The investigative site ProPublica on Monday published the heart-wrenching story of a young Salvadoran high school student named Henry, an immigrant living in Long Island who said he joined the brutal MS-13 gang in the country of his birth as a means of survival.
After escaping to America and entering the country legally by pleading for asylum, Henry told ProPublica that his fellow gang members’ demands that he join in their violence became more than he could bear after they killed five students from Brentwood High School in Long Island. He finally furiously scrawled a confessional while sitting terrified in class, which he accidentally handed in with some homework. Then his story took a terrifying turn: After being called into the school office to cooperate with the local Suffolk County police and later working as an FBI informant, he was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, and is slated for deportation to El Salvador, where he’s marked for death.
Henry, who’s not identified by his last name but whose gang name, Triste—the Spanish word for “sad”—is used in the story, faces very real threats against his life every day he’s in ICE’s custody, surrounded by MS-13 members whom he said suspect him of being an informant.
Talking about his memories actually seems to ease Henry’s fears as he imagines what will happen next. If he is deported, anyone who takes him in would be putting themselves at risk. Back in El Salvador, he watched gang members stake out the homes of suspected traitors, then kill their brothers and cousins when they stepped outside. Even if he is granted asylum and returns to Brentwood, the gang will likely kill him unless he gets help relocating.
As he waits in the crowded jail, surrounded by gang members who want to kill him, Henry sometimes lies on his bed with his face hidden and cries. He imagines himself strung up in the same sprawling coconut grove where he killed the trembling man. He has resolved that he will not beg or try to bargain as he has seen others do. “Sometimes I feel like a piece of string being pulled from both ends,” he says. “Sometimes, I think it would be better to be dead than to have done the things I’ve done. I know it would be better never to have talked to anyone.”
The site also doesn’t spare details about how thoroughly the local police screwed Henry over.
The sad irony is that, contrary to Donald Trump’s spin, this is the same strategy that led to the creation of MS-13 in the first place:
Since Trump’s election, the Suffolk County Police Department has stepped up its cooperation with ICE, targeting suspected MS-13 members for deportation. Shipping suspects back to Central America is easier and quicker than proving they have broken the law; even if suspects have committed no crime, ICE can petition to have their immigration bail revoked. In effect, it is a repeat of the same failed strategy that led to the creation of MS-13. The gang first spread to El Salvador from Los Angeles amid a wave of deportations in the 1990s that sent members like El Destroyer back to Henry’s slum. Now, by deporting children who have come to America seeking escape from MS-13, the Trump administration is only intensifying the cycle that drove them here in the first place.
I’ve reached out to ICE for comment on Henry’s case and will update this post if and when I hear back.
Henry has an asylum hearing scheduled for April 5. It’s very much worth reading his story in full. You can do so here.