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A commendable defection [Commentary]

The United States grants asylum protection to immigrants of special humanitarian concern who were persecuted in their home countries because of their membership in a particular group and who aren't barred from eligibility because of some past crime or potential danger. We typically think of asylum recipients as being refugees forced to flee religious, ethnic or political torment. But what about former gang members?

A 33-year-old Baltimore County man who entered the country illegally from El Salvador in 2000 is seeking asylum as a defense against deportation. Julio Ernesto Martinez claims he came to the U.S. to escape the violent Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13), which he joined as a teenager, and that he would likely be killed because of the desertion if he returned home. An immigration judge and appeals board originally denied his request, but a federal appeals court sent the case back for further consideration on different grounds. Its outcome, and those of similar cases working their way through the courts, could help shape the country's immigration policy.

At first blush, Mr. Martinez doesn't appear to have much of an argument. He chose to join the gang (under duress, he claims) and later to leave it, knowing the risks. MS-13 is a criminal organization notorious for its merciless retribution against defectors, along with day-to-day crimes of murder, kidnapping, extortion and trafficking in both drugs and people. It's unlikely any of its former members can be considered innocents, whether they have a criminal record or not, and it's a fair assumption that they might, if not truly reformed, pose some kind of future threat to others. Simply put, this hardly feels like a group worth special humanitarian concern.

Still, we don't think the United States should automatically refuse sanctuary to applicants solely because their claims are based on their former gang member status. Instead, officials should thoroughly consider individual scenarios — recognizing the possibility of personal transformation and the greater need to encourage more such defections — especially when it comes to MS-13 affiliates, for which the country bears some responsibility. The gang originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s (granted, made up mostly of Salvadoran immigrants) and spread to other parts of the country, including Maryland's D.C. suburbs, and back to Central America, where it breeds in the streets, often swallowing up wayward children looking for a place to belong, much as the Black Guerrilla Family does in Baltimore.

For many young people here and there, gang membership isn't an option; refusal to join is akin to betrayal and punished severely. That was the situation for Mr. Martinez, according to court papers. His stepfather died when he was 12, and he began running with an older group of tough boys at 14. Some of his new friends were affiliated with MS-13, but the group as a whole wasn't until other gang members who had been deported from the U.S. arrived in his neighborhood and "incorporated" the local crew.

At 15, Mr. Martinez underwent initiation (a 13-second beating). He claims that the new MS-13 leaders murdered the old, forced him to get gang tattoos and beat him weekly for his refusal to extort cash from the community. He testified that he never committed any crimes for the gang, other than to participate once in the beating of a fellow gang member for disobedience. He'd had enough by age 16 and attempted to leave the group, only to endure three attempts on his life (a stabbing and two separate shooting incidents). The short time he spent in the group, and the age during which he was there, should mitigate the likelihood that he was committing high crimes.

He eventually fled to the U.S., joining some of his family already here. He led a relatively conflict-free life, fathering twins and working as a delivery- and taxi driver. In 2006, he was stopped while driving a friend's car with a faulty brake light and arrested after the officer found a marijuana blunt in the glove box. The Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings against him but reversed course after Mr. Martinez agreed to work as a confidential informant for the FBI — the agencies apparently deeming him safe to be in the U.S. at that time. He lost his usefulness by 2011, however, and another traffic infraction led to the reopening of his earlier removal case and his subsequent asylum defense.

He has been imprisoned in Howard County for three years while courts and agencies consider his fate, which is still far from clear. If he is sent home, it's very likely he will be killed, leaving his children fatherless. Perhaps that should be enough of a humanitarian concern.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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