Brother of killed asylum seeker: ‘Tell the judge he told the truth’

Suspected gang members are presented to the media after being detained by the police under the charges of homicide, extortion and bank robbery in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Dec. 8, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Jose Cabezas

(RNS) In the final weeks of 2016, while we frantically prepared to celebrate the holidays, our friend Moises was found murdered on a neighborhood street in San Salvador. Twenty-two bullet holes perforated his young body. When his older brother called from El Salvador to share the devastating news, he made one request.

“Tell the judge he wasn’t lying. Tell the judge he told the truth.”

And so, on behalf of El Refugio, the small Georgia ministry of hospitality and visitation that I chair, I composed the most difficult letter I have ever written. This is a redacted version (with personal details removed, to protect his brother):

Dear Judge:

For six years, our ministry has been conducting weekly humanitarian visits with men detained at the Stewart Detention Center. Our purpose is to respond to our Judeo-Christian tradition’s consistent call to welcome the foreigner who resides in our land (Leviticus 19: 33-34) and to heed Jesus’ great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). We believe that when we welcome the stranger and visit the prisoner, we welcome and visit Jesus himself (Matthew 25:37-40).

Moises on Facebook.

Moises fled El Salvador because his mother, a neighborhood food vendor, was being extorted by gang members. When she was unable to pay, the gang began harassing Moises on his way to and from school and, eventually, threatened his life. After consulting with his older brother, Moises made the difficult decision to leave his home and family, and to undertake the harrowing journey to the United States, seeking our nation’s protection.

During the Summer of 2013, our ministry spent considerable effort assisting Moises as he sought humanitarian parole from the Department of Homeland Security and in support of his application for asylum. Despite offering evidence of a credible fear for his life, his asylum claim was denied by the court. Moises was deported to El Salvador in September, 2013.

In July 2014, four volunteers from El Refugio traveled to San Salvador. We spoke with him, while he remained in hiding in his family’s home, and we heard the terror in his voice.

It appears that after more than three years as a recluse, Moises made the decision, on the night of Nov. 26, to go out for dinner with his best friend. Moises was abducted on that night and, according to news reports, gang members stood the two friends in front of a brick wall and murdered them both. Moises was found dead on the street the following morning. He was 24 years old.

His brother contacted us immediately to make one simple request: He asked us to write a letter to you, so that you would know that the claims Moises made when he stood before you in court were true. Moises had a credible fear for his life.

On behalf of Moises and his brother, we implore you: please hear these young people with an open heart. Please consider their claims, as warranted by law, and do not instinctively dismiss them as illegitimate when they are shown to be credible. Please use your power to continue our nation’s great tradition as a beacon of hope and a place of refuge and opportunity for those who seek it.

The story that I tell in this letter is not unique.

As a recent New York Times article makes clear, El Salvador is the “murder capital of the world.” Being killed by gang members after resisting extortion has become almost commonplace in neighborhoods like Moises’.

In the United States, detention of asylum seekers fleeing that violence increased nearly threefold from 2010 to 2014, while parole grants declined precipitously.

The court at Stewart Detention Center has the lowest rates of granting relief from deportation of any court in the country (1 percent) and, in 2015, granted asylum to only 5 percent of those who sought it.

The entrance to Stewart Detention Center near Lumpkin, Ga. Image courtesy of Google Maps

A recent study released by the Southern Poverty Law Center reveals that the Stewart Detention Center, where Moises was held for six months, deports immigrants at a substantially higher rate than the national average (87 percent vs. national average of 60 percent), is far less likely to offer bond and offers bond at much higher cost.

Despite federal regulations that allow the Department of Homeland Security to grant humanitarian parole to asylum seekers like Moises, in 2015, not a single detained asylum seeker at Stewart was granted parole.

We might be tempted, then, to describe Moises’ story as typical. But there was nothing typical about Moises. He was an artist, he was our friend, and his life could have been spared.

We feel called to bear witness.

At El Refugio, we remain steadfast in our mission of hospitality, knowing that — like the biblical figure that his mother named him for – Moises will guide us, as we faithfully accompany asylum-seekers through the barren desert of the Stewart Detention Center.

(Marie Friedmann Marquardt is a scholar-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the chair of El Refugio Ministry. Her novel for young adults, “The Radius of Us,” chronicles the story of a teenage asylum seeker from El Salvador)

About the author

Marie Friedmann Marquardt


Click here to post a comment

  • Stewart Detention Center is an effing private prison. Ugh!

    There is no level of contempt strong enough to convey how atrocious the whole privatizing of incarceration is. Such efforts always involve some obvious level of corruption. Always seem to result in inhumane treatment of those detained and worse create profit motives for keeping conditions as terrible as possible for all involved. Inmates and workers alike.


    “The court at Stewart Detention Center has the lowest rates of granting relief from deportation of any court in the country (1 percent) and, in 2015”

    Mostly because of the location and the lack of due process rights immigration detainees have. Unlike criminals, they are not entitled to an attorney. The location of Stewart is so remote that few immigration lawyers are within a reasonable distance from the facility. So few get the representation necessary for their applications to be considered. Immigration does not require legal counsel, but the system runs much much smoother for those who have it. Without some sort of mandate to serve indigent detainees, there is no impetus to represent them.

  • Though you and I disagree on many things, I am in solidarity with you in this instance and with your arguments, something requiring more than an upvote.

  • “Out of sight…out of mind!!” is the motto of your average American, as a way to avoid taking responsibility for the injustices befalling upon the minds and bodies of marginalized people in the U.S. Hence their numbness to the proliferation of ‘Prisons-for-Profit’ popping up all over the American landscape! The One Percent realizes–through extensive marketing–that the road to Fascism doesn’t have to be an overt, brutal one; albeit with the transparency and betrayal of Social Media!! It can be accomplished through a mind-numbing and entertaining trip through an endless Carnival, embedded on 3.79 million square miles of poppy fields.

  • I hope the judge feels he is partly responsible for this young man’s death. If he considers himself a Christian perhaps he should spend some time reflecting on the Gospel he claims to follow.

    Matthew 23:35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’