Charlotte groups say halting teen’s deportation to El Salvador shows their growing strength

A family photo of Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, 19, an immigrant teen from Charlotte arrested earlier this year for deportation.
A family photo of Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, 19, an immigrant teen from Charlotte arrested earlier this year for deportation. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte teen Pedro Arturo Salmeron was not on the agenda at last week’s Democratic National Convention, but the city’s increasingly savvy immigrant advocate network made him one of the most talked-about subjects there Thursday.

Salmeron, 18, has a pending asylum application, but he was being prepped for imminent deportation Wednesday after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decided he could no longer stay.

His deportation to El Salvador was stopped Friday, however, due to new, more sophisticated tactics being used by local immigrant advocacy groups in taking on federal agencies.

Within hours of learning of Salmeron’s plight, Charlotte advocates had launched a social media campaign that had Salmeron trending on Twitter. They then activated a network of 40 agencies nationwide to lobby on his behalf, which resulted in a handful of delegates at the DNC in Philadelphia questioning federal officials there about the case.

Among those approached were Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who has called for an end to deportations of Central America youths such as Salmeron, and U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., who says she called ICE and the Department of Homeland Security within hours.

Salmeron’s attorney, J. Britt Thames of Macon, Ga., was critical last week of Democrats at the DNC for “parading around Latin-American children on stage like they’re protecting them.” But he believes Charlotte groups such as Action NC and Unidos We Stand used that to their advantage.

“The support of the local advocates in Charlotte and Congresswoman Adams has played a major role in helping prevent the removal of Pedro,” said Thames.

Mecklenburg County’s Hispanic growth rate continues to boom, census data show. The nonwhite Hispanic population grew 14.8 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s more than double the white growth rate. Hispanics are now 12.7 percent of Mecklenburg’s population, an estimated 128,473 people among 1.01 million residents.

Betsy Rosen of Charlotte says the growth happened so quickly that the community is still trying to catch up in its advocacy efforts.

“I think the federal government considered North Carolina easy pickings (for deportations) in the past because we are not as well organized as communities that have had large immigrant populations for years and years,” said Rosen, who joined in the effort to help Salmeron.

“I grew up in Chicago, and we had three and four generations of some Mexican families. Charlotte is a ‘New South’ city with a lot of new immigrant arrivals. It’s true we haven’t been as well organized as those larger cities, but we’re catching up.”

Immigrant advocates say their work took on a greater sense of urgency earlier this year, when ICE began arresting Central American teens who had crossed the U.S. border by the thousands between 2009 and 2014. Most of the youths said they were escaping violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries that have some of the world’s highest murder rates.

Two Charlotte teens, including Salmeron, were among six Central American youths arrested for deportation in January. Advocates call them the NC6. All had apparently lost their immigration court cases and were ordered to leave but didn’t comply. ICE waited until they turned 18 to make their arrests.

Salmeron has been held without bond for six months and is currently at a Louisiana detention facility awaiting a transfer back to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga.

Héctor Vaca of Action NC says his group recently joined the Center for Popular Democracy. It is a collective of 40 organizations, each of which put their contacts to work on Salmeron’s case this week. He says that helped Charlotte advocates tap into what was happening at the DNC.

“This issue (youth deportations) was not necessarily something they were going to be talking about at the DNC, and we wanted to change that,” said Vaca.

“It was definitely a success, because Pedro was supposed to be on a plane out of the country Friday and he’s still here. We managed to catch ICE before they took him out. They were not expecting us to react so fast.”