After six months in custody, bond set for immigrant CMS student

A family photo of Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, 19, who has been released on bond by federal officials after six months in a Georgia detention facility.
A family photo of Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, 19, who has been released on bond by federal officials after six months in a Georgia detention facility. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

After six months in federal custody at a Georgia prison, a West Mecklenburg High student arrested on the way to class has won his plea to be released on bond while appealing deportation back to El Salvador.

The family of Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, 19, has arranged to cover the $30,000 bond set Monday by a federal immigration judge. Sorto-Hernandez has been released into the custody of his family and is currently back in Charlotte.

Immigrant advocates have been pleading with federal officials for months to set bond for Sorto-Hernandez, who is among six North Carolina immigrant teens arrested early this year for staying in the country after losing their immigration cases.

The six, who supporters call the NC6, earned national attention because of accusations by immigrant groups that federal agents picked them up on the way to school, including standing at bus stops. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have denied targeting schools and bus stops, and met with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools officials to assure them school property was not being breached.

Among the six is another Charlotte teen, Pedro Arturo Salmeron, a native of El Salvador who remains at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., about five hours south of Charlotte.

ICE agents arrested the six as part of an ongoing federal effort to track down immigrant adults who were ignoring orders of deportation. The teens had 30 days to appeal their cases in immigration court and none did, officials said. In fact, some admitted they went into hiding, which is why immigration judges have been reluctant to set bond, officials said.

Advocates for Sorto-Hernandez have noted that, as a CMS student, he was not hiding and deserves to be released while his case is appealed.

Byron Martinez of the immigrant advocacy group Unidos We Stand said the $30,000 bond set for Sorto-Hernandez was exorbitant and unfair.

“I’ve seen cases where (an immigrant) had a record of assault against a female or DUI and they received a bond of $10,000. Why $30,000 for a kid with no prior record, knowing he is a student? It doesn’t make sense,” said Martinez. “I think the judge did that out of spite, believing he’ll just sit there in Stewart, unable to get the money. She was wrong.”

Martinez says advocates continue push for the rest of the NC6 to get bond, as well as four other N.C. teens arrested in recent months as part of the same federal push.

Sorto-Hernandez’s case is considered more complicated than others among the NC6. He was ordered removed from the country by a judge in January 2015, and he attended the hearing, officials said.

After ICE arrested him a year later, he filed several appeals with the immigration court, which were denied. He then filed another appeal in February, which the Board of Immigration Appeals granted in May. That essentially vacates the final order of removal issued in January 2015, and sends his case back before an immigration judge later this year to re-hear. That’s what qualified him for bond to be set, officials said.

All six teens want asylum as refugees and several claim they failed to get it due to faulty legal advice.

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.

Sorto-Hernandez’s mother, Elsy Sorto-Hernandez, says the teen fled El Salvador in 2014 to escape gang violence and sending him back would be a death sentence.

In Pedro Salmeron’s case, family members say a cousin in El Salvador was recently killed and dismembered by gang members, and they fear the teen faces the same fate if returned to El Salvador.