Last March, Anna Gutierrez watched in horror as Sheriff’s Office deputies handcuffed her 15-year-old son, José.* It was the day before his 16th birthday. That was how José Gutierrez’s immigration nightmare began. Days later, he was on a flight bound for a detention center Virginia, under threat of deportation.
The Pescadero High School sophomore had been charged with assaulting another student, but charges were dismissed shortly after he landed in San Mateo County’s Juvenile Hall on January 25, 2011. José never made it home, however. When officers discovered he was undocumented, they called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Federal agents placed a hold on José and shipped him to the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Detention Center in Virginia, even though he wasn’t facing criminal charges. Then he was flown to another detention center in Texas, where he waited for four months to hear whether he would be sent to Mexico – without his parents.
“José and the others weren’t allowed to go out. They were under guard, even when they went to get food,” says Anna, who wasn’t able to see her son during the entire ordeal. She had to face the prospect that not only would José be deported, but that federal agents would come for her, too. Anna couldn’t bring herself to believe that the federal government would split up her family and force her teenage son to fend for himself in Mexico without his parents.
But it happens all the time, says Angie Junck, a staff attorney with California’s Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “This is our federal law. If you’re undocumented, you’re eligible to be deported from the United States, regardless of your age. Period.” Junck says her group has seen an increasing number of cases like José’s since 2007. Immigration Enforcement won’t release numbers on how many minors it detains or deports, but Junck knows of cases where teenaged boys were deported to Mexico without a place to live. Some are able to win legal appeals and reunite with their families in the U.S.
Puente Executive Director Kerry Lobel says Puente will do everything it can to support José and his family, no matter what. “Kids and their parents assume that this could never and would never happen in Pescadero. But it’s happening all over the country,” she says.
Puente has been involved with José’s case since his earliest court appearance, and helped the Gutierrez family find a lawyer to represent him. José is home again, for now, faces another immigration court hearing in September.
With all the national protests over anti-immigration laws that would prevent undocumented residents from finding work or getting a public education in several states, it may be a surprise to learn that we already have laws on the books that allow judges to split up families and deport minors.
Junck says that as soon as a minor is suspected of being undocumented [a civil, not criminal, offense], discrimination ensues. A young person is treated as a criminal and questioned about their legal status. While officials are under no legal obligation to call immigration officials, they often do. And the minor, who is usually Latino, becomes federal property – whether or not they’ve committed a crime.
“We see kids who, if they were U.S. residents, would be diverted out of the system. When they’re in juvenile hall they get picked up by ICE,” says Junck. How many youth face deportation like José? No numbers are available. But we do know that in early 2011 alone, Immigration Enforcement deported nearly 46,500 parents of U.S.-born children – which amounts to the same kind of family separation. (A recent proposal from the Obama administration might help prevent such cases in the future.)
Some counties in California, like Santa Clara County, have asserted their legal right to avoid cooperating with ICE. Junck has called on other counties to do the same. Anna Gutierrez says the family has learned a lot from their ordeal and has this piece of advice to share: “I would tell other parents, as I was told, that if your son was picked up – make sure you tell him that he doesn’t have to talk to anybody. Nobody can force him to talk.”
*José and Anna’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Puente provides lawyer referrals and support through access to pro bono immigration attorneys. To contribute to our efforts or learn more, contact Program Director Rita Mancera at (650) 879-1691 Ext 102, or firstname.lastname@example.org