The sobbing 13-year-old girl had captured a gut-wrenching moment on video: the moment her father, who was driving her to school, was pulled over and taken into custody by U.S. immigration agents.
As Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez stepped out of the vehicle on the morning of Feb. 28, he told his daughter, Fatima, “relax and be strong,” according to CW affiliate KTLA. Then, the girl’s mother told her to record his arrest.
On Tuesday, exactly one month later, the teen appeared at Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) news conference on President Trump’s proposed border wall, speaking through tears about the scene she captured on film.
“My dad was detained in front of me on my way to school,” Fatima told reporters. “It was the hardest thing to watch, but I still went to school because my father showed me the importance of education. I knew I’d have someone to support me there.”
Fatima spoke from the podium in Washington, clutching a medal hanging from her neck.
“I finished the L.A. Marathon with the help of my dad,” she said, explaining that her father would ride his bike alongside her during weekend practices, to make sure she did not give up.
“When I finish high school, I want to go to college so I can go to law school. I want to become an immigration lawyer,” she added. “That’s like a new marathon for me, and I know I can finish it, but I need my coach there; I need my dad. I never thought any of my life I would have to experience seeing my father taken away from me. He has always been right beside me to help me in any struggles I had.”
Tuesday’s event was organized by the National Council of La Raza and Democratic senators opposed to Trump’s requests for hundreds of millions of dollars to begin construction on a U.S.-Mexico border wall and for more personnel at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
With talks underway between Democrats and Republicans on a new spending agreement that has to be approved by late April, senior Democratic aides said their caucus will continue highlighting the personal stories of families affected by Trump’s immigration policies in a bid to build up more public opposition to his border wall plans.
One woman, Rosa Escobar, whose husband, Jose, was deported back to Mexico, told reporters she is struggling to explain her husband’s removal to her young children.
“My biggest fear today is getting a phone call saying that my husband has been murdered,” she told a room packed with dozens of people and 11 television cameras. “How do I explain that to my two children? Why is my American Dream being crushed by my own country, because my own president doesn’t understand that I’m in love with someone who is an illegal immigrant. However, I’m trying to do things the right way.”
In the wake of President Trump’s orders to crack down on illegal immigration, the arrest of Avelica-Gonzalez on Feb. 28 left teachers trying to console students — even as they began to prepare some for the possibility of their own parents’ sudden deportation.
“You need to be ready. ‘Have you talked to your parents? Do you have power of attorney?’” Ricardo Mireles, executive director of Academia Avance, told the Los Angeles Times.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement to ABC affiliate KABC that Avelica-Gonzalez was “targeted for arrest because relevant databases indicate he has multiple prior criminal convictions, including a DUI in 2009, as well an outstanding order of removal dating back to 2014.”
“We knew the day was going to come,” Avelica-Gonzalez’s 19-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, told KTLA after the arrest. “Especially with the election. We just weren’t prepared.”
Avelica-Gonzalez, a 48-year-old restaurant worker, was reportedly the sole source of income for his wife and four children, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Now my family and I are living day by day to see what happens next,” Fatima said at Tuesday’s news conference.
Fatima said she visited Avelica-Gonzalez in custody late last week and noted that he appeared “way skinnier than he was, and I’m scared that, over time, he will change more.”
Crying, Fatima said that her father told her “how much he wants to be home with us.”
“My dad has lived here more than he has lived in Mexico,” the 13-year-old said. “He knows life here. Me and my sisters are not willing to go back to Mexico. We’re here to stay.”
On Tuesday, Schumer blasted Trump’s calls for border wall money and to expand the size of ICE, saying, “Instead of spending taxpayer dollars on a pointless wall, we should be investing in creating jobs, and fixing our infrastructure — not in separating American families, harming kids and local economies who are without workers who work so hard.”
“Immigrants are an integral part of this country. Democrats will be vigilant and strong in our commitment to upholding the promise of America and shielding immigrants from President Trump’s policies. Senate Democrats are prepared to fight this all the way,” Schumer added.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has worked on immigration issues since coming to Congress in the 1990s, fought back tears after Fatima spoke, telling reporters that the latest stories from families affected by Trump’s policies add to decades of “stories that we have been dealing with for some time.”
“I believe that our caucus will do everything possible to make sure that U.S. taxpayer moneys do not go to build a wall. President Trump said Mexico is going to build that wall, I don’t believe we need a wall,” he said.
“At the end of the day, he should keep his word and make someone else pay for it — not the United States taxpayer,” Menendez added. “And we will do everything possible.”