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Beauty Queen Targeted by MS-13 Gang

Posted on January 17, 2018 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

El Salvadoran Teen's Odyssey from Triumph to Terror

For some young women, the honor of being crowned their town’s queen can open doors.  But when Karen Melissa Reyes was crowned queen of her town in El Congo, El Salvador it drew the unwanted attention of MS-13, the largest of the ruthless gangs that make El Salvador the murder capital of the world.  The gang threatened and extorted her family, ultimately forcing them to flee for their lives.  Now finally safe and resettled in New York City, most of the family faces possible deportation back El Salvador, the land of their nightmares.

Deportations Back to Terror

Karen’s family arrived recently and does not fall under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), the federal humanitarian program the Trump Administration plans to end that allowed El Salvadorans to live and work legally in the United States.  But the terror they face if forced to return to El Salvador is similar to that of many of the nearly 200,000 El Salvadorans who had been allowed to live legally in the United States but now face deportation.  It is similar, as well, to that of the more than 50,000 Haitians and 2,800 Nicaraguans who, like those El Salvadorans, gained Temporary Protected Status after natural disasters; whose homelands remain held hostage by poverty, corruption and gangs like MS-13; and who now also face deportation.

For Karen, the honor of having six parades showing her off as the town’s latest queen triggered her family’s descent from normalcy to horror.  MS-13 gang members began trailing Karen and her younger sister, Alison, when they walked from school.  They noticed the girls lived in a home nicer than most. And they discovered this was thanks to parents who worked in the United States to send their savings home. 

Demands of $10,000 or They’re Dead

The gang demanded $10,000 or they would kill the girls.  They threw rocks through their windows and held a shootout outside their home.  They warned if Karen and Alison fled, they would kill their two older sisters. 

Ultimately the sub-director of Karen’s school received a letter saying the gang would kill Karen and Alison unless they paid the gang’s extortion fee.  He warned the girls that if they somehow came up with the ransom it would only be increased and urged them to flee the country.

Two Safe; Two to Go

The four sisters walked, drove and balanced on a float to cross the Rio Grande, arriving on October 18, 2015 to join their parents in New York.  Catholic Charities successfully represented Karen and Alison as unaccompanied immigrant minors.  The US Department of Homeland Security granted them asylum in February 2017.

But their older sisters’ and parents’ immigration applications remain pending.  Karen’s father works as a mechanic and her mother works as a housekeeper.  Her older sisters work as well.  But the Trump administration immigration changes could lead to their deportation.

Catholic Charities is dedicated to helping refugees and other victims who must flee their countries to escape violence and persecution.  This complicated, comprehensive work often involves fragile survivors.

Award-Winning Scholar Seeks to Give Back

Like her family, Karen is bright and hard working.  Although she spoke no English when she arrived in Texas on 10/18/15, she mastered the language and her studies so quickly that she was named a National Honor Society member.  She was also selected for the prestigious Angelo del Toro scholarship that will cover her tuition at a CUNY school for two years.  She has landed modeling gigs to help pay her expenses and is studying to become a pediatrician.

 “I want people to be proud of me, to see all I’m trying to do,” she says. 

She says she is pained, however, by the taunts she hears on streets and in the media.

“People think we are bad people,” she says.  “We don’t come because we want to come; we come because of conflicts so we can survive.  We want to make things better, not give problems.”

If you or someone you know is worried about the Trump Administration’s ending of Temporary Protected Status (TPS)  and possible deportation contact the New Americans Hotline at 1-800-566-7636,

Contact Catholic Charities NY for free and low-cost legal and social service advice