Jaime Leon Rivas did not drive himself to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office on March 4.
Life as an undocumented immigrant had made the 19-year-old Summit County resident too cautious to risk a traffic stop. His girlfriend, Jenny Martinez, drove him the 80-plus miles to Glenwood Springs instead.
Leon Rivas had recently received a surprise letter in the mail from his immigration officer, Daniel Fitzgibbons, requesting a visit. Leon Rivas said he met with Fitzgibbons four or five times previously, and was expecting to meet with him again no sooner than October.
Leon Rivas said he didn’t know what the meeting was about, but he wasn’t fearful. Things had been going well. Fitzgibbons, who didn’t return phone calls seeking comment for this story, had helped him obtain a work permit recently, and Leon Rivas was excited to use it.
After an adolescence of petty crime and truancy, Leon Rivas was turning things around. He had become one of the leaders of his class at Snowy Peaks High School in Frisco, and he was just months away from becoming the first high school graduate in his family. He was thinking about getting into construction or maybe becoming a chef.
“He was excited — over the moon,” said Jennifer Wolinetz, a Summit School District teacher who has known Leon Rivas since he was 13.
Wolinetz was at Snowy Peaks on March 4 when Jenny Martinez ran crying into the building. Leon Rivas, who she had met at Snowy Peaks, wasn’t with her.
Martinez told Wolinetz and other school officials that Leon Rivas had been placed in handcuffs and told he was being deported.
Today, Leon is housed in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lock-up in Aurora. He said he is confused, scared and, above all, disappointed.
His fate is uncertain: Will he be able to return to Summit County, where he has a family and a newfound sense of purpose? Or, will he go back to El Salvador, a country he left when he was 10 because of gang violence; a country where his grandfather was murdered because he wouldn’t pay local thugs to “protect” his business?
A FRAGILE FAMILY
It’s lunchtime at Snowy Peaks High School on a recent Wednesday. Jesus Gutierrez and Julian Maldonado compete to see who can do the most pull-ups. Courtney Landis and Julio Castellon sit at a table nearby and watch the contest.
The students at Snowy Peaks are still stunned about the news about Leon Rivas, but they’re hopeful that immigration officials will do the right thing once they see how many lives their friend has touched. Deportation just wouldn’t make sense. This was his home.
“I feel like it would be a big loss to the community,” Jesus Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez is part of the tight-knit group of about 40 students who attend Snowy Peaks, an alternative program for those who need more one-on-one attention than they might get from a traditional high school setting.
It’s been a trying school year for the Snowy Peaks student body, known affectionately as the Yetis. In December, a student committed suicide. Leon Rivas took the loss especially hard. Friends say he was inconsolable for days.
And now he, too, has been ripped from the small, fragile community.
Student Fabian Acevedo, 18, said he was disappointed that he and Leon might not be able to graduate together as they had planned.
“It meant a lot to us,” he said. “It meant a lot to all of us.”
Acevedo is less hopeful than other students that Leon Rivas will return.
“I’m doubting the system,” he said. “I doubt he’ll come back, but I hope he comes back.”
According to his peers and teachers, Leon Rivas was a hybrid of cheerleader and drill sergeant. He would encourage his classmates when they did well and then turn around and razz them about attendance.
“He’d definitely text you and say ‘Get your ass to school,’” said Courtney Landis, a 16-year-old who expects to graduate next year.
Leon Rivas also jumped feet-first into the volunteer work that characterizes the Snowy Peaks program.
Teacher Jen Wolinetz said that Leon Rivas’ grades were fair to average, but that he worked hard and was always an engaged student. Mainly, he was good at people and relationships, she said.
Before he was detained, Leon Rivas had been working on his final paper as a senior for Wolinetz’s English class. It was going to be about his immigration into the U.S. and how he had become a better person.
He hadn’t written it out yet, Wolinetz said, but they had talked about it a lot.
In 2005, Leon Rivas and his older brother loaded into a bus or a van (he doesn’t remember which) with about a dozen other people in San Salvador, El Salvador. His mother paid a group of men, “coyotes” Leon Rivas calls them, to transport her boys into the U.S.
He was 10 years old. His brother was 15.
“I remember I was scared,” Leon Rivas said from a phone at the Aurora detainment center. “I really didn’t know what to expect.”
Leon Rivas said that gang violence in El Salvador had gotten so pervasive that his family no longer felt safe there. The biggest gang, a transnational, heavily tattooed and vicious group known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, ruled the city, he said.
