Frank Fuentes was 2 years old when his parents brought him to the US.
And he was just 19 when he died trying to come back home — the victim of the federal government’s deepening crackdown on immigrants.
Fuentes was one of some 100 undocumented immigrants discovered in a tractor-trailer truck in the parking lot of a Walmart near San Antonio, Texas, on July 22.
At least eight, including Frank, had died from suffocation and heat exposure by the time they were discovered, and two more died later. Twenty-eight people had to be hospitalized — some reportedly suffered permanent brain damage and other severe ailments as a result of the ordeal.
In Fuentes’ case, the fact that the US had been the only home he knew for the majority of his life only highlights the brutality of the expanded war on immigrants being waged by the US government.
Fuentes, who was originally from Guatemala, spent the majority of his life in Northern Virginia after his parents emigrated to the US He graduated from J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Virginia, in 2015. The young aspiring rapper, who loved skateboarding, worked in construction while taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College.
Because he was not born in the US, however, he was one of the hundreds of thousands of young adults who remain in a kind of legal limbo — at risk of deportation despite knowing no other home but the US since they were small children.
Fuentes had been covered under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but his status changed, according to the Washington Post, when in March 2016, he pleaded guilty to simple assault and battery by a mob and grand larceny/pickpocketing.
Though the details of the case remain unclear in press accounts, one report suggested that Fuentes was changed with assault after he and three others yelled at someone for waiting for the bus on a particular corner and got into an altercation.
After his death, authorities smeared Fuentes in the media, claiming he was a member of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 — a gang with roots among Salvadoran immigrants that has become a convenient target for anti-immigrant politicians looking to whip up hysteria. In late July, Trump used a speech in front of law enforcement officers at Suffolk County Community College in Long Island, New York, to talk tough about MS-13, calling members of the gang “animals.”
While Trump and other officials exploit fears of crime and gang activity to smear undocumented immigrants, Frank Fuentes and those along with him in the back of that truck were treated as worse than animals.
Fuentes was never charged with, much less convicted of, gang activity. But that hasn’t stopped authorities and the media from repeating the claim as if it was a fact.
Former classmate and friend Juan Benitez, however, said the government was wrong, and that Fuentes was not involved with MS-13 or any other gang. “Growing up where we grew up, it was just easier for the government to label him as a statistic and say that he was affiliated with a gang,” Benitez told the Post. “Growing up in a rough neighborhood, we stayed away from people like that. It was the only way to be safe.”
Another high school friend, Chelsea Luna, agreed, telling WUSA Channel 9 news that Frank was “a great friend… He was never part of any gang. I’ve seen him every day here. There’s not a day I go without seeing him. He’s not in a gang.”
When Fuentes’ permission to stay in the US under DACA expired in June 2016, he filed again — but his claim was turned down by the government “based on a number of public safety concerns,” according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Part of DACA eligibility requires that applicants not be convicted of felony or significant or multiple misdemeanors, and not pose a threat to public safety or national security.
In July, Fuentes was arrested by federal agents. He was deported in February 2017 — sent back to a country he barely knew.
Kelly Barrios-Mazariegos, a childhood friend of Fuentes’ who had spoken to him recently, told the Post that he had been struggling to adjust to life in Guatemala. “He’s been [in the US] forever,” she said. “He doesn’t know what Guatemala was. His home is here, his friends are here, his family is here.”
According to reports, Fuentes’s parents, themselves undocumented and at risk of deportation, helped pay for a “coyote,” or smuggler, to transport him back to the US Fuentes was one of at least six immigrants from Guatemala on a truck that crossed into the US from Mexico in a desert zone near Laredo, Texas. They were expecting to go to Houston before their journey ended in tragedy in a Walmart parking lot.
Such tragedies are more likely as the Trump administration expands its assault on immigrants — forcing more to choose dangerous methods in any desperate attempt to reach the US According to the UN’s Missing Migrants Project, deaths already have spiked along the US-Mexico border — with 232 migrant deaths in the first seven months of 2017, an increase of 17 percent compared to the same period last year.
The Trump administration’s escalation of the war on the undocumented has included more aggressive moves to deport those whose cases might previously have made them a low priority for deportation.
In one chilling instance, two brothers living in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who were originally from El Salvador, were deported during what was supposed to be a routine check-in with ICE.
Nineteen-year-old Lizandro Claros Saravia and 22-year-old Diego Saravia came to the US in 2009, according to the Washington Post. Lizandro, the Post reported, “is a standout soccer player who had secured a scholarship to play college soccer in North Carolina,” while Diego “took extra classes to graduate from Quince Orchard High School on time and ‘has a heart of gold,’ a former teacher said.”
The brothers have no criminal records. In 2013, the pair was granted a stay of removal — essentially allowing them to remain in the US — but later applications for stays were denied.
When they went for what was supposed to be a routine check-in with ICE on July 28, they were arrested. On August 3, they were on a plane, deported to San Salvador — one day after Lizandro was supposed to have left to begin soccer practices at Louisburg College.
“The ICE agents told me they were deporting the kids because Lizandro got into college, and that showed they intended to stay in the US,” Nick Katz, senior manager of legal services at CASA de Maryland, who is representing the pair, told the Post. Katz said this was the fastest deportation process he has seen in his career.
Now, their family fears for their safety — El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the hemisphere. “[M]y brothers did nothing wrong,” another brother, Jonathan, said at a press conference outside the CASA headquarters. “They’ve had their futures taken from them.”
Members of the community are organizing a defense campaign. On Monday evening, members of Lizandro’s high school soccer team rallied in front of the Department of Homeland Security in protest, and CASA is planning a march to the White House on August 15.
Despite the widespread support, the fact that the brothers have already been deported makes it unlikely they will be granted legal re-entry into the US.
While the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants has been especially vicious, it’s worth pointing out that the Obama administration also ripped families apart. Frank Fuentes, for example, was ordered to be deported by the Obama administration, not Trump. The Obama administration deported more people than any previous presidential administration in US history.
Or there is the case of David Watson — who was imprisoned beginning in 2008 for three-and-a-half years by ICE, despite repeatedly telling ICE, jail officials and a judge that he was a citizen.
Watson didn’t have a lawyer, because immigrants in detention do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney. Eventually, the New Yorker was released — in rural Alabama, with no explanation, even as the government continued deportation proceedings against him for another year.
In another twisted development, a federal appeals court recently ruled that Watson cannot receive the compensation a lower court found he was entitled to, because “the statute of limitations actually expired while he was still in ICE custody without a lawyer,” NPR reported.
For the Democrats, who present themselves as champions of immigrant rights even as they push policies that harm immigrants, there’s a political calculus involved in appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment, while also trying to not alienate Latino voters.
Thus, when Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, was asked to comment on the death of Frank Fuentes, he didn’t question a system that sent someone who has been in the US since they were a toddler to a foreign country — nor ask whether US border policies are humane when desperate people are increasingly losing their lives in an attempt to enter the US.
Instead, McAuliffe underscored the need to keep undocumented people out: “We here in America, we need to number one secure our borders,” McAuliffe told Fox News, before adding, “No individual should be deported out of the country and then immediately be able to get back in the country.”
As a friend of Fuentes’ posted on Facebook following his death, Frank Fuentes and his family deserved better: “Frank learned from his mistakes, but he was robbed at a shot to fulfill his dreams. A broken immigration system within a broken, less-than-fortunate community.”