In the waiting room of a downtown Boston immigration law office, it was standing room only. One woman stared anxiously at the clock while carrying on a conversation in Spanish with a man seated nearby. A man who appeared to be of South Asian descent, wearing work clothes and a Red Sox cap, paced back and forth. And nearby, a young man sporting an electronic ankle bracelet flashed a big smile and a thumbs up.
Henry Lemus Calderon, 20, said he’s been smiling ever since his release in May from Bristol County’s immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) detention center.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday," he said. "I was so excited to eat something good. Finally, we ate a hamburger, cheeseburger. And, oh man, that was so good after two years of locked up.”
Calderon is from El Salvador and lives on the island of Nantucket with his uncle. His case is an example of what the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal experts regard as overzealous anti-gang policing, especially against young immigrant men from Central and South America.
In 2015, at a time when Nantucket was experiencing an influx of gangs, Calderon boasted about being a member of 18th Street, a prominent transnational gang, the archenemy of MS-13. Police say Calderon’s boast accompanied an argument at Nantucket High School with a fellow Salvadoran student who police believed was a member of MS-13. A subsequent police report written by a school resource officer was noted by ICE agents. In May 2016, agents arrested Calderon. Though he was in jail for 24 months, he was never charged with any crime, according to his lawyer, Jeffrey Rubin.
"Henry was detained for this really minor incident, from many people's perspective in Nantucket, but was just simply held in custody for so long without any real review. It was part of the reason why he may have been released," Rubin said.
With the ICE electronic bracelet attached to his body, Calderon’s movements are limited. If he ventures too far from his uncle’s home on Nantucket or anywhere off island, ICE knows it. But Calderon said he gladly accepts limitations on where he can go. He'd much prefer that over sitting in an immigration jail wing.
"It was terrifying," said Calderon. "That was the worst thing in the world. Not to be free is terrible."
Read More: The Gangs Of Nantucket: The Arrival
Calderon’s release from detention was the result of a ruling by Boston Federal Judge Mark Wolfe, who determined that ICE was violating its own statutes.
Rubin said he has seen an increasing number of people in Massachusetts detained or deported by ICE.
“Now we're seeing all this 'low-hanging fruit,' so to speak," he said. "Mothers and fathers without criminal records — who have young U.S. citizen children in the country, who have businesses, who have houses — detained for hyper-technical violations of the immigration laws,” Rubin said.
Central American gangs have long been a law enforcement priority, targeted both by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But critics of the Trump administration say the president and Homeland Security are amping up the threat — exaggerating objective dangers to rally the pubic against all asylum seekers from south of the border.
But this is not the first time the threat of gang violence has been used to sway immigration policy, said Columbia University historian Mai Ngai.
“Throughout the course of American history, 'nativist' movements and government policies against immigrants have always tried to associate immigrants deemed undesirable as criminals," she said. "The Irish had their gangs, ... and that was used to criminalize all Irish."
Ngai said the arrival of Chinese gangs to the United States, known as Tongs, also were used to justify anti-immigrant policies. That included, most prominently, the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 19th century.
“They fought with each other,” explained Ngai. “These were the so-called Tong Wars in Chinatowns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They preyed upon the community, and they were not representative of the community as a whole.”
Yet numerous innocent Chinese immigrants were accused of being members of Tongs, said Ngai, who finds resonance in modern-day cases like Calderon’s.
But law enforcement officials say they prioritize Central American gangs because of the brutality of MS-13 and 18th Street. Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, responding to an ACLU lawsuit seeking to make public a secret police gang database, said that the ACLU should walk a mile in the footsteps of cops who are fighting gangs to understand the complexity of what they are dealing with. “We are busting our butts out there. Can we not be painted with a broad brush? Can you listen to us too?" he asked.
Rubin said he agrees with the need to reign in dangerous gangs. But, he said, law enforcement officials should be careful to differentiate youth like Calderon from gangsters.
“This is obviously a very dangerous, violent, repulsive gang that we don't want in the United States. We don't want these people in the United States. We want people drawing life sentences for killing people with machetes in Chelsea,” said Rubin. “But, you know, to just make a statement in the course of a dispute at your school that was not grounded in any real fact or reality is politicizing and scapegoating immigrants to fire up the base.”
Calderon was one of 750,000 people facing deportation in American immigration courts until the First Circuit Court stepped in last year, halting expulsion proceedings and raising questions about the gang designation.
Rubin said being confined to a jail cell for two years, ironically, could make Calderon eligible under various legal conditions to qualify to stay in the U.S.
“Henry, unlike countless others, is fortunate that he actually has a path to lawful permanent residency," Rubin said. "There was a two-year wait for that at the time that he made that comment in his school to his classmate that triggered his detention.”
Calderon is working toward his GED and studying English. He said he is reminded every day that he’s not scot-free. His electronic bracelet hangs visibly around his ankle like an unwanted piece of jewelry, adding credence to stories about his gang involvement. And on Nantucket, Calderon said, many residents continue to be wary of him.
“A lot of people on Nantucket, they still [see] me like I'm a gangster, and I am not,” he said.