“They control everything,” he said. “I would see people get murdered in the streets. You can’t go against those guys.”
The trip to the border took more than two months — a blur of endless driving and extended stays in hotels and random homes. Finally, Leon Rivas and his brother made it to the U.S.-Mexico border. They crossed the Rio Grande, somewhere outside of Hildalgo, Texas, and proceeded to walk for the next nine hours in the desert, looking for their ride.
“I didn’t know how long we were going to walk,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Coyotes were supposed to meet them and drive them into Colorado. But they didn’t show, Leon Rivas said. He and his brother were picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers instead.
The boys were detained and put in a juvenile detainment facility. Eventually their aunt came to get them. Immigration officials had executed an order of voluntary departure, meaning the boys were free to find their way back to El Salvador within a 60- to 90-day period.
They never left. Instead, they travelled north and found a new life in Summit County.
On March 8, Jen Wolinetz and Jenny Martinez drove to Aurora to visit Leon Rivas.
The Aurora Detention Facility, a sleek building that looks more like an industrial lab than a lock-up, is run by GEO Group, Inc., a corporation that operates nearly 100 such facilities throughout the world on behalf of governments.
“I’ve never been in jail before,” Wolinetz said.
The facility isn’t technically a jail, but the detainees are not allowed to leave. They wear jumpsuits and sleep in locked-down units called pods.
The waiting room environment, a discordant clash of corporate sterility and emotional chaos, was too much for Wolinetz.
“It was crazy,” she said. “Everybody there was speaking Spanish. The waiting room is filled with families and hugely pregnant women. We had to wait. You can’t sign up for a visitation time.”
When they were finally allowed to see Leon Rivas, Wolinetz said she wasn’t prepared to view her beloved student through a security window — “like in the movies.” With his round baby face and kind eyes staring back at her, Wolinetz and Martinez were overwhelmed.
He just didn’t belong in there, Wolinetz thought.
“He was there in his orange jump suit,” she said. “He looked like a little boy next to all the tattooed men. It was heartbreaking. He cried. I cried. Jenny cried. What if he was deported? We wouldn’t be able to hug him goodbye? That’s crazy.”
Wolinetz is feverishly doing all she can to ensure Leon Rivas returns to Summit County and gets his high school diploma. Currently, that means sending out emails to everyone she knows in Summit County and beyond, asking that they call ICE officials, congressman and media outlets to express their outrage. The Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition is also stepping in to help.
“He actually reformed and that so rarely happens,” she said.
Wolinetz said she is hopeful that if the community makes enough noise, immigration officials will do the right thing and let him come back to his true home.
Her optimism is evident in her recent efforts to get Leon Rivas’ homework into the detention facility. A receptionist there told Wolinetz that no one had ever made such a request.
A CHANGED MAN
For Leon Rivas, the transition into life in the Colorado High Country was anything but smooth. At school — first at Silverthorne Elementary and then at Summit’s middle and high schools — he acted out. He was angry. He had the reputation among teachers and peers for being difficult and unruly.
“When he was my student in middle school, he was a scary, mean kid and I didn’t particularly like him,” Wolinetz said.
When he wasn’t skipping school, he was filling out a lengthy rap sheet.
According to government records, between 2007 and 2011, Leon Rivas was in and out of the juvenile justice system for offenses such as carrying a knife to school, stealing out of open cars and criminal mischief related to a fire set at a bus stop in Summit County.
It’s the old cliché, Leon Rivas says. He fell in with the wrong crowd.
In 2011, that crowd took him to California. A Summit County friend was heading there and offered Leon Rivas housing and a change of scenery.
Leon Rivas was tired of Summit County weather. He was tired of going to school and getting in trouble. Leon Rivas says he didn’t know what he was getting into. But, in the end, moving to California was both the worst and the best decision he had ever made, he said.
After arriving in Los Angeles, he discovered his friend was a member of the gang that Leon Rivas had run from in his native El Salvador, MS-13. Though he never joined the gang, his affiliation with one of its members led him to make a disastrous decision.
At the gang’s behest, Leon Rivas had approached a man and asked him for his money. Though Leon Rivas was not armed, the man did as requested. That incident landed Leon Rivas in jail and later in the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections, or DYC.
While in California Leon Rivas learned his grandfather had been murdered by MS-13 in San Salvador. For Leon Rivas, this was his lowest point.
Once back in Colorado, Leon Rivas spent the next 16 months at Ridge View Academy in Watkins, as part of a DYC program called Rite of Passage.
