Henry Lemus Calderon was, by his own admission, not a choir boy, even though he sang in one. He attended services at Faro de Luz church in Nantucket where the Rev. Rigoberto Lemus presides. Lemus — a common Salvadoran name on Nantucket and no relation to Henry — said Calderon spent a lot of time behind church doors.
“We'd have a service Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and he always come those days. He always [volunteered] to open the door, receive the brothers and sisters. And he’s a good person,” said Rev. Lemus.
Calderon’s family said he fled El Salvador after 18th Street gang members demanded monthly payments in exchange for his life. His brother-in-law was murdered in 2012 under circumstances that are not entirely clear, but the family was taking no chances. Calderon crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on foot in early 2014 to escape gang violence as thousands of other unaccompanied minors did. The Obama administration allowed some to stay if they had a sponsor. Calderon’s uncle, Rodolfo Lemus, lives on Nantucket, and within a short while the teen was enrolled at Nantucket High School.
By all accounts, Calderon was a good student and excelled in algebra. “And he won excellence awards in his first few months of being here. And he barely spoke English, and he was already doing so well in school,” Jocelyn Ramirez, his cousin, said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents scooped up Henry Lemus Calderon last year during an anti-gang operation on Nantucket, and he now sits in a detention center awaiting possible deportation to El Salvador. Calderon supporters say ICE is trumping up charges and using the threat of gangs to sweep up undocumented young men from Central America. ICE already knew he was in the country and knew exactly where he lived.
But a year after arriving in Nantucket, a police report written by a school resource officer (SRO) sketched a very different portrait of Calderon. Handwritten notations on the report tagged him as a member of the notorious 18th Street gang. He was accused of threatening to beat up another student, a self-identified member of MS-13. Calderon was also alleged to have marked the school bathroom with the words: La Mara nunca muere, which means, "The gang never dies." But Zoila Gomez, Calderon’s attorney, said this and other conclusions reached by the school were based on a limited understanding of what determines gang membership.
“There are certain things you have to do," Gomez said. "There's certain things that they expect you to go through to become a member in order to be recognized and respected as a so-called member of a gang."
Gomez points out that Calderon was never arrested for any crime on Nantucket. And she said her client neither dresses like a gang member nor has gang tattoos. But Chris Cronin, who heads up ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations program in New England, said traditional gang markers have changed.
“In the past there would be tattoos that, you know, were overt and everybody could see them if somebody was wearing a T-shirt," he said.
Cronin said Central American gangs — including those in Nantucket — have resorted to more subtle ways of demonstrating membership. “So, it is challenging identifying folks that are part of gangs in today's world," he said.
But what happens when some identify themselves as gang members, as several young men at Nantucket High School apparently did? Lt. Angus MacVicar of the Nantucket police says it's simple: “If they're going to go ahead and identify themselves, then we're going to treat them as that.”
That is problematic, said attorney Lisa Thurau, who leads Strategies for Youth, which focuses on improving police-youth relations. She says by that example, what might ordinarily be written off as teenage bravado is being taken to a whole different level by local law enforcement, with life-altering consequences.
“On Nantucket, you have a perfect storm of school resource officers having to address normative behaviors of youth intersecting with Homeland Security investigations, which has the agenda of trying to rid this country of people they see [as] undesirable, and it appears that the lines aren’t clear about what level of proof is necessary," Thurau said.
Nantucket police vehemently deny any suggestion that its officers engage in ethnic profiling. But one resident, Fernando Ramos, said that undocumented Salvadoran youth are painted with broader brush strokes than other students at the high school. Ramos, a U.S. citizen, and Calderon ate lunch together in the cafeteria. Ramos is convinced that the gang label attached to Calderon is based in part on observing Central Americans hanging out together.
“So many white people are with their white groups and Hispanics with the Hispanics, you know, so in his case, he didn't speak any English. And he straight out came from El Salvador,” Ramos said. “So obviously, kids are going to see him as different. So he sees the first person that he knows. Obviously, they speak Spanish.”
Several local residents, including a teacher and an artist, filed affidavits with the federal immigration court in Boston on behalf of Calderon. Nantucket resident Daniel Gault, a successful property manager, also vouched for him.
“We were putting in a generator and we had to dig about a 30-foot trench. And so, I brought him and his buddy, and the two of them came along and they put their heads down and worked,” Gault said. "You know, I've hired my neighbor. He's a local white kid and he's a terrible worker."
Gault said he was shocked to hear that Calderon was taken away by ICE in May 2016. He’s being held in a section of the Bristol County Jail immigration wing reserved for hard-core members of MS-13 and 18th Street. Calderon’s uncle and guardian, Isidro Lemus, worries about his safety.
“He got involved in a fight with a gang member the other day because they say that he didn't want to go with them outside and everything, talk to them," Isidro Lemus said. "And Henry was like, ‘Listen, I'm not part of this whole thing. I'm here because they're accusing me of being with you guys.’ So he’s like, 'No way I'm going to get involved. I’d rather die before I do something stupid like that.'”
But Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who runs the Bristol County Jail, takes ICE’s word that Calderon is a gang member and a threat to the residents of Nantucket, and that’s why he’s locked up where he is.
“It wouldn't make sense to put somebody in a situation like that where they would get targeted if they really weren't part of a gang,” Hodgson said.
Calderon’s supporters, however, insist that he has been caught up in a federal crackdown on gangs. Here in Massachusetts, that ICE dragnet is being aided by Nantucket police and other local departments.
This story was edited by Aaron Schachter and Ken Cooper.