MIAMI -- The threats, thefts, and beatings started for Belazario Rivera in high school.
The feared 18th Street Gang ruled one side of the central Honduran town where he lived with his ailing grandmother, while the equally vicious Mara Salvatrucha patrolled the other. Sporting new shoes or a new jacket, Rivera was an easy target. He refused to join the gangs, so they took whatever he had.
Fears escalated when a gang member showed his grandmother a gun and told her, ``This is the gun I'm going to use to kill your grandson."
Rivera soon went to live with his mother in Miami, joining a steady stream of young people from Central America who apply for asylum in the United States to escape street gangs.
Because they cross the border surreptitiously, no one knows how many have come, but lawyers say they are seeing more cases than ever.
Rivera, like most other illegal immigrants in his situation, lost his case and is set for deportation. At least one deportee has been slain by a gang after his return.
``They want everybody to be part of the gang. They're trying to recruit people, and you have lots of problems with them.
``When you don't do it, you have to pay money just to enter your own house. You can't live that way," Rivera, 27, said through an interpreter.
Under US law, immigrants seeking asylum must prove they have a reasonable fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a particular social group.
Immigration advocates and lawyers argue that those provisions should be expanded to include cases such as Rivera's, based on persecution by gangs.
US authorities say rising gang violence in Latin America fuels crime in this country. Street gangs have an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 members across Central America, where authorities allege they are involved in human trafficking, kidnapping, and drugs and weapons smuggling.
Rivera says assaults became a part of life once he refused to join a gang.
``They're always where you live and outside the schools, wanting money or hitting you. If you don't give it to them, they'll take it from you anyways," Rivera said.
In February, a Florida judge denied asylum to an 18-year-old Honduran man in Bradenton who contended that he had been persecuted for belonging to a particular social group, ``school-age boys who refuse gang membership," according to court documents.
The judge determined that the gang's recruitment tactics, repeated verbal threats that escalated to a beating, did not rise to the level of persecution.
Immigration lawyers often cite the case of Edgar Chocoy, a Guatemalan teen who was slain by his former gang shortly after being deported, as proof of the risks facing asylum-seekers who are sent home.
``The judges don't really understand how it works. The gangs don't forget. They hear things, whether you're coming back," said immigration lawyer Adam Hellman. ``If they mark you, they'll make good on it. It increases the power of the gang."
The Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition sees about six gang-related asylum-seekers a month, said Brittney Nystrom, the Washington-based agency's asylum project director. Ranging in age from 17 through their mid-20s, they usually opt to leave the country when Nystrom tells them they will be jailed during the hearing process. ``They emotionally can't stand that. They would rather risk death than be in jail for an indefinite amount of time in the US," she said.