By Suzanne Pollak @SuzannePollak
BALTIMORE — A pastor who fled his Flower Branch apartment two years ago during a gas explosion that killed seven people only to turn around and head back into the flames to rescue his neighbors can stay in America but has no right to seek asylum, declared a U.S. Immigration Court judge Tuesday.
Edy Macario of Silver Spring, who has been in prison since August, could have been ordered back to his native Guatemala, but Baltimore Immigration Judge Elizabeth Kessler ruled that the 28-year-old man had been persecuted for his religious beliefs. Because he had been threatened with death, he met the criteria for being allowed to stay in this country, she said.
“We are very happy to have you in America,” Kessler said immediately after announcing her ruling.
Clad in prison clothes and manacles around his waist and wrists and sporting a small goatee, Macario softly but confidently told the judge his story, with the help of a Spanish interpreter. About a half dozen family members and 35 area religious leaders come to the courthouse in support.
He described himself as an evangelical preacher, who felt the calling at an early age. Along with his father, he preached the gospel on the streets of Guatemala. When he was 17, he was approached by members of the gang M18 who threatened him and punched him for singing Christian songs.
Three years later, in 2010, he was walking home from church when a group of about 10 gang members surrounded him. “They insulted me with bad words. I can’t repeat those bad words,” Macario said.
The gang members “told me to stop preaching, because due to my preaching, members were leaving the gang,” he testified.
Those gang members threatened to kill him, he told the judge.
“A gang member told me to shut up. I told him I couldn’t. It was a free country and that’s when he hit me in the face,” Macario testified.
He recalled one time when gang members had “big knives.” He watched as the gang member placed the knife “at my father’s chest.” His father “responded, ‘May God bless you,’” he testified.
As he relayed that story, his one-year-old daughter, clad in a white dress, slept peacefully in the arms of a relative.
When asked why he didn’t go to the police for help, Macario responded, “The police never do anything. They never resolve anything.”
It’s not just the town where he lived, he said. “There is violence everywhere in Guatemala, also in all the countries of Central America and also in Mexico. I can’t avoid it, your honor. I’ve tried to leave my faith, but I cannot. I always go back.”
Following the 2010 incident, Macario fled his country and entered the United States illegally. He was caught and sent before an immigration judge.
Because no one asked him if he was fleeing persecution or why he came, Macario did not understand he could fight any charges, and he agreed to voluntarily leave.
He entered the United States again several years later and has been in Maryland ever since.
Then, in August of this year, when he was going from home to work, he stopped for a cup of coffee, his attorney, Johanna Kelley said. He was arrested by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she said.
Two religious leaders were prepared to testify on Macario’s behalf, but Judge Kessler said that wasn’t necessary as she had read their testimonies they and others had submitted to the court on the young man’s behalf.
She also did not allow any testimony concerning Macario’s bravery during the Flower Branch Apartments explosion and fire.
Focus on religious persecution and not the fire, Kessler told Macario’s attorney.
During closing arguments, Kelley did that, noting, “Every threat he received was connected to his faith, his preaching.”
Because Macario had agreed to voluntarily deportation in 2010, he gave up his right of asylum, Kelley explained after the hearing. The judge’s ruling allowed him to go free, but if he is ever arrested for a crime, he would face deportation again, she said.
Five days prior to the hearing, about 70 people gathered at St. Camillius Church in Silver Spring for a prayer service.
During the service, Pastor Don McFarlane of Sligo Seventh Day Adventist Church, called on American leaders and citizens “to help us welcome refugees with joy” and to realize they are “simply seeking a better life.”
Elise Brun is a survivor of the Flower Branch Apartments explosion and noted that since then, “he continued to pastor us,” and he helped translate for those who could not speak English.
“He loves this country,” she said.
Several religious leaders, including Rev. Nancy Ladd of River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, said prayers and lit candles during the evening service.
She called the pastor’s strength and gratitude “inspirational,” noting he has never lost his faith.
That faith is what “literally propelled him back into a burning building,” and now he is “treated as less than human, locked up behind cement walls,” Ladd said.
Many of the same religious leaders gathered for the prayer service also came to the Tuesday hearings, but because it was a small court room, most stood in a nearby waiting room during the proceedings.
When they learned Macario would be freed, they clapped, some cried. They then joined together in prayer and song.
Tanushree Isaacman of Action in Montgomery told them, “We did this together. We should celebrate the power of faith communities coming together.”