Three recent high school graduates from South St. Paul who fled gang violence in their homeland of El Salvador are in the middle of a deportation battle that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case is expected to set a national precedent on whether resisting forced recruitment into violent gangs in other countries is grounds for asylum here.
Pablo, Rene and Silvia Mira left El Salvador in 2004, illegally crossing the border to live with their mother in Minnesota. Arrested by immigration agents shortly after entering the United States, they argued they were fleeing recruitment by the notorious MS-13 gang, whose criminal activities include drugs, human trafficking and murder.
Although their case was still making its way through judicial appeals this summer, the Miras were unexpectedly seized at their family apartment July 6. Deportation was slated for this week -- until their appeal was referred to the full U.S. Supreme Court by Justice John Paul Stevens.
"It was a miracle,'' a still-astonished Rene Mira said of the court order that led to the temporary halt of their deportations. "To return to our county would be so dangerous. You can't even go out at night, because you don't know if you'll come back,'' he said while sitting in the family's small apartment with his twin brother, Pablo, and sister, Silvia.
The Miras' hopes to stay depend on how the Obama administration applies traditional definitions of asylum -- protection for people fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality and political beliefs -- to people claiming to be members of social groups that are targeted for reprisals by violent elements in the homelands.
Some officials have cautioned against widening the asylum window, warning that it could lead to unwanted immigrants, including possibly gang members fleeing violent lives.
The Miras, who had lived in El Salvador with their grandmother, said the violent MS-13 gang controlled the streets of their city. The gangs actively recruited teenagers and threatened reprisals for anyone who turned them down.
"They say if you don't join, something can happen to you or your family,'' said Silvia Mira.
The Miras said they were so afraid they needed to flee immediately, and the United States was the logical destination. When they scurried across the border, they joined thousands of Central American teens in similar situations who came before them. So many, in fact, that there is an emerging area of asylum law for young people escaping gang recruitment.
The young people must prove they are part of a particular "social group'' being persecuted. The Miras made that case before local immigration courts and the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals. Last year, the board acknowledged the dangers of returning to El Salvador, but said the Miras did not belong to a definable "social group.''
Not only was their appeal denied, but the board also used the Miras' case as a national model for its decision to deny similar cases, said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center.
While awaiting appeal after appeal, the Mira children maintained a low profile in Minnesota. All three attended South St. Paul High school, with Silvia, 21, graduating last year and Pablo and Rene, now 20, finishing in June.
All three want to move on with their lives, to get jobs and continue their studies. But they can't work legally, and there is no money to pay for school tuitions. Their mother works two jobs to support the family.
"It's frustrating,'' said Silvia Mira, "because you have goals and you can't do anything to reach them.''
After the Miras were unexpectedly detained this month, their legal team filed several emergency appeals to halt the deportations. The Supreme Court last week ordered the Department of Homeland Security to respond to the emergency appeal; the department halted the deportation and agreed to reopen the case.
Said Keller: "It was extraordinary.''
It's also a David and Goliath story, said Ben Casper, the attorney who took the case several years ago.
"It's three kids from El Salvador and a lawyer who often works out of his basement home office against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice,'' said Casper.
Last year Casper joined forces with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and most recently with the Latham & Watkins law firm in Washington, D.C., which were instrumental in moving the case to the national stage.
The Mira family is just grateful for a second chance. Said Pablo Mira: "We felt that finally someone was listening. We felt that this country is more honest than ours.''
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511
Rene, Pablo and Silvia Mira fear for their lives if forced to return to El Salvador, where a violent gang used threats in an effort to recruit them.
The Miras don't meet the strict standards for asylum, drafted to keep dangerous and unwanted immigrants from finding safe haven in the United States.