Friends mobilize on Facebook to protest boy's deportation

The Miami HeraldJuly 26, 2007 

MIAMI — Juan Gomez was poised for greatness.

At Miami Killian High, he aced 15 Advanced Placement classes and earned a near-perfect score on his SATs. He excelled in football and was popular with classmates. He had plans to attend Miami Dade College's Honors College.

But on Thursday, Gomez, 18, sat in an immigrant detention facility in Broward County, periodically placing desperate calls to friends. He's being deported to Colombia, where he was born.

Gomez's friends first found out about his ordeal in text messages he sent them as immigration agents drove him and his family to the facility. Hours later, more than 400 teens came to his defense the best way they knew how - using the Web.

The teens have joined a virtual assemblage on Facebook.com and are furiously writing letters to lawmakers in Tallahassee and Washington, begging them to help Gomez.

"He's one of the smartest kids I know and an amazing friend," said Scott Elfenbein, 18, the Killian graduate leading the effort. "We're doing all that we can to help him."

Julio and Liliana Gomez and their two sons - Alejandro, 19, and Juan - have lived in the country since 1990. They came to South Florida on a visitor's visa, immigration officials said, authorizing the family to stay in the country for no more than six months.

Juan Gomez was 2 years old.

The family started a small catering company and enrolled their children in public schools, friends said. It's unclear why they chose to stay.

At Killian, Gomez was known for his good grades and his playful sense of humor. He had dozens of friends and enjoyed movies, video games and sports, his buddies said. He also worked a restaurant job to help support his family.

In May, Gomez graduated in the top 20 of his 780-member class, friends said.

"If there is a more appropriate poster child for who we should NOT be deporting in this recent immigration discussion it is Juan," Eric Krause, a U.S. government teacher at Killian, told The Miami Herald in an e-mail. "Deporting a student who the entire Killian faculty would describe as one of the best our high school has ever produced is not the American way."

He had hoped to go to Harvard or the University of Pennsylvania but had trouble applying because of his illegal status. Instead, he enrolled in Miami Dade College's honors program to study business administration. Officials at the school said he showed tremendous potential and promise.

But problems were brewing.

The family had gone to immigration court to seek legal status, and a judge turned them down. Five years ago, the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed.

"They had five years to make arrangements to return to their home country," said Barbara Gonzalez, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman in Miami. "Instead of complying with the law, they ignored it and remained in the country."

The deportation order caught up with them Wednesday. About 6:30 a.m., Gomez and his relatives were roused from their sleep at their Kendall home by immigration agents. They were handcuffed, loaded into the back of a squad car and hauled to Broward County, Gomez told his friends.

While in the cruiser, Gomez called and messaged his friends from his cell phone. He told them his father is at Krome detention center, while the rest of the family is being held at a facility in Broward. Gomez and his brother are sharing a cell with three other men. Their mother is being held in a separate women's facility.

"He says it's like purgatory," said Elfenbein, who spoke with Gomez on Thursday. "It's terrible. This couldn't have happened to a nicer person."

Elfenbein and his friends weren't about to sit idly by.

Hours after Gomez was detained, they mobilized on Facebook, the popular social networking site. They started a group dedicated to keeping Gomez in the country.

"We wanted to reach out to everybody," Elfenbein said. "We figured the easiest, fastest way to do that would be using Facebook."

Elfenbein posted directions on how to contact state and local lawmakers. He also included information on pending immigration legislation and pictures of Gomez.

Since Thursday morning, more than 400 teens have joined the group. Two dozen have posted the letters they're sending to lawmakers. Many are pushing Congress to pass the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants.

"We all just want to be there for Juan," said Kayla Rodriguez, 18, one of Gomez's best friends. "He would be there for us."

The students aren't the only ones concerned with Gomez's situation. Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, said her office is looking into the family's case.

"We learn of a lot of cases like this at the last minute," she said. "Often times, it's very difficult to help. People are deported very quickly."

Little said she's concerned this kind of activity is on the rise. "First, they're separated. Then, their lives are literally turned upside down on a moment's notice," she said. "It's heartbreaking."

Gonzalez, the ICE spokeswoman, said the arrest shouldn't be surprising.

"It's unfortunate that parents place their children in these situations by breaking the law," she said. "But they did break the law."

Late Thursday, Elfenbein and his friends gathered at a southwest Miami-Dade restaurant to plan the next phase of their attack. They knew time was running out.

"He's looking at a very, very slim chance of staying here," Elfenbein said. "Short of the president stepping in, it's going to be hard to keep him in this country. We're doing all we can."

Miami Herald staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this report.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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