Deportation Arrest Highlights Tensions in Los Angeles on Immigration

Photo credit: Aurelia Ventura/La Opinion

From The New York Times:

by Jennifer Medina

Shortly after dropping off his youngest daughter at school, Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez saw lights flashing from a black car following him, signaling for him to pull over. The car was unmarked and Mr. Avelica, along with his wife and another daughter, who were also in the car, did not know why he was being stopped.

Officers wearing jackets emblazoned with “police” in large yellow letters on their backs emerged and demanded that Mr. Avelica get out of the car. When he asked what he had done wrong, the officers yelled back, “Be quiet, you know you have a deportation order.” Mr. Avelica’s daughter Fatima, 13, and her mother began to cry. As Mr. Avelica, 48, stepped out of the car and was handcuffed, Fatima pulled out her cellphone and began recording the arrest.

“My dad kept telling us to calm down, that everything would be O.K.,” Fatima said in an interview. “I didn’t understand what was happening and how they could have known who he was.”

“Don’t cry,” her mother told her as she filmed. “We have to be strong.”

As news quickly spread of Mr. Avelica’s arrest, local activists and leaders responded with anger and dismay that an arrest could happen so close to a school and in front of a child. Outraged local officials said that the tactics showed a new kind of aggressiveness from immigration agents.

Mr. Avelica’s case is the latest example of the growing tension building in Los Angeles between federal immigration enforcers and local officials. The fraught relationship could continue to fray as the Trump administration ramps up arrests and detentions. Local leaders in California and other parts of the country are increasingly criticizing federal immigration agents, saying their actions threaten to erode the trust between local law enforcement officials and immigrants, whom they depend on to report crimes. California officials have for years declined to help enforce immigration laws, but they do not have the power to stop roundups of immigrants living in the United States illegally.

Mr. Avelica had been convicted of driving under the influence about a decade ago and was ordered deported in 2014. He has lived in the country for nearly 25 years. But it is unclear precisely why immigration officials targeted him for arrest last week.

“It’s very unsettling the way things are being carried out,” said Hilda Solis, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who represents the neighborhood east of downtown where Mr. Avelica was arrested. “This man was not an immediate danger to the community. The situation is very scary and alarming for so many of our families and there are a lot of implications for that. I think the federal actions are deliberate and they are trying to send a message.”

Battles over immigration enforcement between local and federal officials are playing out in other cities too. The Santa Cruz police chief, Kevin Vogel, accused Department of Homeland Security officials of lying to him after agents arrested several people for immigration violations during a raid on gang members in the city. Law enforcement officials in El Paso and Denver have also raised concerns that victims of domestic violence are no longer coming forward out of fear of being deported. The mayor in Austin, Tex., wrote a letter condemning recent immigration arrests, saying they made the city less safe. This month, the Los Angeles mayor, the City Council president and the city attorney sent a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking its employees to stop identifying themselves as police.

The day after Mr. Avelica’s arrest, two students from the school his daughters attend, Academia Avance, were stopped by the police. Worried that rumors could spread that they had been stopped by immigration officials, Ricardo Mireles, the executive director of the school, urged students to carry school identification at all times.

That was only the start of Mr. Mireles’s warnings to students. Like other public schools, Academia Avance does not know whether students or their parents immigrated legally. But last week, Mr. Mireles gathered all of the students at the small charter school and urged them to ask their parents whether they are living in the United States legally. During parent conferences in the coming days, he said, teachers will ask parents directly if they have made plans in case they are deported. As far as he knows, Fatima and her sisterYuleni are the first students at the school with a parent who has been placed in deportation proceedings. But he does not think they will be the last.

For now, there is no way to know how many students are undocumented immigrants or have parents who are; Mr. Mireles estimated about 20 percent. But when asked who had undocumented relatives, nearly all of the students in one junior class raised their hands.

“This is a lot to ask of you, to put all this responsibility on you, but there’s no other choice,” he told the class. “You need to be prepared. The fact is that fear is being created and terrorism is being inflicted on our community. This father is not a criminal. He’s a person who has made some mistakes but proven his commitment to the United States.”

After Mr. Mireles spoke to the class, one boy approached him crying, saying that his parents would not allow him to ride his bike outside because they were afraid he could be picked up. Mr. Mireles is not allowing anyone who is not a citizen to participate in a senior class trip to New York, fearful that someone could be detained at an airport.

Initially, immigration officials told Mr. Avelica that he would be deported to Mexico immediately. But lawyers from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network stepped in, pressing local officials to call the field director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to voice their concerns and asking activists to do the same.

Read more from The New York Times.