Former Salvadoran gang member says he’s living right and deserves U.S. protection

Pamela Constable (Washington Post) | May 18, 2014

At 14, Julio Martinez was a fatherless boy in El Salvador who fell in with a neighborhood gang. Soon, he said, he found himself a virtual prisoner in a larger, violent criminal organization known as MS-13. Gang leaders ordered him to extort his neighbors, beat him when he resisted and threatened him with death when he tried to quit.

Today, at 34, Martinez is again a prisoner, this time in federal immigration custody at the Howard County Detention Center. The government is seeking to deport him, but he has mounted a controversial defense that is being closely watched by human rights experts and lawmakers as his case plays out in the federal courts.

Technically, Martinez is only being held because he is an illegal immigrant; after a decade of living and working quietly in Maryland, he was stopped by police in 2011 for making an illegal left turn and then arrested. But as a repentant former gang member in El Salvador who fled to the United States at age 20, he has requested asylum on the grounds that he deserves permanent protection from his former associates.

If he wins his case, it could dramatically expand U.S. asylum laws that are mostly used to protect victims of political or religious persecution. He has a bond hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

“I ran away from my country to save my life, and I never did any harm,” Martinez said in Spanish during a telephone interview from the detention center in Jessup. “The gang leaders said we were all brothers, but it was a lie. They just want to use you. Once you’re in, the only way you leave is dead. They already tried to kill me twice, and if I am sent back, they will still be hunting for me.”

Although the chances of former gang members such as Martinez obtaining permanent asylum might appear to be slim, the courts remain divided on the issue. In several recent rulings on his case and two others, federal immigration and appeals courts have given contradictory answers as to whether such people deserve American sanctuary from the violent consequences of their former lives.

One issue is how to decide whether the person is truly repentant; another is the more technical question of how to define a gang. Currently, asylum-seekers must belong to a recognizable class of people who are vulnerable to persecution based on their race, religion, ideology or membership in a “particular social group.” Does a gang qualify as a social group?

Maureen Sweeney, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, is representing Martinez. She thinks U.S. asylum law should be changed to allow such immigrants to seek protection if they renounce gang life at their peril. Thousands of gang members in the United States have been deported to El Salvador in the past two decades; there is no estimate of how many others have attempted to repudiate their past.

“One foundation of our asylum law is that someone’s conscience should not have to be sacrificed for their safety,” Sweeney said. “The burden of proof in asylum cases is difficult to meet, but if someone can convince a judge they genuinely left a gang and face danger as a result, they have met that burden of proof and should be protected.”

The other side of the argument is that members of violent gangs should never be rewarded, and that granting asylum to those who claim repentance would open the floodgates to predatory immigrants who want to avoid deportation.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, objected strongly to a February court ruling in Martinez’s favor, saying it “encourages fraud and creates a new loophole where gang members can simply claim they are no longer a member of a gang in order to game the immigration system.” The result, he added, would be to “endanger our communities” through the scourge of gang violence.

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