The black Suburban pulled into the truck-stop parking lot just as dusk settled on Beckley, W.Va., one June evening. A burly man in sunglasses climbed from behind the wheel and opened the rear door.
Out stepped a slender Honduran teenager with shaggy hair, bright-blue sneakers, a gang past and an uncertain future.
The last time the teen had known freedom was the night 2 1/2 years earlier when he crossed the Rio Grande and turned himself in to the U.S. Border Patrol. Authorities, alarmed by his acknowledged gang history, had held him without a hearing in a Virginia juvenile detention center.
But then a federal judge ruled that his rights had been violated.
So now, a day later, the 17-year-old suddenly found himself hugging the mother who had left him behind in Honduras as a boy and embracing half-siblings he didn’t know. He climbed into a waiting car and headed to a home in Kentucky he had never seen.
For immigration advocates, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth K. Dillon’s June 1 order was a major legal victory over the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the federal agency charged with caring for children apprehended at the border without their parents. The decision could lead to the release of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of long-detained unaccompanied minors, they said.
The teen’s release was remarkable for another reason: Before coming to the United States, he had sold drugs and witnessed murders as a member of MS-13.
The violent street gang is on the rise in the United States, fueled, in part, by the surge in unaccompanied minors. MS-13 has been linked to dozens of recent killings, from the Washington area to Long Island, Boston and Houston. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have voiced alarm about MS-13 and the way it has taken advantage of the U.S. immigration system.
“If they come as undocumented minors, the federal government transports them wherever in the interior they say they’d like to go,” Sessions said in late April. “The bad guys know how this system works, and they have exploited it.”
Last month, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sent a letter to the ORR, demanding to know if it had released any unaccompanied minors with admitted gang ties.
This teen may be the first known case, but he is not the only one. In a statement to The Washington Post, the agency said it had released “a small number” of children with “minimal” gang affiliation to live with relatives.
Advocates liken these youths to child soldiers, who need help recovering from years of violence and abuse. But critics view them as threats to public safety who should be deported.
“When we have credible information that this kid has been involved in criminal activity, is a member of a gang, admits to violent acts in his home country, that’s when we should be using the law to the fullest extent possible to avoid problems in the community,” said Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which has pushed for strict immigration policies.
In an interview, the teen said that he had left his gang days behind in Honduras.
“Down there, you have to fight just to stay alive,” he said. The Washington Post agreed to withhold his name to protect his safety. “Thank God that I’m here now and can move forward with my life.”
His first brush with gang violence came when he was 4 years old. He was buying ice cream from a street vendor when someone shot the man in the back.
“He was serving me a cone when they shot him,” the teen recalled. “I watched as blood started coming out of his mouth and his neck. I was just a kid, but it’s still so fresh in my mind.”
A year after the killing, his mother moved to the United States, and he was left in the care of relatives who physically abused him, according to court records. When he was 11, a member of a local clique of MS-13 defended him from bullies at school.
“He was the first one to tell me I could be in the gang,” the teen said, promising “material things, money, women. He told me that I could earn respect.”
He began spending more and more time with MS-13.
“It was like the family I couldn’t find at home,” he said. “I thought nobody loved me. But when I found them, I said, ‘This is my family. They love me.’ ”
Older gang members gave him money, alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. But soon they demanded he sell drugs, too, including heroin and “piedra,” or crack.
“I began to see things, like them torturing people,” the teen said. “For rent. Because they belonged to another gang. Because they had screwed up somehow.”
One day, the torture turned into murder.
“I was in the same room when they killed someone,” he said. “When I saw that, I said ‘This is not for me.’ But I had already seen a lot and knew a lot by that point. I couldn’t go back.”
The teen said he witnessed multiple murders but never participated. His breaking point came in 2014, when the gang turned on his friend who had protected him from bullies.
“One of them wanted me to kill him, but I said no, and they started to hit me with their fists,” he said. “They said if I wouldn’t kill [him] then they’d kill me.”
Other gang members intervened and spared him, but his friend wasn’t so lucky.
“I couldn’t do anything to stop them from killing him,” he said. “It was like being trapped in hell.”
The teen had stayed in touch with his mother, who had found work cleaning hotel rooms in Kentucky, remarried and given birth to three American children. Her husband offered to pay the teen’s way to the United States. It was supposed to be a surprise for his mother.
With the help of a coyote, the teen, 14 at the time, traveled north by car and bus through Guatemala and Mexico in late 2014. Unable to swim, he forded the Rio Grande on an inflatable tire.
After turning himself in to authorities, he was photographed, fingerprinted and sent to a government shelter in Chicago.
“I thought the maximum I would spend there was two weeks,” he said.
The teen had arrived in the United States during an unprecedented wave of more than 150,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly fellow teens fleeing violence and political upheaval in Central America.
When they are caught, they spend an average of 45 days in government custody before they are released to parents or other relatives while their cases wind their way through a backlogged immigration system.
The teen spent 2½ months in the Chicago shelter, where he told a social worker about his time in MS-13.
In addition to selling drugs, “he described to his caseworker his involvement in other significant and serious criminal activity as part of the gang, although months later he recanted those statements,” the judge wrote in her ruling. “He has steadfastly maintained since then that he did not engage in the most serious of that conduct.”
The teen told The Post that he falsely confessed to participating in his friend’s murder “because I was nervous and felt guilty for not doing anything to help him. I felt responsible.”
He was sent in shackles to the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, a more secure facility in Staunton, Va.
He began to lash out, getting into seven fights, according to the judge’s ruling.
“If somebody disrespected me, I’d hit them,” he acknowledged. “I had learned in the gang that violence was the only path.”
His mother had immediately applied to be reunited with her son, and a home visit by a government contractor had found that she and her husband “will be positive influences on [the] minor, and that he should be released to their care.”
Yet it wasn’t until May 2016 — 17 months after the teen was detained — that the ORR informed his mother that her request for reunification had been denied. Her son “poses a safety risk to the community” and “requires an environment with a high level of supervision and structure that [she is] unable to provide at this time,” a letter said.
When she asked the agency to reconsider, it refused. That’s when the teen’s case came to the attention of Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg and Rebecca Wolozin, attorneys at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Falls Church, Va., who had recently helped secure the release of another 17-year-old with gang ties after three years in ORR custody.
“It was such a Kafkaesque situation,” Wolozin said of the teen’s case. “There was just no end in sight.”
In March, the two attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus in western Virginia District Court, demanding that the ORR release the teen.
On June 1, Dillon delivered a sweeping opinion. By holding the teen for 29 months without a hearing, the agency had violated his rights to due process and family unity, she said.
The ORR said it could not comment on a specific case but had “revised policies [to] strengthen safeguards” following the ruling. The agency declined to provide statistics on how many children it holds long term, but a spokesman said that it was in the “hundreds.”
The teen called his release “the happiest moment of my life.”
He was granted asylum shortly before being reunited with his mother. But he also knows his new life with his family in a two-bedroom trailer is precarious. The risk of being pulled back into MS-13 is real. For the teen, the greater threat is being targeted as a traitor.
“Hopefully,” he said last week, “God will keep that from happening.”
(This file has been updated to withhold the teen’s name to protect his safety.)