Last Tuesday morning Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swooped in and arrested restaurant worker Romulo Avelica as he and his wife drove two of their teenage daughters to Academia Avance, a Highland Park charter school. The couple had dropped off their 12 year old, but a 13-year-old daughter was still in the car when the arrest was made. The arrest has forced the school’s staff, students and parents to mobilize to fight one parent’s deportation.
Avelica, who’s from Mexico but who has been in the U.S. for decades, had been ordered deported in 2014. He’d previously been convicted of driving under the influence, but has never been convicted of a violent crime.
On Thursday evening Avelica’s oldest daughter, Brenda Avelica, 24, described feeling “destroyed inside” as the family gathered at the Hollenbeck police station in Boyle Heights with some 30 supporters from the school. “It would destroy our family,” Avelica said, of her dad’s deportation. We would have to figure out how to live a different life.”
“We could be in the same position as they are,” added a parent who didn’t want to give her name, nodding her head in the direction of Brenda Avelica’s mother and three other sisters. “That’s why we’re here.”
Immediately after Avelica’s arrest, said students and staff at Academia Avance, they acted to help the family and allay fears at the school.
Romulo Avelica’s 18-year-old niece, Diana Vargas Avelica, is a senior at the school and an intern with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. She used her connections to seek help from elected officials and find an attorney, Peter Greyshock, to represent her uncle. In an unusual move, Greyshock filed a stay of deportation with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the moment he filed, Avelica was already bound for the border, but now his deportation is on hold until the judges rule in the next few days.
The group in Boyle Heights stood vigil as Greyshock entered the police station to make a separate effort to stop Avelica’s deportation. He asked detectives to certify Avelica as a witness to a crime so that he could seek a U-visa, which allows crime victims and witnesses to remain in the U.S.
Academia Avance’s director, Ricardo Mireles, said he has called ICE for assurances that it wouldn’t make further arrests at the school. Agents responded that they don’t go near schools, although Mireles noted that Avelica’s arrest took place within sight of his. He called a school-wide assembly to discuss the arrest, and said so far, student attendance has been normal.
Los Angeles schools may be emerging as strong defenders of immigrant rights, even as the city is criticized for a less than robust sanctuary policy. Last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s board passed a unanimous sanctuary resolution that declares its schools to be safe places for all students. The resolution calls for schools to become resource and information centers, to strengthen the district’s ties with community organizations and legal services groups, and to create a rapid-response network “to assist children whose family members have been detained.” The school board has directed the superintendent to make a plan for implementing the sanctuary policy and to train district personnel in doing so.
“Schools are ahead of the game—more than city officials,” said Victor Narro, a long-time immigrant rights activist and project director at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center. Narro said the city of L.A. could make it clear that ICE agents aren’t welcome anywhere near schools, but it has yet to do so.
“The city can’t keep federal agents away, but they can create such a strong policy that it’s a deterrent.” Narro applauded LAUSD school board members for their initiative, but said, “This is not going to work unless you have a strong sanctuary policy in the city.”
Mayoral spokesman George Kivork argued that city declarations of sanctuary would simply inflame anti-immigrant forces.
“The point of what we’re trying to do is get away from the label,” Kivork said. “I think it feeds into the anti-immigrant movement. In this environment, it’s being used by these groups to taint what is actually happening.” Kivork pointed to the city’s actions— establishing a legal fund to defend immigrants, promoting citizenship and meeting with students and immigrant rights groups to ensure immigrants know their rights. He also contended that L.A. police officers only work with ICE agents if they have warrants, a point that some immigrant rights activists dispute.
School Board President Steve Zimmer sidestepped questions about whether the city’s actions are sufficient.
“I don’t know what a stronger policy would look like,” he said.
Zimmer said the school district stands ready to support immigrant students through tough, unpredictable times. “I don’t think what happened was an isolated incident. Just because we’ve declared safe zones doesn’t mean Trump is going to accept that. We anticipate a multifaceted battle.”
Meanwhile, Mireles said he wants to rethink his own school’s approach to undocumented parents. In the past, the school ignored immigration status. But Mireles said he wants to work with each family to make sure they have people in place to care for their children and lawyers lined up to defend them if parents are arrested by ICE.
“We will have to know their immigration status. To the degree they trust us, we will be able to have a better plan.”
Academia Avance is a state-sponsored charter school, and as such, is not part of the LAUSD, which, while it has taken its stand for immigrant rights, has stayed the traditional course of saying it will never inquire about anyone’s immigration status.
As for Romulo Avelica, he’s been placed in the ICE detention center in Adelanto in San Bernardino County, where a measles outbreak has the facility under quarantine. No one can go in or out, Greyshock said. That might work in Avelica’s favor because it likely means no one can be deported either, at least for the next few days.