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ICE nabs teenager hours before his senior prom, days before his graduation ceremony

Diego Puma Macancela, 19. (Courtesy of the family’s lawyers at Neighbors Link)

On the day of his senior prom, Diego Ismael Puma Macancela was cowering in a bedroom closet, hiding from immigration officers as they pounded on doors outside.

Puma Macancela, a 19-year-old high school student in Ossining, N.Y., expected the authorities would be looking for him. A day before, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had arrested and detained his mother, an undocumented Ecuadoran immigrant who entered the United States illegally with him two years ago.

With his mother in ICE custody, the teenager had spent the night at his relatives’ apartment, his cousin Gabriela Macancela, 21, told The Washington Post. And on Thursday morning, Puma Macancela woke his cousin up with the news: The authorities were back for him, demanding that he go outside.

As his cousin hid under her parents’ bed, the immigration officers called her and her father on their cellphones, telling them that if Puma Macancela didn’t come outside they would be breaking down the doors. The teenager worried that if they gained access to the home, his undocumented relatives would also be arrested, Gabriela Macancela said. So he chose to turn himself in.

“Bye, Gaby,” he said to her, giving her his wallet and asking her to say goodbye to his dad.

Then, the teenager was arrested, taken into custody and sent to a detention facility in New Jersey. He has remained there in the days since, separated from his mother, Rosa Ines Macancela Vazquez, who is being held in a different center, Orange County Correctional Facility in Goshen, N.Y.

The White House has said they are focused on deporting undocumented immigrants who "pose a threat to this country." (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Puma Macancela was supposed to walk in his high school graduation ceremony, scheduled for Saturday. He is now all but certain to miss it and faces imminent deportation to his native country.

“He is petrified,” said Carola Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link, a nonprofit group handling the teenager’s case. “He is scared to death he’s going to be sent back to Ecuador.”

The high school student has become immigration activists’ latest example of how the Trump administration has intensified arrests of undocumented immigrants — even those without a criminal record. And those arrests could rise more next year if ICE gets the budget boost requested by the Trump, the nation’s top enforcement official told lawmakers Tuesday, as The Washington Post’s Maria Sacchetti reported.

“If you’re in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable,” Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said. “You should look over your shoulder.”

In the aftermath of Puma Macancela’s arrest, relatives, immigration lawyers, Washington lawmakers and even the schools superintendent in his village just north of New York City have mobilized to support the teenager. About 19,200 people have signed an online petition for him.

On Monday, his lawyers filed a request for a stay of removal. They asked authorities to grant Puma Macancela one more year in the country, allowing him to finish high school and carry out his plans to become certified as an auto mechanic. Now it is up to immigration authorities whether he will be granted the temporary stay.

A noncriminal mother of four was deported. Now in Mexico, she fears for her safety.

His lawyers have contended that Puma Macancela has not committed any crime, aside from entering the country illegally.

Immigration authorities have known about the Ecuadoran mother and son since they arrived in the United States in December 2014, ICE public affairs officer Rachel Yong Yow said in a statement to The Post. They were detained near Laredo, Tex., temporarily, but were later released pending court hearings. While they awaited a decision on their case, ICE maintained supervision of the family using GPS monitoring technology.

Puma Macancela and his mother applied for asylum, but they both lost their cases on Nov. 16. They were arrested last week “pursuant to a final order of removal issued by an immigration judge” when they lost their asylum cases, Yong Yow said.

They never appealed their removal order because the family did not have the financial resources to pay their lawyer to continue working for them, Bracco said.

Puma Macancela was on course to graduate high school in August. The district was allowing him to walk in the upcoming commencement ceremony Saturday, Bracco said. His plans were to spend the next several months taking final exams and classes necessary to graduate, while also participating in an auto mechanics program offered by the high school.

Ossining Schools Superintendent Ray Sanchez said in a statement that “given permission by the courts, we would, of course, welcome our student back for his final exams and graduation next week.”

While lawyers work on making that possible, a number of U.S. lawmakers have written to immigration authorities on behalf of the high school student.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) penned a letter to ICE requesting a stay of removal for him, arguing Puma Macancela “genuinely fears for his safety and well-being if returned to Ecuador.”

“A productive and contributing member of our community, his only crime was being brought to the United States as a minor by a parent,” Lowey said.

Lowey’s office told the teenager’s lawyers that she requested and gained approval from ICE officials to move Puma Macancela to the same facility as his mother. But as of Tuesday evening, the teen had not yet been moved, Bracco said.

Gabriela Macancela said her cousin dreads going back to Ecuador, in part because of the dangers there. “The gangs are growing more and more,” she said.

Before he was detained, Puma Macancela had been balancing his school work with two jobs, working shifts at a McDonalds and a local pizzeria. But if he goes back to Ecuador, his cousin said, “he’s never going to be able to find jobs.”

Meanwhile, his family feels threatened, since many of them are also undocumented. Gabriela Macancela, who is protected under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, is one of the few members of the family who is fluent in English, meaning she has been forced to take a leading role in conversations with lawyers and members of the press.

“It’s really scary, it’s really stressful,” Macancela said. “It’s really hard for all of us going through this.”

A group of supporters — including immigration activists, lawmakers, and Ossining high school students — attended a rally outside Manhattan’s federal courthouse earlier this week in protest of the teenager’s detention.

“Instead of wearing a tuxedo and putting a boutonniere on his wrist, he was wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles,” Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said at the protest.

New York state Assemblyman Francisco Moya, who is also Ecuadoran, said, “This shows how close to home this war has come.

“At what point does the administration admit that their immigration policy has immeasurably overstepped itself?”

A number of Puma Macancela’s classmates and relatives were there, holding up signs reading “Free Diego.”

Puma Macancela’s father told CBS New York he feels “broken.”

“We came to this country not to harm anyone, but to work and to educate my kids,” the father said.

Miguel Carpio, a classmate of Puma Macancela’s, told CBS New York, “We lost a brother, we lost everything.”

“He’s part of us,” Carpio said. “Part of Ossining.”

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