Charlotte immigrant teens at center of controversial ICE arrests

On Wednesday, Jan. 27, Yefri Sorto-Hernandez left his home in north Charlotte, headed to classes at West Mecklenburg High.

He never made it to the bus.

It was seven hours later that his parents, Elsy and Jose Sorto-Hernandez, got a call from a federal agent saying their 19-year-old son had been arrested and was being held for deportation back to El Salvador.

That’s a death sentence, Elsy Sorto-Hernandez says, asserting their son fled to Charlotte in 2014 to escape being killed by gang members.

Sorto-Hernandez’s case has earned national attention, in part because Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are being accused of using schools and bus stops to corral teens not legally in the country. Supporters have dubbed him one of the NC6, a group of six immigrant teens recently swept up across the state by ICE for deportation.

The six also includes Pedro Arturo Salmeron, 18, of Charlotte, who was arrested a day before Sorto-Hernandez.

ICE denies it is targeting students at school or at bus stops, and the agency says it met with representatives of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and the city to assure them no such practice exists. ICE says it’s simply arresting young adults who had their day in court and lost.

The two Charlotte teens lost their cases last year, but their families have hired new attorneys, hoping to win new appeals to stay.

Sorto-Hernandez and Salmeron are part of a flood of Central American minors who showed up without parents at the U.S. border between 2009 and 2014. Most said they were escaping violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries that have some of the world’s highest murder rates. They were willing to make the dangerous journey based on word-of-mouth knowledge of a Bush-era law that requires unaccompanied children from Central America to be given immigration court consideration and possible asylum.

In many respects, bad timing was the Charlotte teens’ undoing. The Obama administration has taken a more lenient approach to dealing with undocumented immigrants who have spent years in the country, quietly holding jobs and raising families. One of the administration’s goals has been to give them an easier path to stay.

The trade-off is a tougher approach to border security – penalizing newer arrivals who say they were in danger but can’t prove grounds for asylum. That’s what led to the uptick in ICE arrests this year, including the NC6.

A dozen or more rallies in support of the six have been staged across the state, including a “pray-in” two weeks ago outside ICE offices in Charlotte. Immigrant advocacy groups such as Action NC and Alerta Migratoria say the protests are aimed at getting ICE to exercise prosecutorial discretion and release all six until their deportations can be appealed.

ICE has resisted in all six cases and has shown no signs of easing up on arrests. The agency has declined to say how many youths are being sought and that has added to a sense of panic among immigrant parents, some of who are keeping their teens out of school in fear they’ll never make it back home.

Speaking through an interpreter supplied by Action NC, Yefri’s mother, Elsy Sorto-Hernandez, said her son could disappear from the country any day without her knowledge, and there’s nothing she can do about it.

“My worst fear is that he’ll be sent back to El Salvador and attacked when it is found out that he was sent back after running to the United States,” says Elsy Sorto-Hernandez, who has temporary protected immigration status and a work visa.

“He will be targeted by the people he was running away from.”

Fleeing Central American violence

Yefri Sorto-Hernandez and Pedro Arturo Salmeron were minors when they crossed the border from Mexico into Texas in 2014.

It’s estimated 68,000 Central American minors crossed into the country that year with no pretense of hiding. More than 1,000 such youths have settled in Charlotte while awaiting immigration court hearings, which gave Mecklenburg County the nation’s 13th highest population of kids linked to the crisis.

In many cases, the children had been left with grandparents in Central America by parents who were building new lives in the United States. Yefri and Pedro were toddlers when their parents moved to the United States, hoping their separation would be temporary.

Federal law permits unaccompanied minors from Central America to have their cases heard in immigration court, so Yefri Sorto-Hernandez and Pedro Arturo Salmeron were allowed to stay with their families in Charlotte until their bid to stay was resolved.

Both lost in court and received orders of deportation last year after failing to convince a judge they faced imminent danger if returned to El Salvador. Their parents claim the teens didn’t get the right legal representation to make their cases, and they say they have filed complaints against their former attorneys. (The N.C Bar Association won’t verify if grievances are filed against attorneys, unless public discipline is imposed.)

The two teens are awaiting their fate in the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., relatives say.

Some critics say they think ICE is waiting until the children turn 18 to enforce deportation orders, so the agency can avoid negative publicity.

“While I’m glad they are not looking for minors, these 18- and 19-year-olds are still teens and still in high school,” said Maureen Abell, with the Immigrant Justice Program at Legal Services of Southern Piedmont in Charlotte. “And it doesn’t change the fact that they came to the United States as minors in fear for their lives. And they are still in fear for their lives if they return.”

The legal process is complicated for children trying to prove they faced persecution in Central America. Those seeking asylum must apply with the asylum office in Arlington, Va. They must also appear in immigration court. If asylum is denied by the office, youths can still present their case before an immigration judge.

At that point, the child must again produce sufficient evidence that they have been persecuted, or that they will be persecuted if forced to return. Evidence can include human rights reports, crime statistics and local media coverage of the violence they are fleeing. Death certificates of murdered family members can be submitted as evidence, along with the expert opinion of a health professional, who says the child is suffering symptoms from trauma they have faced, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

While the two Charlotte families had lawyers, immigration attorney Tin Nguyen of Charlotte’s Central Law Group says many immigrant youths taken into custody haven’t been aware of their legal rights.

