Carmen Salmeron stood sobbing in the living room of her northeast Charlotte home just feet from a table holding countless trophies and ribbons awarded to her daughter Amy throughout her childhood in America.
Next to the table hung a picture of Amy with her brother, Pedro. Down the hall, Amy was laughing and playing on her mother's laptop with a friend. Carmen's thoughts, however, were on Pedro, hundreds of miles away in Lumpkin, Georgia, being held at the infamous Stewart Detention Center.
Pedro Salmeron, 19, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Charlotte on January 26, one of hundreds of raids taking place throughout the southeast mostly targeting young Central American immigrants fleeing gang violence who have been denied their pleas for asylum.
ICE representatives say they are simply enforcing the decisions of the immigration courts run by the Department of Justice — an entirely different branch of government from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which runs ICE — and that each person detained has already had their day in court. But advocates and city leaders say the courts don't provide the proper due process for these young men.
- Families of the North Carolina teens being held in Atlanta gathered recently at MissionGathering church in Noda. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
Some families say they were issued orders of deportation after not showing up for court dates they were unaware of. Some say they only received a slip of paper explaining things in English, which they didn't understand. Carmen — as well as the parents of another teen detained in Charlotte — said her child's lawyer signed off on deals agreeing to self-deportation without consulting Pedro or his family.
Now, Mayor Jennifer Roberts has requested a halt to raids in Charlotte to ensure there is communication with asylum seekers informing them of their rights in court. She also wants Salmeron's deportation to be delayed until his case for asylum can be further reviewed.
"I think we can do a better job of getting information out to those who are trying to claim refugee status who are fleeing violence in their home countries; who are fleeing certain death," Roberts said.
Pedro's troubles began at his home in El Salvador before 2014, but came to a head that year. As a student , he faced an hour-long walk to and from school down a path inhabited by his peers who had left the classroom and joined local gangs. The gang members tried to recruit him; threatening him and at one point beating him up because he refused to join them.
In April 2014, 17-year-old Pedro filed a complaint with police about the threats. Three weeks later, the gang killed his cousin. He was shot and mutilated; his body found cut into pieces. Three days after his cousin's murder, Pedro set off on his own for America.
"The truth of the matter is, Pedro wanted for nothing there," his mother says. "He had everything he needed in El Salvador, but he had to come here to get away from that."*
- (From left) Josue Cortez, Bilmer Juarez, Wildin Acosta, Pedro Salmeron and Santos Padilla-Guzman.
One month and about 1,500 miles later, on June 22, 2014, Pedro was detained while trying to cross the American border. In line with the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2008, which provides protections for unaccompanied children from noncontiguous countries who are arrested at the border, he was taken into the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Pedro was eventually reconnected with his family in Charlotte, where they sought legal counsel with a local firm. According to Pedro's family, an attorney at his second hearing filed a voluntary departure request, which would allow Pedro to leave the country on his own within a specific period of time without receiving an order of deportation on his record.
Carmen said this was not the family's wish, as it would put Pedro's life right back in danger, and it was not discussed with him or his family. Attempts to reach Pedro's legal representative were unsuccessful. When Pedro did not leave the country within the period granted for voluntary departure, a judge issued a deportation order.
Pedro went underground. He stopped attending Vance High School and began working with his father, figuring this would make him harder to find. On January 26, with ICE stepping up efforts around the state, his luck ran out. An unmarked car stopped his father's work van and told everyone inside to sit on the ground. They identified and arrested Pedro, and his father had to call Carmen with the news that realized her worst fear.
"I wanted to die when I heard about my son [being detained]. I felt that half of my life was taken away from me," Carmen says. "From that day our lives have not been the same; my life, my husband's life, my daughter's life."
Carmen is able to speak to her son twice a day over the phone from SDF, where he sleeps and lives in an open room with 61 other men.
"They each have their own bed but they're together, one on top of the other," she said.
He has lost hope, she says, and it has clearly affected her. He tells her he often doesn't eat the horrible food served there, that he's sick and has no access to medication and that the shower spits out freezing cold water. He's lost 20 pounds since arriving at the facility one month ago.
- On February 29, Viridiana Martinez (left) and others dropped off more than 200 pages of documents with immigration officials in Charlotte requesting the release of the North Carolina 6. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
Stewart Detention Facility, where those detained in ICE raids in North Carolina are sent, is known for its bad conditions. It is two-and-a-half hours away from the nearest city, Atlanta, which makes it difficult for those there preparing for hearings to communicate effectively with counsel, but that's only the start of it.
A 2012 report released by ACLU of Georgia titled Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia cited reports of physical and verbal abuse, spoiled food, non-potable water, lack of recreation time, substandard medical care and the absence of any meaningful grievance procedures at the facility.
