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Searching for Freedom

An immigrant veteran of the Iraq War seeks asylum in the United States.

His hands are rough and cracked where the fingers meet the fingernails. His quickly outgrowing crew-cut is just starting to show signs of gray.

He is wearing a clean, white shirt, sprayed with a graphic of an American flag, a motorcycle and the words "American Steel" written across the bottom. His tightly-laced gym shoes are brand new.

He has seen military training in his native El Salvador, fought off insurgents alongside U.S. Marines in the cities of Najaf and Fallujah in Iraq and took part in military consulting expositions in Chile.

But the last place he ever thought he would be was the United States.

Sitting on a light kitchen chair in the uncut grass in the backyard of the home where he is temporarily boarding in Herndon, Jose, 35, leans the chair back slightly and looks around at the neatly-kept rows of suburban homes surrounding him.

"I never wanted to come up to the United States," said Jose, 35 and a 10-year veteran of the El Salvadoran army. "I had my career in my army, I had my family … there was really no reason for me to leave."

"But I'm here now."

JUST 27 MONTHS AGO, Jose, a sergeant in the El Salvadoran Army trained as a sniper and in counterterrorism special operations, was part of a 380-man company of El Salvadoran troops stationed in Iraq as members of the United States' "coalition of the willing."

Jose, who had volunteered for military service back in 1996, volunteered to be sent to Iraq.

"It was a peaceful mission mostly. They told us we would reconstruct schools, build hospitals, things that would help to rebuild the country," Jose said. "But every time that you put on that uniform, you put yourself into a position where you could be in danger, and we all knew that."

While Jose and the other El Salvadorans in his company worked mostly on humanitarian objectives, it did not diminish the fact that they were stationed in a combat zone.

Jose recalled the day of April 4 when he and his company were ambushed by followers of radical Islamic cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf.

"We were working at a checkpoint, waiting for some of the Marines to come back when we were ambushed and had to return fire," he said. After several hours of fighting with the insurgents, they were relieved by U.S. and Spanish reinforcements, but not without a price.

A few of the men were wounded and one was killed by a sniper in the midst of the fighting, Jose said.

"You feel bad, I mean, he's your friend," he said, a distant look on his face. "But you're in war and you're prepared for that. People are going to die."

WHEN HE RETURNED to El Salvador in August of 2004, he assumed a job training snipers and special forces units with the military. He was chosen as an international representative in July of 2005 for a military consulting exposition in Chile.

His career working with the army continued normally, and he was honorably discharged at the end of December of last year, his 10-year term of service with the military complete.

It was then that he returned one night in January to his home in the town of Jucuapa, about 60 miles east of the capital of San Salvador. In his mailbox was an anonymous note, written in large, looping letters, telling him that a group knew of his army background and that he would be training their members in military tactics.

"They told me, you're not in uniform anymore, so that means that your new job will be training us," Jose said. "At first, I took it as a joke. Nobody signed the thing and it didn't say anything, even about who wanted me to train them. It was all very weird."

Jose put the letter out of his mind. Then, in March, a second letter arrived at his house.

This one said that he would respond to the gang's demands by leaving a letter for them about where they could meet or they would kill him. Jose knew that it was serious.

"They'll grab a gun and for $15 or $20 they'll kill you in El Salvador like it's no big thing," he said. "There was no doubt that they would kill me if I refused."

And there was no way that he would agree to train them.

"You work for a gang, you're talking about killing police, killing people, doing drugs," Jose said. "If they were able to do that from what I know, that would be my fault. That's not worth it."

He left his house to be sold by a real estate company and made sure that his family was not being targeted by the gang members.

He quietly moved in with his parents and began to make arrangements for his trip to the United States so he could file for asylum. After planning his trip out he left his three sons — aged 13, 10 and 8 — with their mother, with whom he is not married and made it to the bus station.

His bus was the first to roll out of San Salvador just as the sun was beginning to rise, he recalled.

JOSE ARRIVED IN Herndon from El Salvador a little more than three weeks ago after crossing illegally over the Mexican border into Arizona. The trip took him nearly a month, including five days hiking on foot across the border into the United States.

He chose the small suburb of Washington, D.C. because he had old friends who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador who had settled there.

Now, all Jose wants is to get registered under legal status so that he can start a new life.

Helping him with his asylum application is local businessman and dual United States and El Salvadoran citizen Jorge Rochac.

"I wouldn't take this guy's application if I didn't think that he deserved it," he said. "I think he's got a darn good shot of making it, too."

In order to be granted asylum status in the United States, you must present yourself physically in the U.S. and show solid proof that your life is in danger because of ethnic, religious, political, organizational or national affiliation.

People granted asylum status will typically receive green cards within a year and later may have the opportunity for naturalization, Rochac said.

While Jose may not at first seem to match any of these requirements, the gangs' targeting him for his affiliation with the military will most likely suffice, he added.

There certainly isn't a lack of a serious threat to safety, he added.

"Right now [gangs in El Salvador] are very, very big, a lot of people show up just dead all of a sudden," Rochac said.

"Is it easy to kill someone down there?" he said, making a clicking noise and pointing his hand in a gun-like motion across his desk before clucking his tongue. "That's it."

THE ASYLUM PROCESS has become much more strict in recent years, Rochac said.

Every year for the last three years, the United States Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has processed between 32,000 and 46,000 applications for asylum, according to USCIS records. They typically grant between 13,000 and 15,000 of those applications each year.

It's not about quotas as much as it is about proof, said USCIS spokesperson Shawn Saucier.

"We're not looking for a certain percentage of approvals each year," Saucier said. "We look at each application on a case by case basis and based on the merits of that case and the evidence presented, we will make our decision."

Because Jose is currently in the process of applying for asylum, Saucier would not comment on his specific case, but did say that his experience fighting in the Iraq War might be considered a favorable factor during his application review.

While typically not directly representing asylum cases, the Embassy of El Salvador will provide free legal advice and orientations for asylum-seekers in the United States, according to the Embassy's press office.

Jose, however, said that he has not gone to the embassy yet.

JOSE'S FUTURE in the United States remains in the air. Right now he is working odd construction jobs wherever he can find throughout Virginia as he tries to make enough money to earn his keep.

Before fully submitting his application, Jose is awaiting the delivery of the threatening letters, as well as his military records and letters of reference from El Salvador.

The whole application process typically takes about one year. If his application is not deemed credible by USCIS after his case is reviewed by an asylum officer, it will be moved to an immigration judge, who will make the decision, according to Saucier. If Jose is not granted asylum from the judge, he could be deported back to El Salvador.

Knowing the risk, Jose said that he is willing to take it.

"If I'm found here, the police are going to see that I'm illegal and they'll throw me out," he said. "I never had problems with the law before in my country, with the military, with other people and I don't want them here."

"It's either this or I just go back now and get a bullet in my head."