“The program I went to — they literally try to help you,” he said.
It was at Ridge View that he began to form an identity. He began playing sports, soccer and lacrosse, and he made friends. Above all, he learned how to be part of a community.
The Jaime Leon Rivas that returned to Summit County in 2013 was a different person, friends and teachers said.
Joe Johnson, a Summit County Schools counselor, first met Leon Rivas four years ago, when he first came to Summit High School. At the time, Leon Rivas was not making good decisions, Johnson said.
“There was just a lot of defiant insubordination,” he said. “He didn’t want to be in school. He was angry. He struggled at home. He didn’t try very hard at school.”
Eventually, Leon Rivas got caught up in the juvenile justice system and Johnson lost touch with him.
Last year, though, Leon Rivas was back. “He gave me a big hug,” Johnson said, “and told me he was going to Snowy Peaks.”
Johnson was so impressed that he invited Leon Rivas to be a counselor at the youth camp in Florissant last spring.
“He was just awesome,” Johnson said. “He built relationships with the Spanish speakers. He dressed in costume. Dressed up for a hoedown. He helped with the nature carnival. I was so happy with him. We saw him as one of our success stories.”
That’s makes Leon Rivas’ current situation so painful for Johnson.
“When I heard what happened, we were all pretty devastated,” he said. “Other kids looked up to him and respected him. He’d been through the legal system; he was close to graduating; he’d turned his life around. He was making good choices and he was a real asset. He’d done real work in the community. We want him to be able to continue that.”
THE LEGAL SYSTEM
Leon Rivas’ recent transformation — all of the strides and connections he has made since turning his life around in 2011 — has very little to do with his immigration status, according to his Denver-based attorney, Alex McShiras.
In 2005, immigration officials asked that Leon Rivas voluntarily leave the country. He didn’t. In 2007, a judge signed a final order of removal, which required that Leon Rivas be deported immediately. Given that he’s had several brushes with the justice system since he immigrated to the U.S. in 2005, it is unclear exactly why he has been allowed to remain so long.
“It’s arbitrary and capricious, “McShiras said. “They do what they want when they want.”
However, ICE is doing nothing illegal by moving on the 2007 order to deport Leon Rivas. “They could deport him at any time because of this order,” McShiras said. “No judge. No hearing.”
The fact that he is reformed has little bearing on whether he stays in the country, just as his past misdeeds didn’t result in his immediate deportation.
However, McShiras hopes to show that Leon Rivas has reason to fear for his life upon returning to El Salvador. This won’t get him asylum due to the legal nature of the 2007 final order of removal, but it could get him what is called a withholding of removal. The name is different, but it means he gets to stay. At this point, this is Leon Rivas’ only chance.
International human rights law stipulates that a country such as the U.S. must harbor foreign nationals whose governments are directly threatening their physical well-being or are unwilling or unable to protect them from harm. In Leon Rivas’ case, the argument is that the country of El Salvador can’t or won’t shield him from the gangs that run rampant there.
“He’s scared to go back to El Salvador because of this gang,” McShiras said.
It is not an easy case to win, however, he said.
“I’ve never done an El Salvador gang case and won, but I know it’s been done,” he said.
There’s also not much hope that Washington, D.C. will come to a solution fast enough to keep Leon Rivas here. Over the past six years, the Obama administration has deported nearly 2 million people. Efforts to extend citizenship to the more than 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally have stalled in Congress. Immigrant activists groups, such as the Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition, are shifting their focus instead to stopping individual deportations, according to an Associated Press report this week.
In 2012, according to the Associate Press, President Barack Obama, as part of a re-election gambit to shore up the Hispanic vote, “granted people who were brought to the country illegally as children the right to work in the United States and gave them administrative protection from deportation if they had graduated high school or served in the military.”
That might have helped Leon Rivas had he been detained after May 22, when he was expected to graduate from Snowy Peaks.
HOPE OR HOMECOMING
Leon Rivas hasn’t come to terms with the idea of returning to El Salvador. Much of his family lives in the U.S. The only familiar tie he has left in his home country is an alcoholic father he hasn’t talked to since he left the country back in 2005. He said he’s scared of what MS-13 might do when he returns.
“I don’t know my country; I left when I was 10 years old,” he said. “If I go back home, I really don’t have much hope. I really don’t have much hope at all. I can’t really go back.”
Still, he said the outspoken support he’s received from Summit County gives him courage.
“It really makes me feel better,” he said. “It helps me stay positive. It gives me hope.”