The 12-year-old boy's harrowing story tumbled out: Tormented by a gang in his native El Salvador. Sent by his terrified mother to sneak into the United States in search of safety. Nabbed by Border Patrol agents in Texas. Told he'd have to go back home, whatever the consequences.
Santos Maldonado-Canales badly wanted to stay, and now, sitting in a plush Baltimore law firm in August 2008, his hopes rested with an earnest young lawyer. At 27, Azim Chowdhury was two years out of law school and knew nothing about immigration law. A partner at the Duane Morris firm had given him the case as part of its mission to offer free representation.
On that day, Chowdhury began an odyssey of his own, immersing himself in tricky legal issues and a Salvadoran family saga. Winning asylum would not be easy, he soon learned. Immigration judges often deny asylum in gang cases. Over the next year, he would employ clever thinking, deep research and a bit of luck to press his client's case, and by the end he would find himself sought out by veteran lawyers.
But in that first meeting with Santos, all Chowdhury knew was that he wanted to win. "We don't want this kid to go back to El Salvador," he thought. "We're pretty sure he's going to get killed."
The fear was real. In 2007, Santos' 16-year-old brother, Jose Ever, was shot dead by gang members. These were the same thugs who afterward continued to beat and threaten Santos and his family.
Jose Ever's murder, by his family's account, was brutal payback for his stubborn refusal to join the gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. "He was a really good student," said his mother, Maria, through an interpreter, "and he wanted to continue with his studies."
MS-13 is a notorious Latino gang known for its violence and criminal rackets. It originated in Los Angeles among Salvadorans, and the FBI says it has spread to 42 states. The Washington area is a hotbed.
El Salvador has a big MS-13 presence partly because so many members have been deported back to the small Central American nation, where law enforcement is weak and poverty widespread.
The dead-end economy is what prompted family patriarch Pablo Maldonado-Canales to leave El Salvador well before MS-13 began preying on his three sons. Since 1998 he has lived in Maryland, working in construction and sending money home. Though here legally, he lacked the right to bring his family.
The family's gang troubles began five years ago, when Jose Ever was 13, Santos was 8 and a third brother, Pablo Michael, was 12. Gang members targeted the eldest for recruitment, and soon they were roughing him up for daring to reject them.
For Santos, a green-eyed boy with a wide face, the attacks began in 2006, when he was 10. He was walking home from school when he encountered four MS-13 members lurking by an overpass. After encircling him, the boys threw him to the ground.
"Then one of them kicked me in the stomach and stepped on my back," he said in an affidavit. "He said me and my brothers were going to be killed unless we joined their gang."
The attacks continued and escalated. Before long the gang started harassing Pablo Michael. "It was really ugly," Santos said in an interview, "because they always hit me." All along, family members say, the gang for some reason had one key goal: to pull Jose Ever into its fold.
One day in May 2007, Jose Ever came home with a bloody lip and black eye. A gang member with a devil tattoo issued a warning: Either he join, or the gang would assail not only him but his brothers and mother.
Two months later Jose Ever was shot in the head. A friend who was present said he recognized the shooter as an MS-13 regular who had bullied Jose Ever. Santos remembers his mother's wails and tears.
The family's nightmare was hardly over. Gang members kept taunting the brothers and pushed their mother to the ground outside her home. It wasn't that the gang wanted them to join; the harassment was retribution for Jose Ever's defiance.
Ominous phone calls came at all hours. "They would threaten me," Maria said in an interview, "tell me they were going to kill us, like they killed my son." She felt powerless. The police did nothing after her son's murder. She had nowhere to go.
So a couple months later, she sent Santos to America, entrusting him to a cousin driving north to the border. (Pablo Michael, then 15, stayed behind because of medical issues related to a childhood head injury.)
As planned, Santos waded across the Rio Grande River and linked up with a woman waiting in Texas. She would spirit him to his aunt in Texas, and the aunt would get him to his father in Maryland. It was Nov. 1, 2007, his first day in America.
But within an hour Border Patrol agents pulled the car over and took Santos into custody. Immigration officers fed him pizza, but Santos says every bed was full at the detention facility, "so they locked me in a bathroom for the night." He was 11, stuck halfway between his mom and dad.
The next night, Santos was put in foster care. A month later he was allowed to move to Maryland with his father, though the U.S. government still intended to deport him.
His father, who hadn't seen him since he was 2, called a Washington nonprofit group for help but was told it lacked resources. Before running out of money, he paid a law firm a hefty $700 to shift his son's case to Baltimore. The nonprofit National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children contacted the Duane Morris firm, where Santos' case landed on Chowdhury's desk.
Ten months after he had crossed the Rio Grande, he and his father met with Chowdhury in the firm's hushed offices high above the Inner Harbor.
Looking back, Chowdhury admits he was not thrilled at first. A 2006 graduate of the University of Maryland Law School, he liked the idea of working pro bono. But he is used to representing pharmaceutical companies on Food and Drug Administration matters. He'd never handled an immigration case and didn't speak Spanish.
"I had no idea what I was doing," he said. The stakes were high: "This is somebody's life we're talking about, not just another corporate transaction."
He was not entirely on his own. Sara McDowell, a senior attorney at the center for refugee and immigrant children, advised him, as did Andres Benach, a Duane Morris immigration lawyer.
Still, the challenge was steep given two rulings by the Board of Immigration Appeals in July 2008 that Benach said "pretty much closed off" the arguments typically made in gang asylum cases.
In general, asylum can be granted when someone has a well-founded fear of persecution for one of five reasons: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. The last category has been tried in gang cases, but the appeals board said those resisting gang pressure do not make up a social group.
Chowdhury knew he had to thread the needle. Santos faced peril in El Salvador, the lawyer reasoned, not because he'd resisted the gang, but for a very basic reason: "Because he was his brother's brother." And a nuclear family has long been an accepted social group for asylum cases.
But as the asylum hearing approached, Chowdhury worried any gang claim might fail because of the apparent judicial skepticism. And there was a hiccup: If Santos fled because of threats to his family, why were his mother and brother still in El Salvador?
Then in February, his mother and brother made it to Texas. She'd had enough when five MS-13 members beat Pablo Michael on a soccer field. Not only were his mother and brother now in the U.S., it meant they could testify at Santos' asylum hearing.
That was not necessary. On June 11, shortly after Santos spoke, Immigration Judge Philip T. Williams granted the boy asylum. The judge embraced Chowdhury's argument, noting that the family was "mistreated in the worst way" by MS-13.
So pervasive and deadly was the gang's influence, Williams said, according to a transcript, "that this young man was scared out of his wits, left El Salvador, came to the United States and clearly has nowhere else to go in El Salvador where he would be free from the wrath of MS-13."
The ruling, which the government did not appeal, has attracted notice. Chowdhury has received inquiries from some 30 immigration lawyers curious about the case and his legal approach.
Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell University, said Santos was fortunate: "He had good facts, he had a good lawyer and he had a fair judge. That combination is what allowed him to win when so many others have failed."
Despite putting in hundreds of hours, Chowdhury is not done. He also represents Maria and Pablo Michael, and their asylum cases have yet to be heard. Chowdhury says he plans to stick with the legal argument that worked for Santos.
For now, the family of four is living outside Washington and adjusting to life in America - and life together for the first time in a decade. When it's all over, Maria promises to cook a big meal for Chowdhury.
Santos, now 13, is in eighth grade; his brother, 17, is in ninth grade. Santos likes playing soccer. And while Chowdhury has suggested a career in law, Santos thinks he might become a police officer to protect "the defenseless."
As he put it, "I wouldn't want anyone to go through what we went through."