The blueprint established under the Obama administration to deport Central American teenagers soon after they reach the age of majority continues to operate unabated. Despite the intercession of public officials and a pending appeal in Federal Immigration Court, North Carolina teenager Pedro Arturo Salmerón was deported from the United States to El Salvador on Saturday, November 12, just days after Donald Trump was elected president.
The deportation marks the continuation of a policy begun last year under the Obama government to respond to an unprecedented number of minors and mothers with small children who arrived at the U.S./Mexican border from the northern Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras during the summer of 2014. In the wake of an escalation in violence that rendered those countries the most dangerous places on earth and set off the mass migration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a directive in December 2015 taking aim at the young and vulnerable asylum seekers as soon as they aged out of protected status.
Though DHS and President Obama insisted that they were only targeting dangerous criminals for arrest and deportation, in reality the opposite seems to be true. It appears that innocent applicants for asylum and relief, who are easily identifiable and located as they faithfully offer all their personal information, are at the highest risk.
Then 17, Pedro fled El Salvador to rejoin his family in Charlotte, NC in June 2014, following the brutal murder and decapitation of his cousin by gang members. The gang, his family says, was also threatening his life.
But his time with mother Carmen and other family members was abruptly cut short. Pedro immediately applied for humanitarian asylum and the opportunity to live with his family in North Carolina upon arriving in the United States, and the family tirelessly pursued his case, spending thousands of dollars. The Vance High School student was arrested by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the police arm of the DHS) agents on his way to school on January 26, 2016.
Able to play several instruments and with dreams of a career in music, Pedro also excelled in sciences and literature at Vance. After his arrest, he was mainly held for the last 10 months at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, 400 miles (640 km) from his family and supporters in North Carolina, in an atmosphere he described as one of “disappointment and despair.”
The slight and soft-spoken youth, who wears his hair in long, glossy curls down his back, was first slated to be transported to Houston, Texas, on Saturday when the plane he was to take was deemed unable to fly. This was the third time that Pedro and his family had to endure a false start to removal proceedings. At 1 am on July 31, he was moved out of Stewart for imminent deportation, only to be returned to Georgia the next day. The same thing had happened twice earlier that week. Pedro’s lawyer said he believed that it was “in retaliation” for having lodged a complaint about a previous move to a facility in Louisiana.
Congresswoman Alma S. Adams, representing the 12th congressional district in North Carolina, has been speaking out and supporting Pedro and the Salmeron family all year, including travelling to Stewart to see him. Pedro also was counting on the support of three other congresspersons, Representatives John Lewis (D-GA), Hank Johnson (D-GA), and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), who with Adams wrote a letter to DHS director Jeh Johnson requesting a “humane solution” for the youthful immigrants.
But attitudes to these young immigrants do not fall strictly along party lines.
Kay Hagen, Democratic Party senator who represented North Carolina in Washington DC from 2009-2015, was vehemently opposed to the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors ). “Dreamers” are undocumented students who were born in other countries but raised and educated in the United States, and the act allows them to continue their studies in the U.S. In 2010, Hagen was one of only five Democratic senators who opposed the act.
Meanwhile, across the aisle, Lindsay Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, is currently working on legislation with Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) to extend President Obama’s 2012 initiative known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Under DACA, DHS is supposed to refrain from deporting undocumented persons who came to the United States as children, were educated here, and have no criminal histories. These undocumented immigrants are then granted temporary visas to live and work, which must be renewed every two years.
The files of 750,000 DACA applicants and a million DREAMers may prove too tempting for President-Elect Donald Trump, who vociferously declared his intention to deport millions of undocumented immigrants on many occasions during his campaign. After years of scapegoating immigrants and convincing his followers, if not a large part of the American public, that immigrants are “rapists and murderers,” it would be easy to demonize the entire immigrant population in order to justify refugee and student deportations and more easily achieve his promised numbers.
Bring it on, declares immigrant advocate Viridiana Martínez, one of the founders of NC Dream Team and Alerta Migratoria NC. “Obama told us the right things, but he did the wrong ones,” Martinez said. But under Trump, “I am glad the cards are now on the table and there is not a hidden agenda. Because then we can fight accordingly.”