At the end of six months in detention where he was one step away from deportation, the father arrested by ICE agents outside his daughter’s school celebrated his freedom Friday and urged immigrant parents to fight fear and keep taking their children to school.
“We are here to give our children an education and we must not be afraid,” said Rómulo Avélica-González, 49, who was greeted with mariachi music and applause Friday morning at the Academia Avance charter school in northeast Los Angeles. “This is the basis for a better future for them.”
Although he is 20 pounds lighter because of complications from diabetes while he was in custody, Avelica-González’s eyes shone as he was surrounded by his family again, along with the academy’s staff and 400 middle and high school students.
The national attention his case has attracted since his arrest should serve as an example, Avélica-González told LA School Report in an interview on Thursday, the day after his release, at the MALDEF offices in downtown Los Angeles.
“I am not the example, but my case, so that other families do not go through the same thing. Know your rights and move on. And above all, continue with the routine of taking your children to school every day. It is their right.
“You come to this country to look for a better future for your children, to have access to an education that in Mexico they could not have,” said the father of four girls. “I have always told my daughters their education comes first, and they know how far I am willing to support them. Now more than ever.”
His joy, however, was tempered as his community waited to hear whether the Trump Administration would terminate DACA, the Obama Administration order that has shielded hundreds of thousands of undocumented students from deportation.
“If they remove DACA, it is like taking away a young man’s chance to be good, to exchange a good life for a bad one,” he said. “It would be like erasing their lives and having to be born again if they are returned to a country that many of them do not even know, where they no longer have a family.”
The Mexican immigrant, who arrived in the United States more than 25 years ago, believes that his arrest occurred in the wrong way and place. “It should not happen like this” outside a school, he said.
Recalling Feb. 28 when his daughter, Fatima, captured the arrest on video makes his voice break. “I still remember it and it makes me want to cry.”
“The first time I saw the video, I was already in the detention center and there was a television going with the news, and that was when I saw the video and I heard Fatima crying, and my heart broke.”
Avélica-González was released on bail late Wednesday from the Adelanto Detention Center, but his case is still in process. His wife, Norma, has applied for a U visa that would also protect him and allow both of them to stay in this country. The U visa is awarded to people who have been victims of violent crime, as his wife was last December.
“I am so grateful to the entire school community and the director of Academia Avance, Mr. Ricardo Mireles, for all the help they provided us,” Avélica-González said. “They did not let my family go down and helped them get by.”
The choice of Academia Avance was “to get better care” for the girls, as the school is considered “the best neighborhood option,” Norma Avelica said.
“It had been recommended to us a lot and we did not mind having to drive a little further,” Avelica-Gonzalez said. “Two of my nieces graduated from Academia Avance with excellent grades and went on to college, and I want the same for my daughters.”
That Avélica-González’s arrest occurred outside a school caused much indignation in the immigrant community, as well as among educational and civic leaders.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti wrote a letter in support of Avélica-González after the arrest. “The sensitive locations policy is vital to ensuring that immigrant and mixed status families feel safe sending their children to school. The national attention drawn by Mr. Avélica’s arrest — and potential deportation — heightens fears among immigrant communities that could prevent children from attending school,” Garcetti stated in the letter.
UTLA, the Los Angeles teacher union, expressed similar concern in a statement released in June. “The manner in which ICE pursued Mr. Avélica near schools caused a great disruption to the school community.”
Charter schools and LA Unified have acted to calm fears among immigrant families with a series of resolutions and resources to ensure safety within schools and by declaring them “safe areas.”
“Starting in February, we decided to be more proactive as a school at Avance to help our families be ready for this kind of situation,” said Mireles, who joined with other charter school leaders to form the California Schools Are Sanctuaries (CASAS) coalition.
Zenzontl Kuauhtzin, director of parent engagement for PUC Schools (Partnerships to Uplift Communities) and co-founder of CASAS, said during Friday’s school assembly that the Avance community was an inspiration to many educators in Los Angeles and throughout California.
“All the schools, all the students, all the educators were inspired by you. We join in calling for all school districts in the state to adopt the ACLU resolution and the toolkit to implement school regulations that will ensure that no families are afraid in our schools,” Kuauhtzin said.
During the school event, Mireles noted that he could see a difference in Fatima, whom Mireles refers to as “the Rosa Parks of this era.” Her face shone with smiles, which he said had been erased during the time her father was in custody.
“In addition to my teachers and Mr. Mireles, my friends and many of my classmates knew my dad and gave me a lot of support,” said the ninth-grader, who has already chosen her career path.
“I’m interested in being an immigration lawyer because I don’t want anyone else to go through this. I want to help other families not to suffer.”