CHARLOTTE, NC (Mark Price/The Charlotte Observer) - Two months after Charlotte's Hispanic community staged a series of protests over the arrests of six immigrant teens, federal agents have launched another round of arrests, this time taking mothers and their children living undocumented in the city.
As many as six families have been arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the past three weeks, say local immigration attorneys. This includes Maritza Alcantara Argueta, 36, who ICE says it arrested Wednesday at her Charlotte home with two sons, ages 3 and 7. The 7-year-old was a first grader at Winterfield Elementary School, family members said.
However, it was the arrest this week of yet another Charlotte teen that has immigrant supporters poised for more protests.
Luis Alfredo Chicaj-Orozco, 18, is believed to have been among the thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors who crossed the border in 2014-15. Most came without adult companions, seeking asylum from countries plagued by gang violence and some of the world's highest murder rates.
Chicaj-Orozco was taken into custody Wednesday exactly one month after he turned 18, which is not unlike the cases of six other N.C. teens arrested in January and February. Those six teens, whom supporters call the NC6, remain in custody in Georgia's Stewart Detention Center, 400 miles south of Charlotte.
Reuters news agency reported this month that "leaked" federal documents showed a new ICE operation had been launched to deport hundreds of Central American mothers and children found to have entered the country illegally.
However, U.S. immigration officials say the latest Charlotte arrests are not a new operation, but simply a continuation of what began in January when the NC6 were arrested for staying in the country after a judge ordered them to leave.
Argueta, a Honduran national, and her two children had overstayed their order of removal by two years, ICE says. And Chicaj-Orozco, a Guatemalan national, had received an order of removal in March, ICE said.
ICE officials also note that Argueta and Chicaj-Orozco do not have pending court appeals, and they had not made claims for humanitarian relief.
Atenas Burrola, an immigration attorney with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, says she began hearing reports of local arrests three weeks ago, when counselors at a family detention center in Texas called to say two Charlotte women and their children were among the latest arrivals.
"We only found out about those two by accident," said Burrola. "I don't want to terrify people, but we just don't know how many people have been picked up (in Charlotte), and rumors only feed the fear."
Legal Services of Southern Piedmont says it is working to educate immigrant families on what constitutes an unlawful arrest by federal agents, including lack of proper paperwork. "They do not have to open the door if ICE does not have a valid judicial warrant," Burrola says. "Immigrants are often so terrified, they react to the fear and open the door. They don't realize they can exercise their rights."
A series of immigrant protests were staged in the spring after the NC6 were arrested. Among the six are two Charlotte teens: Pedro Arturo Salmeron, 18, and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, both of whom had been issued orders of removal by immigration judges.
Sorto-Hernandez's arrest gained national attention when federal agents were accused of using schools and bus stops to corral teens not legally in the country. As a result, some immigrant families told the Observer they were keeping their children out of school to avoid arrests.
ICE has denied using such tactics, noting it was coincidental that teens were arrested on the same block as a school bus stop or in a nearby parking lot.
"We stress that these operations are limited to those who were apprehended at the border after January 1, 2014, have been ordered removed by an immigration court, and have no pending appeal or pending claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws," said Bryan D. Cox, spokesman for ICE in the region.
"We stress also that in its enforcement operations, ICE will continue to adhere to existing guidance to avoid the apprehension of individuals at sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals and places of worship, except in emergency circumstances."
The teens included in the NC6 have all hired new attorneys and are working to have their bids for legal status or asylum re-introduced. Some of the teens have complained that their original cases were lost due to bad legal advice.
ICE doesn't dispute that, but the agency notes the teens had 30 days to make appeals and did not.
"The issue we're seeing in these recent cases," said Cox, "is these individuals were ordered removed a year ago and yet for whatever reason they never appealed. It was only after they were taken into ICE custody to execute the order of the court that these individuals decided to file appeals."
Pedro Arturo Salmeron maintains he was told by his original attorney that he didn't qualify for asylum, despite the fact that a cousin was killed and dismembered in Central America. Salmeron's family says he fled his home country of El Salvador because he feared for his life.
Salmeron's new attorney, J. Britt Thames of Macon, Ga., told the Observer he is taking the opposite approach of the previous attorney, pushing for asylum with the help of a death certificate for the murdered cousin.
Byron Martinez of the immigrant advocacy agency Unidos We Stand has been working to get all six teens released into the custody of their families while the legal process works itself out. ICE has resisted, because some admitted they were hiding from federal agents when they were caught.