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School unites around its Latino community

Dominique Maria Bonessi

The simple task of dropping off or picking up a child at school became fraught with worry for parents at Hampstead Hill Academy in March when the father of a fourth grader was followed home and arrested by immigration agents. Now, parents, students and teachers at the school at Linwood and Eastern avenues have united behind their Latino parents and students.

"You never know when it is going to happen to you. So you live in fear and you live afraid," said David Rosario, father of a third-grader, in an interview at his office just blocks from the school.

Rosario--born to Dominican-Peruvian parents in Queens, New York--is the president of the Latino Providers Network, a community organizing group. He works with many undocumented Latino school parents and business owners in the community. He says his daughter and her friends struggle to comes to terms with the immigration issue.

"I’m saddened by it that my daughter has to go through these conversations," he said. "When I was a kid growing up our conversations were, hey what lunch are we having today. It wasn’t about hey our friends’ parents may be deported."

These conversations all started when Jesus Peraza, a 30-year-old father of three with another baby due, was followed, arrested, and then detained in a Howard County jail by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, or ICE, as they are known.

WYPR was not allowed to visit, but spoke to Peraza and his wife, Carolina, via phone in Spanish.

"I was dropping Anderson at school," said Peraza from the Howard County Detention Center.  "Later when I arrived at my house I parked. No sooner did I park than two men arrived. They asked for identification and then revealed that they were police."

He said he was charged under a 12-year-old  deportation order.

Peraza fled Honduras for refuge in the U.S. when he was 17 after witnessing a murder and having his own life threatened. He was stopped at the border and turned away, but made it to join his brother in Baltimore on a second try.

"My children are here. My family is here," said Peraza. "If I were to return to Honduras now and be separated from them, it would be like a terrible nightmare."

Peraza's wife, Carolina, is step-mother to his 10-year-old son, Anderson. She says with her husband in jail and at risk of being deported, she doesn’t know how she will be able to claim custody over Anderson.

"I don’t know what’s going to happen only with God’s help," she said. "Yes, I need documentation to be able to claim custody because his father had all of Anderson’s papers; I don’t know what we are going to do with the child."

The Peraza family is just one of many Latino families that are at risk of being rounded up by ICE officials regardless of their non-criminal backgrounds, and that call this school community home. Hampstead Hill Academy’s Principal Matthew Hornbeck says the community stands behind Peraza.

"The Latinx population in Southeast Baltimore is just booming and we have been a beneficiary of that," he said. "And we stand in solidarity with that community."

In Hornbeck’s 14 years at the school, he has seen the population double from 388 to 775 students and the portion of Latinos mushroom from three percent to 40 percent. Hornbeck says the school is working with local Latino outreach groups and politicians to help Latino families and others cope with their fears.

"The main thing that has happened is that the Latinx community and the organizations that support the Latinx community are providing training for parents and children and schools if they have fears if they have students that have reasonable and unreasonable fears about what is going to happen to them or their families," he said.

Part of that training, Hornbeck said, is making a shoe box with all the necessary documentation, including 
"notarized letters about who should pick up your child at school on a day you can’t pick up your child because you’re being picked up by ICE."

ICE agents in Baltimore began arresting immigrants in the country illegally in February. It was part of a nationwide sweep in which agents detained nearly 700 immigrants after President Trump, who promised during his campaign to get rid of “criminals” in the country illegally, took office.

In March, the city council called on ICE to refrain from arresting immigrants in the city unless they have committed a crime.

Peraza’s attorney, Jared Jaskot, said his client has no criminal background. And he said he would ask in a court date June 1 that the 12-year-old deportation order be overturned and Peraza be allowed to stay with his family.

"Basically, we want to make ICE do the right thing," said Jaskot.

ICE agents said in an email that Peraza was arrested "after being identified as a fugitive alien who had illegally reentered the United States following a previous removal. He was initially ordered removed by an immigration judge on March 31, 2005."

Asked about its current policy for detaining and deporting those here undocumented, ICE responded:

"ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”

The statement also said ICE conducts “targeted immigration enforcement” and does not conduct “sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately.”

“All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” it said.

Mrs. Peraza called the  detainment "an injustice."

"Yes, he entered illegally," she conceded. "But he hasn't committed a crime here or anything bad for him to be going through all this."

She said the detention is taking its toll not only on Peraza, but on Anderson, who was detained by ICE on the southern border when his mother abandoned him and later fled unaccompanied to meet his father in the U.S. 

"It is a little difficult because he asks where his dad is," she said. "Sometimes he’s sad or angry. Sometimes there is nothing I can do with a child of his age."

For now the school community will continue to show solidarity. Meanwhile, Casa de Maryland and the Latino Providers Network are planning a march to ICE offices at Hopkins Plaza at 10 a.m. May 25th to support Peraza's fight to stay in Baltimore with his family.

Education reporting on WYPR is supported in part by the Sylvan-Laureate Foundation.

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