Fatima Avelica says her father has given her a ride to school every day since she was in kindergarten.
The morning of Feb. 28 started out like any other: The 13-year-old eighth grader — the second youngest of five children, between the ages of 12 and 26 — was on the way to middle school in Highland Park, riding in the back seat, her father at the wheel and her mother beside him.
“We dropped off my little sister, and we were on our way to drop me off,” she tells L.A. Weekly.
“And then he saw two suspicious cars following him,” she says of her father. “He said he thought it was just the police. They flashed the light at us, and they stopped us right before Avenue 33.”
They were pulled over during the two-mile ride from Avelica's sister's school to her own.
Their father, Romulo Avelica, had migrated to Los Angeles 26 years ago from Nayarit, a state in Western Mexico. He and his family live in Lincoln Heights, and he works nights as a cook in a Mexican restaurant.
Fatima Avelica says the agents who stopped their car declined to answer her father's questions when he was stopped. “He got out and then they turned him around to face the car windows and they handcuffed him,” she says. “He told me to be strong and to not cry because everything was going to be OK.
“My mom was asking the other agent where she could communicate with my dad. And she was grabbing the stuff they took from my dad that he had in his pockets.”
The week before Avelica's arrest, the Department of Homeland Security issued new immigration enforcement guidelines that call for hiring 10,000 additional enforcement agents, increasing the holding capacity at detention centers and reactivating a program that deputizes local law enforcement to help make immigration arrests. That same day, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer described the administration's efforts as ones that will “take the shackles off” immigration enforcement agents.
Emi MacLean, staff attorney with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, says she is unsure if the policy guidelines of years past remain in effect after the tougher enforcement guidelines were rolled out. But one thing is clear: The Obama-era distinction of “felons not families,” known as the Priority Enforcement Program, is done. Under the new guidelines, anybody with whom U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement comes into contact is an enforcement priority.
On March 1, federal immigration authorities arrested a 22-year-old woman in Jackson, Mississippi, shortly after she spoke at a press conference about the detention of her family. Previously granted deportation reprieve under the Obama administration's deferred-action program, the woman no longer had papers; her temporary status had expired.
According to MacLean, “Everyone's in the dark” about what policies remain in effect.
Virginia Kice, ICE'S Western region communications director, provided L.A. Weekly with a written statement regarding Avelica. It says that Avelica was targeted for arrest because agency records indicate he has “multiple prior criminal convictions, including a DUI in 2009, as well as an outstanding order of removal dating back to 2014.”
ICE says that before its agents made the arrest at a traffic stop a half-mile from Academia Avance, the public charter school Fatima Avelica attends, the agents conducted surveillance to confirm her father's identity. Romulo Avelica is being held at the Adelanto Detention Facility, about 85 miles northeast of L.A.
Advocates for Avelica gathered in front of U.S. Immigration Court downtown on Monday.
Pete Greyshock, an attorney for the firm representing the Avelica family, says Romulo Avelica has lived a quiet life in L.A. for more than two decades. “All we know is ICE says he has a DUI from 2009, and what I know is there's no violent offenses or drug offenses,” says Greyshock, who is still waiting to receive a copy of his client's criminal file.
Greyshock and officials at Academia Avance say ICE violated the spirit of the “sensitive locations” policy by staking out Avelica's home and following him as he dropped off one daughter at her school and was on his way to dropping off another daughter at hers.
“They certainly followed our client to his [youngest] daughter’s school,” Greyshock says. “He kissed her goodbye and they moved in to make the arrest when he pulled away from the school.”
Greyshock says the timing of the arrest is significant, occurring five days after Trump described his administration's moves to deport undocumented immigrants as a “military operation.” Alan Diamante, Greyshock's co-counsel on the Avelica case, called on the city of L.A. and the state of California to send a message to the federal government that ICE acted inappropriately.
Greyshock acknowledges that, with an outstanding order for deportation, Avelica faces an uphill battle.
Fatima Avelica ended up going to school the morning of her father's arrest. St. Claire Adriaan, director of instructional support and student achievement at Avance, was one of the first officials at the school to see her that morning.
“I saw a traumatized 13-year-old crying because she has no idea if she will see her father again,” Adriaan said at the rally on Monday to protest the arrest.
Adriaan called the manner in which the arrest was conducted “a gross disrespect for education in general and for the feelings of children.”
He says other children at the school are rattled after what happened. “I've had other kids come up to me and say they are afraid. 'What do I do if they come again? I’m coming to live with you if they take my parents.' It's something that's in all the kids' minds after this happened.”
Fatima Avelica says she heard the same concerns from fellow students whose parents, like hers, are undocumented.
“Some of them actually walk to school now — their parents don’t take them,” she says. “They've been telling the principals that they’re really scared.”
Clarification: This article has been amended to remove a quote about the status of one of the individuals mentioned.