Two years ago, the Trump administration through the Justice Department changed policies making it tougher for migrants and refugees in the U.S. to be granted asylum.
One of the changes has created a growing backlog of pending cases in the courts -- with thousands of individuals seeking sanctuary status who now face deportation.
That includes one 21-year-old woman living in Henderson County. She’s fighting an order that would send her back to her native El Salvador, where she says a violent gang murdered her father and threatens to kill her, too.
She recounted her story to BPR.
For this story, she wishes to be called, Rihanna. Her daughter’s name. Because as you’ll hear, she risks being located by the gang Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, that killed her father.
She found that out one morning, when a letter slid under the door.
“Nothing more than a sheet of paper that said he needed to pay 200 dollars, if he didn’t pay $200, they were going to kill him or one of his children,” Rihanna said.
“Nada más que como una hoja donde que decía que si é l no les daba los 200 dólares, le van a matar a é l o alguno de sus hijos."
Her father was a migrant worker. He worked construction jobs in Maryland in the summer and returned home to El Salvador to be with his family. Rihanna says MS-13 took note of his growing stock of cows. They assumed he was wealthy. So they extorted him, demanding $200 a month.
But that was more than her father could afford. Rihanna says though she tries to forget, she vividly recalls what happened next. Her father never came home from work one night.
“When he didn’t return, it was night, around two in the morning...there was a knock at the door. I remember very well, two men in white vests,” she recalled.
"Y fue allí cuando él ya no regreso, y entonces a la noche, como después de las dos de la mañana...que llegan tocan la puerta y recuerdo muy bien que eran unos señores de vestidos blanco que ellos son, eran de una funeraria, y que estaban diciéndonos que tienen su ID de mi papa."
The men came to verify her father’s identity because he was found dead on the side of a road. That morning, Rihanna and her mother drove three hours away to identify and claim her father’s remains.
“When we got there, my father was cut into pieces. His heart, his organs. It was difficult to recognize him, because he was cut into pieces, destroyed,” Rihanna said.
“Y cuando llegamos, mi papá estaba cortado en pedazos, tenía todo su corazón, todo sus órganos. Estaba difícil de reconocer porque estaba hecho pedazos, destruido.”
BPR obtained a copy of his death certificate. It says he died of severe knife wounds to the neck and chest cavity. He was 38, and died on Oct., 17 2005.
That was the day Rihanna says her childhood ended. She was just six. She and her siblings took jobs to make up for the lost income. But her family continued to receive threats from MS-13. One man attempted to rape her -- she has scars on her arms from the incident.
“They tried to force me to join their gang, MS-13. They told me if I didn’t join on good terms, they were going to do it the hard way. If I didn’t join, they threatened to kill me and my family,” Rihanna said.
“Tratando de que yó entra, querían obligarme a que yo entrara a su banda de ellos que es nombrada como la Mara Salvatrucha. Ellos me dejaban saber, si, yo no ingresaba a su banda por las buenas, lo iba a hacer por las malas y de no hacerles caso, este, ellos iban a matarme a mi, y a toda mi familia.”
In 2013, gang members killed her cousin. They told Rihanna, she was next. She told her mother, they needed to leave El Salvador for her safety. But she says her mother’s response was to kick her daughter out of the house -- believing that Rihanna to blame for the family’s misfortunes.
“She left me, when I needed her most. I was abandoned by my mother, and I don’t have a dad, no family to support me,” Rihanna said.
“Ella me dejo sola cuando más la necesite. Fui abandonada por mi madre, y no tengo papa, y ninguna familia que me apoye.”
That’s when she set out on her journey that brought her to Western North Carolina. It started with a bus ride to the capital San Salvador. From there, she rode in the bed of a pickup truck to Guatemala, where she stayed for a month. Finally, Rihanna rode atop of a train, called "the beast," for three days, traveling through Mexico to the US.
When she reached the Rio Grande Valley, she was arrested by a Texas Border Patrol agent. A Department of Homeland Security report confirms she arrived on Nov. 25, 2014. Since she was 16 at the time, Rihanna was allowed to enter as an unaccompanied minor. She got a custody order to live with an aunt in Maryland.
But even in Maryland, thousands of miles away, she learned her life was still in danger.
“I got a call from an unknown number, it was my cousin. He was also being threatened by MS-13, but he called to tell me to leave where I was staying, because the gang realized where I was, and they were looking for my address,” Rihanna said.
"Un día, recibí una llamada de un número desconocido, y era de un primo mio que tambien el estaba congregado por amenazas tambien, entonces el me dijo que tenía que salir de donde estaba, porque ya estaban dando cuenta que estaba allí, estaban tratando de encontrar mi dirección."
That was in 2016. She immediately fled to Western North Carolina to be with a godmother, helping clean hotels and houses.
At the same time she learned orders to appear in court were sent to her aunt’s address, back in Maryland. Since she wasn’t there to appear, she had been issued an order for her deportation.
She’s now represented by an attorney in Hendersonville. He successfully appealed the deportation order -- but now her case is being sent back to an immigration judge in Charlotte June 12.
"I hope that, if sharing my story doesn’t help me, it can help someone else. These people don’t have to go through what I’ve gone through. Please don’t judge us, without hearing our story,” Rihanna said.
"Espero yo que, para mi, que si no sirva para mi, sino que tal vez pueda servir a alguien más. Esas personas no tengan que pasar lo que yo he pasado. Por favor, que no nos juzguen sin escuchar nuestra historia."
Rihanna has now been in the country long enough to reach what’s called her “priority date.” That means she’s now eligible to file for legal permanent residency. But the judge in Charlotte could deny her request.
Rihanna’s story is just one of the more than 890,000 pending asylum cases held up in immigration courts across the country. On Monday, BPR will air the second part of this reporting series to explain how federal policies are affecting immigration judges in North Carolina. We’ll also have update on Rihanna’s hearing in Charlotte on June 12.