Nearly two dozen people gathered Saturday for an emotional vigil at Mission Gathering Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Immigrant rights organizations, including Alerta Migratoria NC, held the vigil to call on President Barack Obama to release the undocumented teens taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody earlier this year.
The teens were picked up in January raids as part of Operation Border Guardian, an immigration enforcement policy primarily targeting Central American migrants over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014. Six teens detained under this program who are from North Carolina have become known as the NC6.
Three of the NC6 members—Wildin Acosta, Josue Alexander Soriano Cortez, and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez—have been released, while the remaining members—Santos Geovany Padilla-Guzman, Bilmer Araeli Pujoy-Juarez, and Pedro Arturo Salmeron—are still awaiting release or deportation.
There has been some movement on their cases, however. On Friday, Hector Vaca, an organizer with Alerta Migratoria NC, the North Carolina-based grassroots organization that has been advocating on behalf of the NC6, attended a federal hearing for Pujoy-Juarez and Salmeron.
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“In both cases, attorneys for ICE were basically arguing for indefinite detention and the judge really pushed against that, saying that it sounded like ICE wants to do whatever it wants whenever it wants,” Vaca told Rewire.
He added that the argument ICE attorneys made for the continued detainment of Salmeron was particularly troubling, implying the undocumented youth was responsible for his own continued detainment.
“ICE argued that Pedro wasn’t really being detained indefinitely because he could ‘leave the country’ at any time,” Vaca said. “By that, [ICE’s attorneys] meant that Pedro could sign his own deportation order and get out of detention. But that would mean being deported, and he fears for his life in El Salvador, so why would he do that?”
Salmeron could remain detained for as long as a year and half as his asylum case is pending, though he has a bond hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Salmeron’s family was present at Saturday’s vigil, including his mother, Carmen. She told the crowd that as a mother it has been difficult to have her son detained, and that the moment ICE agents took her son on January 26, her family’s life changed.
“We have not faltered in our unity, or our sadness,” she said. “We are destroyed in our sadness because Pedro is not with us. I know that divine justice always comes and after the hearing [on Friday] we have a lot of hope Pedro will be returned to us soon.”
As both advocates and the undocumented community feared, young, asylum-seeking teens continue to be detained as part of Operation Border Guardian. Elmer Reynoso-Reynoso, an 18-year-old Guatemalan asylum seeker, was detained on June 1 in Asheville, North Carolina. He was a high school student whose girlfriend recently gave birth to their first child. His mother, Aura Reynoso-Ramos, and his girlfriend, Fatima, were in attendance at Saturday’s vigil. Fatima tearfully detailed how difficult and painful it has been to raise their child alone while Reynoso-Reynoso has been detained.
“He couldn’t spend his first Father’s Day with his child,” Fatima said. “It has been so hard without him, and for a child, it is hard without your dad. I speak from personal experience, because I didn’t get to be with my dad and I don’t want that for my baby.”
In the face of so much sadness, there was a bright spot during Saturday’s vigil, and that was the presence of Darian Sorany López, an Asheboro, North Carolina, teen from Honduras who was detained by ICE at her immigration hearing in April. Thanks to the help of organizers and advocates, López was released from detention on September 9, according to Alerta Migratoria NC.
Standing alongside her father, Nahúm López Amaya, the 19-year-old shared that she saw many people get deported during her time in detention, and that she was certain the same would happen to her. While detained, she said, her lawyer stopped responding to her, but her father let her know that there were people “on the outside” fighting for her release.
“In that place [detention], you learn to have patience and humility. When you are young, you take every day for granted, you don’t appreciate what you are given,” López said. “I want to appreciate every day now. I’m still in shock. I go to bed, I wake up, and I still think I’m in [detention]—but I’m with my family. God has given me another opportunity and I’m going to help those still inside.”