“Many women and children do not have legal representation ... and do not know that they may qualify for relief,” he said. “Now, they are being rounded up by the immigration authorities and sent back to their home countries and will likely face physical harm, or even, death at the hands of persecutors from whom they had escaped.”

Nguyen is providing legal advice to the Charlotte Compassion Action Network for Children while it recruits houses of faith to offer sanctuary to women and children being sought by ICE. The group is hoping the sites will host the immigrants for months at a time, until their cases can be resolved. ICE won’t make arrests in churches.

The ICE push to arrest immigrant youths like the NC6 isn’t just happening in North Carolina.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently demanded federal authorities stop what it calls potentially illegal immigration “raids” across the South. The center says ICE has targeted high school students on their way to school. ICE takes issue with the word “raids,” saying it targets specific individuals and is not rounding up groups.

Those arrests began in January, the center reports, and have resulted in immigrant students in other Southern states quitting school out of fear they’ll be arrested in class.

Targeting recent arrivals

ICE says many advocates for the NC6 are creating panic by spreading rumors and half-truths.

Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE in the Southern region, says the misinformation includes suggesting the agency is conducting indiscriminate sweeps on minors.

The targets are more specific, he says: All are “recent arrivals” who came into the country after Jan. 1, 2014; they are legally adults who lost in court and received deportation orders.

“When we showed up, it should not have been a surprise,” Cox says of the NC6.

He says the agency does not arrest students at school and has extended that policy to include students at bus stops. The agency denies Yefri Sorto-Hernandez was arrested at a bus stop, though Cox says the teen was picked up in a parking lot on the same street as a bus stop.

A judge ordered him removed from the country 14 months ago, say federal officials.

“People will tell you that kids looked out of the school bus and saw it happening, but what they leave out is that the bus was driving down the road at the time (the arrest) was taking place,” said Cox. “It’s being portrayed as if it happened directly at the bus stop.”

Many Charlotte immigrants still think their children are in danger, says Elsy Sorto-Hernandez. “I know many parents who are not sending children to school because they are afraid,” she says. “They are keeping them at home. We are all living in terror.”

Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition recently reported that at least 15 to 20 students from Harding High alone are being targeted for deportation. CMS says it is unaware of any specific schools being targeted by ICE.

Responding to complaints, U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-Charlotte, has joined a handful of other U.S. representatives to introduce the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act. It seeks to ensure the children get legal counsel and other related services.

Her staff says she called ICE officials to request delay of deportation and prosecutorial discretion on behalf of the NC6.

“I have learned that in Mecklenburg County alone, an estimated 200 individuals are believed to be in similar legal situations like ... Yefri and Pedro,” Adams said in a statement.

Among the things that concern her was a study asserting that 83 deportees from the U.S. have been killed since 2014 after being returned to the Northern Triangle of Central America. “This threat is all too real for families,” she said.

Those 83 deaths were listed in a recent investigation by the British national newspaper The Guardian, using data collected by a social scientist at San Diego State University. Much of that data came from Central American media reports of the murders.

The article’s headline: “US government deporting Central American migrants to their deaths.”

‘We are not criminals’

Daniel and Carmen Salmeron, are among parents who kept their child from school out of fear of deportation.

Pedro was a 10th-grader at Vance High when they decided in January to keep him hidden. But ICE agents found him anyway, when they pulled over his father’s truck on Jan. 26. The two were headed to a construction site where Daniel Salmeron works. (The father has temporary protected immigration status).

The couple say relatives have experienced gang violence first-hand: A cousin of Pedro’s was decapitated and castrated by gang members in El Salvador. Pedro was being pressured to join “or else” when he fled to the U.S. during the summer of 2014, relatives say.

Carmen Salmeron said she is convinced Pedro will be killed if sent back. Her son – a computer enthusiast who plays both the piano and the accordion – had lately been dreaming of college and a career in information technology, she said.

“My son was taken away with his hands and feet tied. We are not criminals,” she says. “This has broken my heart, to see him like this.”

The couple have made some headway with a new attorney and believe their son’s case will be reopened.

Yefri’s parents haven’t been as lucky. Immigration officials say his new attorney in California, Jonathan Maldonado, submitted motions to immigration officials to delay the teen’s deportation and reopen the case. Both were denied on Feb. 2. Maldonado did not return calls for comment.

“We are waiting for a miracle,” says Elsy Sorto-Hernandez.

Why prioritize new arrivals?

The federal government has a list of priorities for apprehending immigrants illegally in the country and it is topped by people who are a threat to public safety and national security, as well as those who have been convicted of at least three crimes in the country (other than traffic violations).

The next priority is people like the NC6, who have been ordered deported on or after Jan. 1, 2014. This category of people is part of a heightened focus by the Department of Homeland Security on border security, officials say. It is also in direct response to the spike of Central American families who crossed illegally into the country during in the spring and summer of 2014, officials say.