yet he remained the most confident that Pilar and the children would win their case.

“I trust in you,” he told her simply. “I trust Angela. And I trust God.”

And now Pilar faced the immigration judge and told her story –how she had dared to stand up to the powerful and the criminal; how she had risked her life to protect her children.

“They thought they had a right to take my children,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion. “But my children have the right to live.”


As the judge began reading his decision—it was a very long one—it became apparent to Pilar that she and her family would not be deported back to El Salvador. She began to weep, grabbing Angela’s hand as if it were a lifeline and desperately trying to express her gratitude to the judge.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, in English. She repeated the words over and over until she was hoarse from the effort.


Pilar had always been an ideal client, cooperative, eager to do the right thing, wanting to abide by the process and follow the law.

But now she is relaxed, her smile warm and infectious as she talks about her new job and her children. Gabriela and Eliseo are both very happy, she reports. They like school and sports and doing all the normal things that their classmates do.

This will be a very joyous Christmas.

Angela, meanwhile, is looking forward to the New Year. “Pilar and the kids can apply for a green card next July,” she reports. “We will be filing an asylee relative position for Osman after that,” she adds, with satisfaction.

And then there will be another Pilar, another Osman, Gabriela and Eliseo; another family seeking refuge and needing Angela’s—and DC-MD JFON’s—help.  


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