Those interviewed in the report stated that medical requests often took weeks to be answered, and sometimes longer for those needs to be met. A 39-year-old man named Roberto Martinez died in the facility in 2009 of a treatable heart infection. An investigation following his death found multiple failures and violations of procedure by medical staff in that case.
Included in the ACLU report were also numerous reports of significant weight loss in prisoners over a short period of time, similar to Pedro's. Those interviewed by ACLU investigators reported being served rancid or expired food or finding foreign objects in their meals, such as hair, plastic and bugs.
Despite what Pedro faces in SDF, it's nothing compared to the horror of what possibly awaits him in El Salvador. His mother said he no longer has family there and would have nowhere to go. More worrisome, friends from El Salvador tell her the gangs have seen his story on Univision and are well aware that Pedro may be returning. She weeps when she speaks about the possibility of him returning there, but says she still holds out hope that something can be done.
"I am always telling him, 'Don't lose hope, there is always hope,'" Carmen says. "God willing — with all of this being done, with all the people working with the families now — I have hope that I will see Pedro again. I know that he deserves to be here."
The people Carmen refers to are organizers with Action NC and UNISAL, who have worked directly with the families of detained Charlotte youth to work for their release. A new, young group of activists have also gathered to help ease the growing fears within the immigrant community and call for the release of young people detained throughout North Carolina.
Alerta Migratoria was formed on January 3 as an advocacy group and hotline, with volunteers answering the flood of calls from people who fear they might be targeted next by ICE. The group has been fighting specifically to raise awareness for the plight of the North Carolina 6, as it refers to them: Wildin Acosta of Durham, Josue Cortez of Thomasville, Santos Padilla-Guzman of Raleigh, Bilmer Juarez of Greenville, Yefri Sorto-Hernandez of Charlotte and Pedro.
All of these men fled gang violence in their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras as minors and are currently being held at SDF as adults.
Sorto-Hernandez, whose family originally shared his story with Creative Loafing for this article, has reportedly given up hope after spending more than a month in SDF. He has asked to be deported back to El Salvador and not to be included in any more of Alerta Migratoria's efforts. He does not, however, face as direct a threat as Pedro if he returns.
Representatives with ICE say they are simply following a policy announced by DHS in November 2014. The policy prioritizes undocumented immigrants with deportation orders so the department can focus its resources on those that pose a threat to national security.
All of the North Carolina 6 fall within Priority 1, which is supposed to target the most direct threats to national security, border security and public safety. The reason these men fall into this top priority is article 1b, which lists any "aliens apprehended at the border or ports of entry" as first priorities, lumping them in with other first priorities such as those expected of terrorism or those convicted of aggravated felonies.
"The claim I've seen is that these individuals are fearful; they fear retribution or violence if they're returned home. All of those are factors that were considered by the immigration judge," said Bryan Cox, a spokesperson with ICE. "These are all individuals who already had their day in court. They made their claim to an immigration judge and the judge found not in their favor. From ICE's perspective, these are adults with a final order of removal issued from an immigration judge and they fall into our enforcement priorities."
The memorandum announcing the new priority policy also states, however, that "the removal of these aliens must be prioritized unless... there are compelling and exceptional factors that clearly indicate the alien is not a threat to national security, border security, or public safety and should not therefore be an enforcement priority." It leaves such a judgment up to the local ICE field office director, Robert Alfieri in this case.
Members of Alerta Migratoria showed up on Alfieri's doorstep at the Charlotte DHS offices on Monday with a group of about 30 supporters. They met with Alfieri for a short time in the parking lot and delivered a request for ICE to use prosecutorial discretion in releasing all six of the detainees until their cases can be reviewed by immigration courts. The request included more than 200 pages of legal claims laying out a lack of due process in the detainees' original hearings as well as evidence that the men are in danger in their home countries and are not a threat to public safety in the United States.
"These kids are refugees. Make no mistake; they are not migrants here for a free ride, they are refugees processed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and they deserve to be treated with special care and they need to be protected," says Viridiana Martinez, a member of Alerta Migratoria who spoke with Alfieri on Monday. "To deport them to their home countries would equal death."
Martinez says Alfieri told her it's out of his hands, as higher-ups on the national level have already decided all six will be deported.
Mayor Roberts, who once served as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. State Department, says she has been actively reaching out to her connections on the federal level, including her liaison to the White House, looking for answers about what can be done.
"We know it's a difficult issue because the immigration system is broken in a lot of ways," she says. "It's been years and years, but Congress has not been able to decide on any reform. This is just one more example of the challenges local governments face when the federal government doesn't act."
For Carmen Salmeron, she has no higher connections and there is nothing left to do but pray each day and try to comfort her son over the phone. She said she has put her faith in God to help her family stay together and keep her son safe.
"If Pedro is sent back to El Salvador, I will feel that he has one day less to live, that he is one step closer to death."
(*All direct quotes from Carmen Salmeron are translated from Spanish.)