Kimberly Pineda-Chavez has turned 19 while awaiting her fate in a federal immigration detention center in South Georgia. Fellow detainees helped the Collins Hill High School student celebrate last month by singing “Happy Birthday” in Spanish.
Outside the sprawling complex in Ocilla, the Buford woman’s deportation case is attracting national attention while underscoring the link between Georgia and the on-again-off-again humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border. The impassioned debate over her case also comes amid a presidential election riven by what to do about the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S.
Pineda-Chavez is among hundreds of people who have been arrested in Georgia and other states this year as part of a crackdown against the waves of Central Americans immigrants illegally entering the country. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have called for an end to the raids, while Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is campaigning on ousting all immigrants with no legal status here.
In recent weeks, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times and Univision have published pieces about Pineda-Chavez’ plight. And activists have created two online petitions to free her, including one on the liberal website MoveOn.org. It has attracted more than 25,000 signatures from people across the nation and even overseas.
Pineda-Chavez’ complicated case is triggering headlines, partly because of her harrowing story. In a telephone interview from the Irwin County Detention Center this week, she described how she fled Honduras in 2014 at age 17 to escape gangsters who threatened to make her and her younger sister their “sexual property.” Immigration authorities apprehended the sisters at the southwest border in September of that year, but they were allowed to stay in the U.S. while they underwent deportation proceedings.
Pineda-Chavez was ordered deported three months later. Preparing to send her back to Honduras, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested her in January of this year in a parking lot outside her home. Her attorney said she was on her way to school.
Pineda-Chavez said she is feeling a mixture of feelings amid the media attention, including shame. She said she misses her family and is keeping busy by working for $1 a day assembling packets of clothes for incoming detainees. Meanwhile, she is fearful of what the gangsters would do to her if she is returned to her native Honduras.
“They can take me,” she said. “I don’t know. They could do whatever they want because I am going to be lonely right there in Honduras. I am afraid to come back to my country.”
Her attorney, Elanie Cintron, said the Atlanta-area law firm that originally represented Pineda-Chavez, her sister and mother during their deportation proceedings failed to file asylum applications for them. That law firm — Taylor Lee & Associates — denied it provided inadequate representation for the family, though it declined to discuss specifics, citing client privacy reasons. Cintron said she filed their asylum paperwork after Pineda-Chavez was detained in January. Her asylum application details how armed police officers ransacked her family’s home in Honduras and held her stepfather hostage until her mother paid a ransom in 2012.
“When we are going through our priorities,” Cintron said, “is this really what we want to focus our enforcement priorities on — a 19-year-old high school student who has a viable asylum claim and was deprived of the right to actually seek it?”
An ICE spokesman confirmed Pineda-Chavez was among 336 people ICE has arrested since late January as part of a nationwide sweep called “Operation Border Guardian.” The focus, according to ICE, is on people who came here illegally as unaccompanied children and teens after Jan. 1 of 2014, who are now older than 18, who have been ordered removed by immigration judges and who do not have pending appeals or claims of asylum or other relief.
Federal immigration authorities could not provide a state-by-state breakdown of where the 336 people were taken into custody. Their detention followed immigration raids that resulted in the arrest of 121 adults and children in Georgia and elsewhere earlier in January. Of that number, 77 have been deported, according to ICE.
“As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration,” U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a prepared statement about the continuing crackdown last week. “We must and we will enforce the law in accordance with our enforcement priorities.”
Before she was detained in January, Pineda-Chavez attended Corners Church of Christ, a racially and ethnically diverse place of worship in Peachtree Corners that attracts U.S.-born citizens as well as immigrants. Church members have been praying and fasting in hopes that Pineda-Chavez will be freed, said Larry Campbell, a church elder.
“It’s been very shocking,” said Campbell, who has visited Pineda-Chavez at the detention center in Ocilla. Campbell added the U.S.-born members of his church “are unhappy with how she is being treated. And my Latino members are scared to death of what is next.”