They sang “Happy Birthday” and ate cupcakes with frosting and candles on top. They wore “Free Jaime” T-shirts, as well as graduation caps and gowns, and held up signs that read “Let Jaime Graduate.”
It was a party and a protest on Tuesday evening, as friends, family and supporters of Jaime Leon Rivas gathered outside of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lockup in Aurora.
Jaime Leon Rivas, who turned 19 on March 25, was less than a football field away from the event. While his friends and family spoke up on his behalf, he sat imprisoned deep inside the Aurora Detention Facility, where the federal government has held him since March 4.
Leon Rivas, a Snowy Peaks High School senior set to graduate in May, immigrated to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. He says that he and his brother, who was then 15, were fleeing gang violence in their home country of El Salvador when they illegally crossed the Rio Grande into Texas back in 2005. Leon Rivas and his brother, Carlos, were detained by ICE officials and led to sign voluntary departure forms.
The brothers didn’t leave. Instead, they drove north to Colorado with an aunt. In Summit County, they reconnected with family members — their mother, their uncles, their nieces and nephews — many of whom attended the rally this week.
Carlos Leon Rivas remembers the two-month trip to the U.S. in more detail than his younger brother Jaime. He vividly recalls life in El Salvador; he can still feel the fear of growing old enough to become a target of gangs looking for new recruits. He said he is saddened that his brother might have to go back to a place of violence, a place where gangs murdered their grandfather.
He said he believes his brother’s checkered past is now coming back to haunt him.
“Well, you know, since my brother started hanging around the wrong crowd I knew this was going to happen,” he said of the potential deportation. “But he paid for his crimes. They shouldn’t be doing this.”
During his first several years in Summit County, Jaime Leon Rivas floundered: He was a bad student, a truant who didn’t get along with his peers or teachers. And between 2007 and 2011, he bounced 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.
He did his time for those acts, and then — to the surprise of many — he redeemed himself, becoming a leading light at the fledgling Snowy Peaks campus. About two months ago, he secured a work permit with the help of his ICE supervisor. But on March 4, for reasons that still aren’t clear, ICE reversed course and detained Leon Rivas.
Brett Tomlinson, the principal of Snowy Peaks, says that Leon Rivas was instrumental in building the culture at the three-year-old alternative program. Tomlinson was outspoken at the rally on Tuesday, characterizing the government’s recent action to deport Leon Rivas as arbitrary and senseless.
“At one point, I was very proud of our system,” he said. “When Jaime made some poor choices a few years ago, the system reeled him in. They spent a lot of time and money, my money and your money, in helping him become a better person so he could improve his community. However, like a bingo game, the system then just randomly pulled his number years later only to detain him in this building.”
Jen Wolinetz, a Snowy Peaks teacher, has known Leon Rivas since he was in middle school. She said at the protest that positive transformation born from the juvenile justice system is a rare thing.
“When students go to the juvenile justice system and return to the same home and the same school and the same community, they do not make the changes that Jaime did,” she said. “Jaime returned to us in Summit County a respectful, dedicated, compassionate, kind young man. He is an important part of our school community. He is a leader in our school community. His family loves him and we need him in our classes learning. We need him at graduation.”
Leon Rivas’ girlfriend, Jenny Martinez, along with the Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition (CIRC), organized the event. They also are working together on a petition drive calling for Leon Rivas’ return to Summit County. So far, they’ve collected more than 550 signatures.
It was Martinez that led the protest group in a round of “Happy Birthday” on Tuesday. She’s been visiting Jaime in the detention center and talking with him on the phone every day. She’s hopeful he’ll return home soon.
“I just tell him to keep his head high,” she said. “I just tell him to be patient. We’re doing everything we can. We’re not just sitting with our arms crossed.”
Alex McShiras, Leon Rivas’ immigration attorney, said that his client’s stay of removal application is currently pending. He has also filed a petition that would reopen Leon Rivas’ case, the first step in getting a withholding of removal, which would allow him to stay in the U.S. In addition, McShiras said he has filed a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals motion.
“We are working to pursue every possible legal option on his behalf,” he said in a written statement.
The crux of the argument to keep Leon Rivas in the U.S. is that the country of El Salvador can’t or won’t control gang violence.
“Being deported will put Jaime’s life in danger,” Jenny Martinez said in a written statement. “He cannot be deported.”
Over the past six years, the Obama administration has deported more than 2 million people. Recently, however, President Obama has called for a review of deportation practices, particularly ones that separate families. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also recently criticized deportation practices intended to eject undocumented immigrants with a history of violent crimes from the country. Instead of removing just dangerous criminals from society, Hickenlooper explained, ICE practices have acted as an indiscriminate dragnet that ensnares even low-level offenders.
“Jaime is one of those people Obama is talking about,” Martinez said in a written statement. “He’s one of those people our governor is talking about. He’s our role model, a part of our community, and there’s no reason for him to be locked up like that and his future ripped away.”
“When students go to the juvenile justice system and return to the same home and the same school and the same community, they do not make the changes that Jaime did.”
Teacher at Snowy Peaks High School