Judges Provide Asylum Path for Man Who Alleges Cops Wrongly Labeled Him as MS-13 Member

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a Salvadoran national who alleged that the Boston Police Department erroneously labeled him as a member of the MS-13 gang. Lawyers for Cristian Joshue Diaz Ortiz said that the panel's decision allows them to resume his bid for asylum, a process that he began after entering the U.S. illegally in 2015.

Diaz Ortiz was arrested in 2018 by federal immigration officials, who sought to deport him using his designation as a "verified" member of the gang on the Boston Police Department's controversial gang database.

As evidence, the database noted that Diaz Ortiz attended East Boston High School, which many of the gang's alleged members also attended. It also said that Diaz Ortiz had been seen in neighborhood parks where MS-13 members frequently met, according to the court ruling.

The court panel called the database's evidence into question and said that the government "provided no other evidence to substantiate the inferences and conclusions drawn from the police reports."

The 5-2 ruling on Monday by the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston directs the federal Board of Immigration Appeals to re-examine the case for deporting Diaz Ortiz versus allowing him to seek asylum.

After entering the U.S. in 2015, he had asked immigration officials to stall his deportation while he sought asylum for religious persecution.

Boston Court Ruling
A federal appeals court in Boston has ruled in favor of a Salvadoran national who alleged that the Boston Police Department erroneously labeled him as a member of the MS-13 gang. Above, the sun sets over the city of Boston and Fenway Park on July 24, 2020, in Boston, Massachusetts. Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

The justices cited "flaws in that database, including its reliance on an erratic point system built on unsubstantiated inferences."

"We hope this decision is widely read and followed by courts and judges when they are confronted with gang packets," Geneva Dawn Youel, a spokesperson for DLA Piper, a Los Angeles-based firm, said in a statement Wednesday.

Spokespersons for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu didn't respond to an email seeking comment, but a police spokesman said the department will respond later.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which had been among civil rights groups that sued the department to make more information about the secretive database public, said the ruling represents a "vital examination of how Boston police's gang database destroys lives" based on racist assumptions.

"Gang databases pose a serious risk to young people, especially Black and Hispanic teens, who are labeled as gang members for little more than wearing popular brands or even becoming a victim or target of gang violence," the organization said in a statement.

The department has previously defended the database as a vital tool to combating violent street gangs. Immigration lawyers and advocates have complained the system, which is accessible to federal authorities and other law enforcement agencies, has led to the deportation of many Central American youths wrongly identified as gang members.

Last June, police enacted policy changes in response to concerns, including a process to review and purge the names of persons considered "inactive" gang members and an annual public reporting requirement.

But a number of city councilors and community groups continue to call for its outright abolishment. As of last March, police officials said there were 101 active gangs with more than 2,650 suspected members operating in and around Boston.

Diaz Ortiz maintained he wasn't a gang member but was threatened and attacked by MS-13 members for his evangelical Christian faith and pressured to join the gang, according to the ruling.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.