Catholic Charities’ Hogar Immigrant Services offers legal assistance for immigrants who have traveled to our country legally, and for those seeking asylum or another form of immigration relief. Today, Suleyka Canelo, Catholic Charities’ Hogar Immigrant Services Staff Attorney, shares a story of an asylee who left everything behind, even her family, to seek safety in the United States.


Map of El Salvador


In her home country of El Salvador, Maria (name changed to retain anonymity) was a successful business woman, working as a manager in a pharmacy.

One of the most powerful gangs in the country began extorting the pharmacy, so Maria worked with police detectives in their investigation. Her cooperation led to a raid where many gang members were arrested.

However, the remaining gang members targeted Maria, threatening her life and even sending death threats to her family.

Making matters worse, the Salvadoran authorities couldn’t help her — they couldn’t offer her the protection that she deserved in exchange for her assistance with the case.


No choice but to flee

The choice to flee one’s country and leave loved ones behind is not an easy one. However, in countries plagued by gang violence, for some individuals it is the only option affording a real chance for survival. When Maria fled El Salvador in 2010, she did not have a plan, but she knew she had better chances of saving herself and her family if she came to the United States.

Gang violence in El Salvador has reached new levels. The country is controlled by the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18. Gang members get much of their money and power through extortion and kill those who refuse to pay. Unfortunately, working with the police is often futile or puts victims at greater risk.

Maria knew that if she stayed in El Salvador, she and her family would end up dead.


Seeking asylum

Maria sought refuge in the United States. Her three children and grandson were also in danger and moved between the homes of different relatives, staying in each location for three days or less, out of fear that the gangs would locate them.


Hogar legal asylees

Maria’s daughter, son and grandson


In 2011, Maria came to Catholic Charities’ Hogar Immigrant Services for help with her asylum claim. Asylum is granted to individuals seeking protection because they have suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Maria was granted asylum in 2013, qualifying as a member of the particular social group of prominent business women in El Salvador who were extorted by gangs and actively assisted in related police investigations.

Hogar also helped Maria to reunify with her family. Her children and grandson joined her in 2014.

Asylees are eligible to apply for permanent residency once they have been in the United States for a year, so Hogar is now helping Maria and her children apply for permanent residency. This will allow them to reside and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis and to seek U.S. citizenship.

Because of Hogar, Maria and her children’s lives have been transformed. Once fearing for their lives, they now have a bright and secure future ahead of them. As it says in Jeremiah 29: 11, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you … plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”


We moved!

On July 1, 2016, our main Hogar Legal Services office moved from Falls Church to Alexandria. Our new address is 6301 Little River Turnpike, Suite 300, Alexandria, VA 22312. We also offer legal services at All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, host monthly naturalization workshops throughout the diocese, and offer citizenship classes in Manassas, Arlington, Alexandria, Sterling, Vienna and Woodbridge.

If you or anyone you know needs legal assistance related to immigration, please contact our Hogar Legal team at (703) 534-9805 or



If you would like to get involved with the work of welcoming the stranger through Hogar Immigrant Services, please consider becoming a volunteer or making a financial gift. We are grateful for the thousands of generous supporters who make our work possible.