Sitting on a bus in Honduras in 2002, Denis Alvarez Alvarado says he overheard two men in front of him discussing how he was going to die.
Unaware that he was there, the men said that members of a gang called MS3 — who had kidnapped Alvarez a few days earlier, beaten him and eventually released him — intended to silence him so that he would not tell police about the abduction.
"I left Honduras because I was afraid that MS3 members would kill me," Alvarez, now 32, says in court documents drawn up in his legal fight against the U.S. government to avoid deportation to his native country. "I fear that if I return the MS3 gang will have me killed."
On Jan. 23, 2007, Alvarez, who had arrived in the U.S. without documentation, was arrested by immigration agents outside a 7-Eleven store in Upper Fells Point. A judge ordered him deported, but he is still here. Four years after his release on bail, he remains embroiled in a legal war as both defendant and plaintiff, and the battle could go on for years.
One of Alvarez's legal cases is the effort by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport him, and the other is his lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that his constitutional rights were violated because he was targeted as a Latino. He seeks a half-million dollars in damages.
What seemed a routine matter of rounding up illegal immigrants has become a test of the government's ability to force a man to return to a place in which, he says, he could die.
The raid in which Alvarez and others were arrested left Baltimore's Latino community angry. Human rights activists, politicians and representatives of Casa de Maryland, an advocacy group, accused federal immigration agents of racial profiling.
Attorneys for the ICE declined to comment, and court documents contain no references, other than Alvarez's own, to his claim that his life would be in danger should he be forced to go home. Alvarez's lawyers were silent, too. Alvarez, whose 11-year-old son was born in the U.S., says in court documents that he is the sole source of financial support for his father, who is in Honduras, disabled and using a wheelchair.
In documents Alvarez filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, he explained the events that had prompted his departure from Honduras. He had lived in Choluteca, the country's fourth-largest city, in a neighborhood called El Porvenir that he said was "known to belong to a gang called 18."
Alvarez wrote that in October 2002 he was kidnapped by members of MS3, a rival gang from the Santa Lucia neighborhood. "The MS3 gang falsely believed that I was a member of 18," he said. "I tried telling them that I was not a gang member and that I had no connections to 18 or any other gang. However, they did not believe me."
For two days he was kept in a room, he said, beaten and deprived of food and with only a single bottle of water. Alvarez's father, Santos, whom he described as "respected in the community," convinced MS3 that his son had no connection to the rival gang.
Alvarez was released. Several days later, he was riding a bus to work when he overheard the chilling conversation between the two men and the death threat. He fled to the U.S. and worked as a day laborer in Baltimore, where the 7-Eleven parking lot on Broadway was a popular spot to pick up workers.
In an interview at his East Baltimore home in November, Alvarez said the agents had "grabbed me unjustly" during the roundup in 2007. Alvarez said he was waiting for a man who had promised to hire him as a painter but decided to go home when the man failed to show up. Alvarez said that as he was leaving, a van appeared and the men inside — who turned out to be federal agents — solicited the crowd for construction workers.
In the lawsuit, Alvarez said that as he walked away, a second vehicle blocked his exit and men emerged wearing holstered guns. Alvarez was arrested, held for several days in the Dorchester County jail and released on $10,000 bail.
Alvarez said in court documents that the ICE's Fugitive Operations Team had arrested him "based on nothing more than his race."
A response filed by the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the ICE, said members of its fugitive team went to the 7-Eleven only to get food and coffee, and had not planned to arrest anyone as part of a raid.
An immigration judge overseeing Alvarez's appeal of his deportation said the officers "were not forthcoming" about the arrests. The judge said it was "implausible" that the officers "went to the store to purchase food and coffee," considering the "nearly immediate arrival of two additional ICE vehicles." He admonished the officers for their "complete lack of candor to the court" and said they had misrepresented to the laborers "that they were seeking to hire them for casual employment."
But the judge determined that the officers had not violated Alvarez's rights and ordered him deported, though he may remain here while he appeals.