Fatima Avelica hasn’t been getting much sleep for the past week. Last Tuesday morning, Fatima’s father, Rómulo Avelica-González, had just dropped her 12-year-old sister off at school and was on his way to drop Fatima off when the family noticed two unmarked vehicles following them. Soon enough, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents pulled the car over and took Rómulo — all while Fatima, who is 13 years old, recorded what was happening on her cell phone. It’s been a marathon ever since trying to get him back home.
After handcuffing him, ICE agents took Rómulo, an undocumented immigrant who was born in Mexico and came to the United States in 1991, to an immigrant detention facility in Downtown Los Angeles. Then he was transferred to the Adelanto detention center two hours away. Rómulo was convicted of a DUI in 2009 and has an order of deportation; he’s also a father to four daughters, a loving husband, and a breadwinner who provides for his family.
Rather than heading back home in silence, Fatima and her family went to school anyway. “I knew that we would be supported here,” says Fatima.
Fatima Avelica, 13, whose father was taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents while he was driving her to school.
She was right. The Academia Avance charter school operates in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where nearly half of residents were born outside the U.S., and its faculty members are deeply invested in their students’ lives. So, when Fatima showed up with news of what happened to Rómulo, the school immediately began mobilizing. They pulled Fatima’s family members out of class to tell them what had happened, and started calling attorneys, allies, and the press.
“I’ve rarely seen such extraordinary action by a family and a school on the front lines,” Emi MacLean, a staff attorney with the National Day Labor Organizing Network who is working on Rómulo’s case, tells Teen Vogue. MacLean points out that Rómulo, arrested just a few blocks from his daughter’s school, was taken in an area considered a sensitive location by ICE’s own directive. According to ICE’s website, “sensitive locations should generally be avoided, and require either prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action.” In a statement to Teen Vogue, ICE says that Rómulo was arrested “approximately a half mile from the school in question.” Google Maps indicates that’s a one-minute drive just five blocks away from Academia Avance.
Because Rómulo already had a deportation order, it was expected that he would be taken to Mexico right away — but MacLean says that’s not what happened. Attorneys had enough time to file an emergency stay of removal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued a temporary stay based on that filing. MacLean says attorneys will also file for a special visa for Rómulo that would allow him to stay in the United States. The immediate goal, says MacLean, is to get Rómulo out on bond so that he can be reunited with his family while he fights his deportation.
Fatima’s school, led by founder and executive director Ricardo Mireles, isn’t just working with Fatima’s family to stop Rómulo’s deportation — Avance is also working with all of the school’s families to create a detailed and comprehensive plan before any family member is potentially detained by ICE.
Ricardo Mireles, executive director of Academia Avance Charter school.
Unlike some schools that report a drop in attendance after a high-profile immigrant detention or deportation, Avance’s classrooms are still full. “There’s fear,” says Mireles, “and then there’s being paralyzed.” The executive director is making sure his school’s community avoids the latter. Avance helped organize a rally for Rómulo Monday in front of ICE’s offices in Los Angeles this week, and used its big yellow school bus to take families there. Mireles also started a fund-raising drive to help the family make ends meet during Rómulo’s absence.
Despite all the community organizing, Avance still operates a school, with 400 young people in its student body. Aside from meeting with attorneys and dealing with the press, Fatima, an eighth grader with hopes of going on to college after high school, is still attending classes and doing her homework. “I lost count of how many interviews I’ve done in both English and Spanish,” she told Teen Vogue on Monday.
She also spends as much time as possible talking to her dad, who’s allowed to make phone calls from detention. He tells her to stay strong and thanks her for everything she’s done to stop his deportation. On top of her studies and organizing, Fatima’s also an avid runner at Academia Avance and plans to take part in the Los Angeles Marathon later this month. It’s a 26-mile marathon — and she missed her regular practice for it the Tuesday that her dad was detained. Her dad is encouraging Fatima to complete it. “I didn’t feel like running it, but why back out?” she wonders. In some ways, the race parallels her family’s ordeal: There’s a finish line somewhere, but it’s difficult to reach.