Students waiting for the school bus or walking to school are at risk of being targeted by immigration enforcement agents, advocates say, stirring fear and distress that is impacting on fellow students, school enrollment and school reform efforts on diversity.
The hot-button issue will be addressed in Capitol Hill on Wednesday, when experts, teachers and classmates of detained students will hold a briefing demanding an end to the raids that have netted thousands of Central American youngsters.
They will address cases such as those of Kimberly Pineda-Chavez, Wildin Guillen-Acosta and Pedro Salmeron, who fled torture, mass kidnapping, murder and extreme poverty in their home countries and now are held in detention by U.S. authorities awaiting deportation. Advocates point to them to question the necessity of changes to immigration enforcement that makes anyone who entered the country after January 1, 2014 as much a deportation priority as felons or terrorists.
When Pineda-Chavez and Guillen-Acosta left their homes in Honduras, they were hoping to regain normalcy in the U.S. — graduate high school, play soccer, make new friends. Just live safe, anonymous lives. They didn’t anticipate becoming the faces behind the Obama administration’s struggle to curb immigration.
Guillen-Acosta, from North Carolina, and Pineda-Chavez, from Georgia, were detained in January during Operation Border Guardian, which picked up 336 immigrants who arrived after January 1, 2014 as minors — but are now over 18 years old.
"Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is undoubtedly waiting for them to become adults in order to arrest them — that is the pattern of every one of the young people who have been captured in Charlotte," said Ana Miriam Carpio of the Salvadoran Union, which has been helping families affected by the apprehensions.
Of those caught in the raids, about two-thirds were from North Carolina and Georgia, said Jacinta Gonzales, a community activist from Atlanta.
“I don’t see how this kind of enforcement is helping to solve an immigration problem that is more complex and intricate,” said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance that is advocating for the release of detained students.
In a statement earlier this year, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the federal government could not afford to turn a blind eye to immigrants who enter the country illegally.
"I know there are many who loudly condemn our enforcement efforts as far too harsh, while there will be others who say these actions don’t go far enough. I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause," he said. "But, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities."
The problem, activists say, is essentially a life-or-death problem.
Guillen-Acosta’s case gained notoriety because of his standing within his school and his community. According to his attorney, Evelyn Smallwood, he was being harassed by gang members in his native Honduras after his uncle and cousins were brutally murdered. He arrived in the U.S. last year when he was 17 and made the honor roll at his high school and stood out because of his talent at soccer — he played for a league organized for young leaders by Duke University.
Guillen-Acosta has not been released yet. His asylum claim and appeal to reopen his case are under review. According to Smallwood, his original attorney didn’t advise him to file for asylum and he missed his second court date. His lawyer said that all the reasons to keep him detained just don't exist: He isn't a flight risk and he is a respected member of his community.
“His community wants him back,” Smallwood said.
Guillen-Acosta's congressman, G.K. Butterfield, is planning to meet with him this weekend, in part to brief him on what has happened in DC.
The case of Kimberly Pineda-Chavez also attracted attention because she is a high performing student and a leader in her church. But her life wasn’t always like that, her attorney Elanie Cintron said. Gang members threatened to prostitute Pineda-Chavez and her sister and, after weighing all options, they decided to try and rejoin their parents in America.
Apprehended at the border, they were released to their mother’s care in Georgia. The government charges that Kimberly was mailed a notice to report to ICE, a common form of check in. But Kimberly said she never received the notice. In addition, her previous attorney never advised her to file for asylum.
As Pineda-Chavez waits for her day in court, others are bracing for the next round of families to be taken in.
Relief from deportation raids isn’t likely to come soon. The office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement will launch new operations targeting women and children in May and June, according to a Reuters report.
“Fear is always there,” said Larry Campbell, an elder in Pineda-Chavez’s church in Peachtree Corners, an Atlanta suburb. “They think, ‘if Kimberly can be picked up, anyone can be picked up.’ I think the fear is really great and I don’t think it ever goes away.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.