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Schoolmates, Immigrant Youth and Advocates Fight to #FreeDennis from Detention Camp

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Send Message to Houston ISD and Harris County: “School is for Education Not Criminalization and Deportation!”

Houston, TX – Today, friends and advocates of Dennis Rivera-Sarmiento gathered on a press call to demand his release from ICE detention and for Houston Independent School District to adopt policies that allow undocumented students to thrive and protect them from entering into a school-to-prison-and-deportation pipeline.

Just weeks ago, Dennis reported a case of racist attacks and bullying by a fellow student to school officials but instead of resolving the situation, Dennis was handcuffed, put into HISD Police custody, taken to Harris County jail by Harris County deputies, and given to ICE agents who locked him in a detention camp more than 70 miles away from his friends, family and attorney.

Moises Davila, age 16, is Dennis’s schoolmate at Austin High School, and co-organizer of Wednesday’s school walkout. He spoke out in support of Dennis, saying:

My classmates and I knew that we needed to take action because what happened to Dennis was unjust. Dennis is a leader at our school and we are calling on ICE to free Dennis, so he can finish his senior year and go on to college like he has been planning. We know we cannot stay silent when Dennis is facing deportation and separation from his family.

Brandon Roche, immigration attorney representing Dennis Rivera-Sarmiento, said:

We are doing everything we can to keep Dennis from being deported, but there are not a lot of options for someone in his position. One of the primary issues in this case is the selective enforcement of policies that led to Dennis being arrested, even though he was the victim of a racially motivated assault.

If HISD allows students to racially harass others until they are forced to defend themselves—and then disproportionately punishes the victim—then bullies and racists will be emboldened to go after other immigrants knowing that provoking them to defend themselves might get them deported. This is not just an immigration issue, but a criminal justice issue and a civil rights issue as well.

Damaris Gonzalez, lead organizer with United We Dream Houston, said:

In Texas, SB 4 fuels the mass deportation agenda of Trump and racist Texas politicians. School district policies have failed Dennis at a time when immigrant youth already feel vulnerable and uncertain about their futures.

We must do everything in our power to undo a system that criminalizes young people of color and enforces a school-to-prison-and-deportation pipeline. We call on ICE to release Dennis, and for Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg to drop the forfeiture of bond case against Dennis. If Houston ISD is truly committed to, ‘educating every student regardless of their immigration status,’ then they must implement policies that protect undocumented students from the kind of deportation threats that Dennis is facing today. United We Dream fights alongside the students and faculty of Austin High School because when our community is under attack, we unite and fight back!

Jay Jenkins, Harris County Policy Attorney, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said:

HISD, like a number of other large school districts in the state of Texas, established an independent police department—one that answers only to the educators, administrators, and trustees at HISD. In an era of mass deportations and SB4, HISD and their police force have become an integral part of the school to deportation pipeline. In Houston and Harris County, the local juvenile and adult criminal justice systems cooperate with federal immigration officials, meaning HISD Police put undocumented students at risk any time a referral to the criminal justice system is made.

Whether HISD knows it or not, any time an HISD Police Officer refers one of their students to the criminal justice system in Harris County, that student is at risk to be deported. As we’ve seen in this particular case, deportation proceedings commenced before any of the underlying charges against the student were adjudicated. If HISD insists on continuing to maintain its own independent law enforcement agency, it must own the consequences when one of their students is deported.

Angie Junck, Supervising Attorney, Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), said:

Dennis’ case perfectly illustrates the involvement of multiple agencies in the deportation pipeline. Any school district that uses police for student affairs is complicit in exposing non-citizen students to deportation. In 2017, federal data shows that Harris County has the second highest number of ICE arrests in the country. These arrests are the result, in many cases, of local law enforcement colluding with ICE and facilitating mass deportation.

A statement was read on behalf of one Austin High School teacher who is close to Dennis and has chosen to remain anonymous. It reads:

Dennis is the kind of student who you look forward to seeing walk into your classroom or office every day. He is respectful to teachers, staff, and administrators, and kind and helpful to his fellow students. He has good grades and solid attendance.

The situation that occurred here is a clear indication that somewhere, and somehow, not only has the criminal justice system failed our student, but HISD procedures have as well. We routinely practice drills for fires and intruders, but when will we add such measures to our routine that will protect all of our students? When will HISD take the steps necessary to ensure that undocumented students are protected, especially when they’re on school property?

Yesterday, over 300 Austin High School students walked out of class to demand the release of their fellow student Dennis from an ICE detention camp, some with signs asking, “Dennis today. Me tomorrow?” IMAGES and VIDEO of the walkout can be found herehere and hereThe online petition in support of Dennis has garnered more than 9000 supporters.