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ICE Agents Are Arresting Teens On Their Way To School

19 Apr

While awaiting his deportation proceedings, Yefri Sorto-Hernandez made a drawing of the operation that shows how immigration agents stopped him as his school bus pulled up.

Eighteen-year-old Yefri Sorto-Hernandez was waiting at a school bus stop at 6:20 a.m. when an unmarked white Ford pulled up. Two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents got out of the car. They were wearing jeans, vests, and guns.

The agents asked Yefri, who is from El Salvador, about his identity. Yefri’s school bus arrived while he was being handcuffed. The agents led him to their car as other students on the bus watched the scene unfold. They took Yefri to an immigration detention center, where he continues to await his deportation proceedings.

Yefri is just one of hundreds of teenagers arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents so far this year, as the Obama administration has carried out extensive immigration raids focused on targeting Central Americans who crossed the border after January 2014. Yefri was swept up in a raid known as Operation Border Guardian that took 336 people into custody.

Stories like Yefri’s have recently made national headlines in part because they appear to contradict ICE’s own policies. Immigration agents have typically agreed to avoid arresting teens at “sensitive locations” such as churches, hospitals, and schools. Field officers are supposed to exercise discretion in these cases to avoid causing “significant disruption to the normal operations of the sensitive location,” according to a 2011 policy memo.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of recent examples of immigration authorities arresting kids on their way to school. Just as ICE’s own policy memo outlines, these disruptions have immediate effects.

Panicked students who saw what happened to Yefri from the bus quickly spread the word about his detention at their high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. And teachers in the area began seeing a noticeable change in students’ attitude and attendance.

The same month as Yefri was picked up by immigration officials, 19-year-old Wildin David Guillen Acosta — who came to North Carolina from Honduras after gang members threatened his life — was arrested outside his home as he was leaving for high school. The day after Wildin was detained, one-third of students in his English as a Second Language class were absent.

According to a document pulled together by numerous Durham- and Charlotte-area teachers and obtained by ThinkProgress, otherwise stellar immigrant students have taken numerous absences, have dropped out of school completely, or have been suspended from school for having their cell phones out during class because they wanted to make sure that their family and friends were safe.

At least ten percent of freshman students told their teachers that they were afraid that they would come home to family members who had been detained. Even some legal immigrant students have stopped attending school, concerned about the safety of their family members or friends.

“We lost two students in the past month,” Rebecca Costas, an English Language Learner teacher at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, told ThinkProgress. One student at Costa’s school refused to go home after agents stopped him at a bus stop, afraid that he would lead agents to his undocumented parents. Another student dropped out because, since he has a final deportation order, he’s too nervous about coming into contact with ICE agents who will send him back to his home country.

“That’s a huge deal with students who have been doing really well in school, really improving, and now feel like they can’t come to school,” Costas said. “This has a lot of impact on student behavior. Their experiences in their native countries were bad enough, and the journey over was very traumatic. A lot of kids coming over here are clearly exhibiting signs of PTSD, depression, mental health issues — these current raids have just exacerbated that.”

Some students have complained about phantom illnesses so that they can go home to be with loved ones, Holly Hardin, a teacher at Lakewood Montessori Middle School and a member of the Durham Association of Educators, wrote in an email to ThinkProgress.

“I talked with a 3rd grade teacher this week who has a student with lots of stomach pains every afternoon,” Hardin said. “In inquiring about why her stomach hurt, she said, ‘I’m afraid my mother will be deported — I’m afraid she won’t be home when I get there.’ Teachers throughout our district are seeing and hearing this.”

The raids have ignited controversy over the Obama administration’s longstanding struggle between enforcing border security and allowing undocumented immigrants with roots in the country to continue living without the fear of deportation. The president has promised to finesse his immigration policies based on a “felons, not families” approach — saying that ICE is focused on going after criminals rather than targeting mothers and children. But advocates have criticized the way that raids in states like North Carolina have actually targeted students as they made their way to and from safe spaces.

ICE denies that it’s been targeting students at schools or bus stops, according to the Charlotte Observer. But the agency has also defended the recent arrests, saying that the teens taken into custody all already received final deportation orders or lost their court cases.

Immigrants and community members have been reeling since the raids took place, but they have also been inspired to become active on behalf of each other.

The Durham Public Schools system passed a resolution calling on the administration to stem the raids, noting that “school attendance should be encouraged” and that schools “must be safe sanctuaries.” And teachers and unions began standing up and speaking out on behalf of students.

“Those students who were picked up and detained are not a threat to public schools or the citizens of North Carolina,” Rodney Ellis, President of the North Carolina Teacher’s Association, told ThinkProgress. “We feel they should have an opportunity to pursue their education and so we’re definitely opposed to any process that would involve snatching kids on their way to school and detaining them.”

In Charlotte, Costas said that parents talked about doing carpools for children who felt scared or unsafe going to their bus stops. The school has also planned to do a “know your rights” presentation with immigration lawyers to help people know that they have a right to have legal representation. And some allies have offered to go to the bus stop to “stand there with the kids as a symbol of solidarity,” Costas said.

In Durham, Riverside High School students distributed white strips of cloth for students to show support for Wildin after his detention. And students also organized a rally at Butterfield’s office. “They cut 500 armbands and handed them out at school,” Allison Swaim, a Riverside High School ESL American history teacher in Durham, told ThinkProgress. “All the bands were gone by lunch time.”