El Salvador: how dirty data entraps immigrants to the U.S.

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In 2014, the unending horrors of police brutality and gang violence forced Oscar* to make a life-altering choice—to leave his native El Salvador, abandoning everything he called his own. Seeking refuge from a country steeped in human rights violations, he set his sights on the United States, hoping for protection and peace.

Shortly after his arrival, he was instead apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities and detained. He was also trapped; following his detention, authorities contested Oscar’s release on bond, citing an INTERPOL Red Notice and an arrest warrant issued by Salvadoran authorities. 

All the accusations against him were marred by inaccuracies. Authorities misidentified his parents and accused him of crimes that took place months after he fled El Salvador. Nevertheless, Oscar lost his freedom for two years, serving prison time in the U.S. Even though he has since demonstrated his innocence multiple times in court proceedings, his case remains unresolved almost a decade after he was falsely accused.

Oscar is one of thousands of Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. who have been unjustly accused of crimes in their home country and have suffered severe tribulations during immigration based on the flawed information the government provides.

In June of 2023, Access Now and our partners — the National Immigrant Justice CenterCristosal, and Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic — worked together to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We are calling for an investigation into the U.S. reliance on bad data from problematic foreign governments for immigration proceedings and enforcement, and the impact these DHS practices have on refugee seekers and immigrants.

The DHS obtains information from a growing number of foreign sources, including through data-sharing agreements with governments that have a history of violence toward their own citizens, such as El Salvador. Our complaint focuses on the agreements between the U.S. and El Salvador, highlighting how they have allowed a steady stream of unsubstantiated information to enter the databases used for U.S. immigration proceedings. 

The growing violation of human rights in El Salvador

For decades, El Salvador’s government has consistently failed to address gang violence in a sustainable and meaningful way that safeguards human rights and democracy. For example, in March of 2022, President Nayib Bukele asked the national legislature to enact an unprecedented “state of exception” (emergency), as a measure to control gangs and criminals. Although the supposedly temporary state of exception was initially authorized for 30 days, the government has extended it every month since. Under this perpetual emergency rule, the government has stripped citizens of El Salvador of fundamental rights. 

At the same time, the National Police have been empowered with sweeping authority. They have even arrested people for personal reasons, and have also increasingly identified individuals as gang members or criminals in transnational databases without verifiable evidence of an alleged crime. 

One of the people targeted by the police is Antonio,* who worked at a school in San Salvador and managed a rental car business. According to Antonio, before the government imposed the state of exception, police officers repeatedly extorted him and threatened to confiscate his vehicles;  two days after it began, they arrested him without warning. Today, Antonio remains detained without due process. 

As of March 27, 2023 — one year after the state of exception started — our partner Cristosal had received 3,275 reports of human rights violations by Salvadoran security forces, 98.5% of which involved arbitrary detention. Young men in areas with high rates of crime and poverty are frequently detained based on arbitrary criteria or no evidence at all, the report says.

The U.S. Department of State’s 2022 Human Rights Report also identified credible allegations of widespread and serious rights abuses by the National Police, including forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and home invasions.

How the U.S. stops immigrants from escaping rights violations and abuse

Immigrants from El Salvador who make it into the U.S. find themselves ensnared in a broken immigration system. For years, the U.S. has gathered information from Salvadoran security forces through a range of agreements and programs. Notably, this collaboration deepened during the previous Trump administration.

One of the main agreements the two countries forged during the Trump administration is the Biometric Data Sharing Program Agreement, which requires El Salvador to collaborate with the U.S. DHS in the exchange of citizens’ biometric and identity data. The primary goal of this exchange was to “verify the identities of irregular migrants,” with a particular emphasis on identifying potential criminal activity. The Biden administration has maintained its commitment to these agreements, continuing to enforce and actively participate in their implementation.

Currently, Salvadoran police and security agencies amass extensive data concerning Salvadoran citizens, which is subsequently entered into databases or directly shared with U.S. authorities. This information is then integrated into a web of interconnected U.S. government databases spanning across the DHS, the State Department, the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the FBI. 

Through these intricate networks, officials from Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) gain access to this information, wielding influence over immigration-related determinations, such as choices of detention and deportation, without any type of verification. Even DHS has admitted that they can’t corroborate the quality of the data in one of their databases and that there is no mitigation measure in the landscape.

This affects immigrants like Melissa,* a woman who faced relentless gang harassment in El Salvador before seeking refuge in the U.S. Her departure was prompted by an arrest warrant linked to vague charges from a neighbor dispute, which appeared in an FBI database. Despite lacking evidence, ICE maintained in immigration proceedings that her arrest was gang-related and dismissed her ordeal as an “initiation.” 

Throughout the entire communication chain, there are dozens of ways information can be transmitted incorrectly or for persecutory purposes. Still, the DHS persists in using this information without questioning it. 

These agreements need to stop

To address the documented pattern of abuses, we demand that DHS undertake several key actions, especially given the risks of the sensitive information being shared. This includes discontinuing specific bilateral data-sharing agreements with El Salvador and introducing restrictions to prevent DHS from relying solely on governments that have a record of human rights violations for information relevant to immigration decisions or enforcement.

DHS is obligated to provide foreign evidence, warrants, and documentation of allegations while allowing individuals to counter such claims during immigration hearings. Our recommended changes have the potential not only to rectify current shortcomings but also to ensure the integrity of immigration processes going forward.

Read the full complaint and our press release.

*All names in this post have been changed to protect those involved.