More than 300 students from Stephen F. Austin High School in Houston, Texas walked out during their lunch break on Wednesday to protest the detention of an undocumented peer by federal immigration authorities.
Dennis Rivera-Sarmiento, a 19-year-old from Honduras, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials after getting into a fight at the school with another student, who immigrant rights advocates say was bullying him for being undocumented.
— Mayra Moreno ABC13 (@MayraABC13) February 14, 2018
Andrea Gonzalez, a 15-year-old sophomore who helped organize the protest, told The Houston Chronicle that his detention and pending deportation has made other students afraid to attend school.
"We don't want anything like this to happen to anyone else," Gonzalez said. "Today it could be Dennis, tomorrow it could be us."
In response to the protest, the Houston Independent School Disctrict (HISD) said in a statement that it "has not used district resources to assist in deportation actions and we do not report students to ICE," emphasizing "the district's commitment to educating every student regardless of their immigration status."
"School police contacted the Harris County District Attorney's Office," and Rivera-Sarmiento was charged with a misdemeanor for the fight, according to The Chronicle. "He was arrested and transferred to the Harris County Jail, where deputies ran his fingerprints."
His fingerprints were run through federal databases as part of a highly contentious national program called Secure Communities, which immigrant rights advocates have decried as "a policy that criminalizes immigrants, erodes our civil rights, and destroys community safety." After his immigration status was confirmed, the Chronicle reports, federal officials "requested the sheriff's office hold him until they could pick him up" from the facility, rather than releasing him on bond.
"Dennis was eligible for, and paid, a $2,000 bond, but instead of being released to his family, the sheriff's department handed him over to ICE," according to the immigrant youth network United We Dream (UWD), which has launched a #FreeDennis petition that has garnered more than 9,000 signatures. "The outrageous reality is that too many systems have failed Dennis and many other immigrant youth."
19-year-old Dennis was detained after bullies made fun of him for being undocumented!
Sign to demand ICE to release Dennis from detention immediately and let him go back to school.https://t.co/JOxvLHXXvt#FreeDennis #Not1More pic.twitter.com/hxt0K10iWf
— United We Dream (#DreamActNow: 478-488-8059) (@UNITEDWEDREAM) February 10, 2018
"HISD failed Dennis by letting police officers decide that incarceration is the solution to bullying," UWD said. "The District Attorney's office failed Dennis by using their discretion to charge and prosecute Dennis, and to file a second case against him for forfeiting his bond, which was of no fault of his own because he went into ICE custody. The sheriff's department failed Dennis by obtaining information from him that was shared with ICE and then allowed ICE to arrest him from the jail."
After making local headlines, the demands that federal authorities release Rivera-Sarmiento gained support from higher profile activists, including actress Alyssa Milano, who signed the petition and tweeted with the hashtag #FreeDennis.