Juan Bonilla after being reunited with his son Walter

Juan Bonilla after being reunited with his son, Walter — Walter Bonilla

The following story and photo was sent to us by Kevin Piecuch from the Southwest Detroit Immigrant and Refugee Center (SWIRC). We are sharing this with his permission. SWIRC received a grant from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in late December 2015.


DETROIT, Michigan—Immigration Court in Detroit, Michigan, has more than 4,000 open cases.  Behind each case is a story of an immigrant hoping to find a better life in the United States.  But, without family, friends and legal counsel to support them, most of these would-be immigrants, asylum-seekers, and their children end up getting deported to their home countries.  At the Southwest Detroit Immigrant and Refugee Center (SWIRC), we are making a difference in many of these stories.

Consider the life of Juan Bonilla.  Last year he made the arduous trip to the United States from his native El Salvador after his son was disappeared and presumed murdered by Mr. Bonilla’s political opponents.  Like many small business owners in El Salvador, Mr. Bonilla fell victim to that country’s unending spiral of violence between rival political parties and criminal gangs.  These gangs, who trace their beginnings to Los Angeles, California, in the 1980s, with the support of local police, are tightening their grip on El Salvador’s economy.

The first threats against Mr. Bonilla came with demands for bribes so that he could continue to operate his business.  That was bad enough, but when his son was kidnapped last year and ransom demanded, his family’s worst fears were realized.  In 2015, The Guardian newspaper reports, violent deaths spiked more than 70 percent in El Salvador to 6,657 in a country of roughly six million people, making it the most violent year since that country’s convulsive civil war in the early 1980s.  Many of these deaths are gang-related, though violence between rival political groups is also on the rise.

Mr. Bonilla raised and paid the ransom in hopes of winning the release of his son.  However, no one has seen or heard from the young man in months—and the police have  no leads to follow.  When the ransom seekers began uttering threats against Mr. Bonilla, he spoke to his family, his friends, and his pastor, and decided it was time for him to flee as well.  With his other son Walter living safely in the United States, he decided to come here.

Like many Salvadorans in recent years who have left their homes, Mr. Bonilla travelled overland with the help of a paid “guide” who helped him reach the U.S./Mexico border.  After crossing the border, he was caught by U.S. immigration police who placed him in custody.  When his case was transferred to Immigration Court in Detroit, the Southwest Detroit Immigrant and Refugee Center learned about Mr. Bonilla’s plight and agreed to represent him.    Thanks to the generous support of donors and volunteers from the PC(USA),  this Detroit-based 501(c)(3) charitable organization was able to win his release from detention and will help him prepare his asylum petition.  For more information about this and other pending cases, please contact SWIRC at www.detimmigrantcenter.com


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