It was 5 a.m. when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided Willian’s home where he slept in his bed with his two infant children.
Willian, a 24-year old father of two and survivor of torture in El Salvador, said he woke up to ICE officers inside his home pointing a gun toward him and his youngest child’s head. The officer commanded him to put his hands up and forcefully detained him. Willian (whose last name El Tecolote is not publishing for safety reasons) has been fighting his immigration civil case while in custody since November 2018.
Now, Willian faces deportation on July 14. At the age of 16, Willian came to the U.S. to leave a hostile environment but faces extreme danger if he is sent back home. Attorneys from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and Pangea Legal Services have been working on Willian’s case.
“It’s been very difficult for me because I am a victim of the system of the United States,” Willian said. “I’m paying for the consequences of what somebody else did.”
In the 1980s, the people of El Salvador went to war against the Salvadoran government’s US-backed military dictatorship and allied death squads. Many citizens fled to the United States with nothing but the will to survive. Communities were formed in working-class neighborhoods all over the nation and with poverty, racism, and class struggle came an emergence of gangs to survive.
The end of the 20th century saw MS-13 membership exponentially increase in the United States. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility law, which made the deportation of foreign-born residents that had varying criminal records easier to deport. In 2005, ICE initiated Operation Community Shield, bringing together ICE, state and local law enforcement, and other federal agencies to target MS-13 members for deportation. According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 60,000 gang members now operate in El Salvador. MS-13, a clear product of U.S. intervention, racism, and class struggle, had now become El Salvador’s problem to deal with.
Many children in rougher neighborhoods are coerced into helping gang members with no way out. Many have to flee their homes and seek asylum to escape the cycle of violence. According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2019, Salvadorans had over 136,000 asylum applications pending in other countries, the majority of them in the U.S. From 2013 through 2019, 138 Salvadorans were killed after deportation from the US, and more than 70 were beaten, sexually assaulted, extorted, or tortured.
“It is time for the U.S. to reckon with its imperial legacy in Central America rather than sending asylum seekers to their likely deaths, like it did with political refugees in the 1980s,” Committee in Solidarity of the People of El Salvador (CISPES) program coordinator and director Samantha Pineda said. “It should provide resources for those already within the country to ensure their pursuit of happiness in the form of livelihoods and radically rethink foreign policy towards the region to ensure a future for those who remain in their homelands.”
At the age of 13, Willian was coerced by gangs to do tasks for them. He brought suitcases from his school to undisclosed locations and did whatever else the gangs needed him to do. Willian had no choice as the gangs threatened to kill him and his family if he did not cooperate.
“The gangs would make me pick up drugs, move drugs around for them, and deliver packages,” Willian said.
In 2014, police in El Salvador caught up to him and accused him of being a gang member. According to Willian, he was tortured on multiple occasions. He said he was once taken to a station where he was tied up to a chair and beaten by gang members. In another situation, he was beaten by masked soldiers in a small alley while walking to get pupusas for his family. A few months after that incident, he decided it was time to leave his home to escape the violence. He made it to the U.S. in 2014 just as he was turning 17.
“Like many other people crossing the border, it took me a little more than a month or two to make it,” Willian said.
When Willian got to the U.S. he met his partner in the Bay Area and things were going well for him. After having relationship challenges with his partner, he decided to move to Maryland in 2015 where he had a friend from El Salvador who could help him find some work. Willian arrived and quickly met other people who were gang members.
Francisco Ugarte, lead attorney at the Immigration Defense Unit of the San Francisco Public Defender, acknowledged the reality of navigating gang life.
“In working-class neighborhoods in this country, it is very hard to exist without knowing people who are in gangs,” Ugarte said. “It’s just a reality and nobody wants to talk about or acknowledge it.”
Within a month of his arrival to Maryland, Willian found himself in trouble with the law.
While he was at a convenience store with his friend in Hyattsville, he heard gunshots right outside. He looked out to where the shooting was happening and when the police arrived he moved to where a crowd was being assembled. The cops questioned him and two weeks later he was arrested for participating in a shooting.
Despite video evidence and his cell phone records showing that he was on the phone at the time of the shooting, the victim of the shooting identified Willian as the shooter. As a result, Willian was charged with three counts of attempted murder facing life in prison.
Police records show that Willian mentioned a name under police custody. According to Ugarte, Willian was “tricked” by police detectives and word got back to gang members in El Salvador.
After a year of being in custody, the State’s Attorney offered him credit for time served if he pleaded for aggravated assault with a gun. Willian ultimately chose to do so and because of a sanctuary law, he was allowed to leave custody. Lawyers from the Pangea Legal Services have filed a motion to vacate Willian’s plea.
Willian moved back to the Bay Area in 2017 and repaired his relationship with his former partner, even becoming a new father. Just a year later in November 2018, ICE raided his home, arrested him, and put him in immigration detention. While in custody, Willian repeatedly called the San Francisco Public Defender’s office.
“We weren’t sure if we could take the case, but he was so persistent that we had to take a look,” Ugarte said. “I talked to Willian and heard his story and proceeded with the case.”
The first step for Ugarte and his team was to have a removal hearing. In February 2021, the judge found that Willian had been tortured in the past by police, but because he had transitioned into a family man not involved in any criminal activities, the judge concluded that he would no longer be tortured in El Salvador.
“There is a legal presumption in court that if you have been tortured in the past that you’ll likely be tortured again unless there is a change of circumstance,” Ugarte said. “What this judge found was that Willian’s decision to not join a gang would be a changed circumstance.”
Ugarte and his team lost the removal hearing, making their way to the ninth circuit where they lost again. Two weeks after the ninth circuit loss, gangs in El Salvador reached out to Willian’s partner with threatening messages. The gangs had found the discovery from Maryland where Willian left a name and assured that his death was imminent once he was deported to El Salvador. Willian called friends in El Salvador to understand if the threats were real and they confirmed that they were.
Following the threats, Willian filed a motion to reopen with the board of immigration appeals. He presented evidence of two expert witnesses, one being testimony by Dr. Thomas Boerman, a specialist in Central America with expertise on gangs, organized crime, and gender and youth issues. Both expert witnesses confirmed that Willian’s life was in danger and showed that the Salvadoran government had been secretly negotiating with and empowering gangs.
El Faro, a digital publication in El Salvador, had acquired documents that proved an alliance between gang leaders and government officials. Intelligence reports showed dozens of meetings between government officials and gang leaders taking place, beginning in 2019. Both sides agreed to a reduction of homicides for prison privileges and “long-term pledges tied to the results of congressional elections in 2021.”
According to Human Rights Watch, The National Police reported 706 homicides from January to July 2020, compared to more than 1,700 during the same period in 2019, a 59 percent drop.
“Even though the public persona of President Nayib Bukele is to fight the gangs and stop violence, behind the scenes there is an authoritarian push,” Ugarte said. “This tends to show that the police will acquiesce to this kind of inter-gang violence in El Salvador.”
On May 25, an emergency motion was filed to stop deportation and a federal judge granted a reprieve to halt Willian’s deportation until the court could hear arguments and review the case.
“One of the main takeaways from this case is that there is tremendous racism and prejudice against young men from Central America, particularly if there is a gang allegation attached to the case,” Ugarte said.
Since then, ICE has transferred Willian from California to Arizona, and then to Louisiana where he is currently detained and awaits his fate.
The government has agreed not to deport him until July 14, but Ugarte and his team can appeal the district court’s decision to the ninth circuit.
“I don’t know why this is happening to me, but we’ll see what happens,” Willian said. “Let’s wait for what God says.”