Jaime Leon Rivas turns 19 in ICE detention as loved ones fight to stop his deportation

Jaime Leon Rivas turned nineteen years old yesterday. But he didn't spend his birthday with his girlfriend, his friends or his family. No, the Summit County resident spent it inside the GEO immigrant detention center in Aurora, where his girlfriend says he's the youngest person in the custody of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. At 6 p.m. last night, his loved ones -- including staff from Snowy Peaks High School in Frisco, where he was set to become the first member of his family to graduate high school this spring -- held vigil outside the hulking building.

"I hope everyone can see this and know that it's wrong," says his girlfriend, 21-year-old Jenny Martinez. "Students shouldn't be deported. Students deserve to graduate."

Leon Rivas and his brother fled gang violence El Salvador when Leon Rivas was ten years old. They were caught at the U.S. border and, according to immigrant advocates, coerced into signing a voluntary departure, which means the boys agreed to leave on their own. But they didn't do so; instead, they joined family members in Colorado and made a life here. Two years later, in 2007, ICE ordered that Leon Rivas be deported immediately -- an order that the agency didn't act upon until recently.

Leon Rivas was a troubled youth and had several run-ins with the police. According to an excellent story in the Summit Daily about Leon Rivas's case, he ended up in Colorado's juvenile justice system for offenses such as stealing out of unlocked cars. In 2011, a friend invited Leon Rivas to move with him to California, where he landed in more trouble. His friend was affiliated with the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, the same gang that terrorized El Salvador and had murdered Rivas's grandfather. According to the Summit Daily, Leon Rivas never joined the gang. But he was picked up after he asked a man for his money, at the gang's request, and the man gave it to him.

Leon Rivas ended up in a juvenile detention center in Colorado -- and he came out a changed person. His teacher, Jen Wolinetz, remembers that as a young teen, Leon Rivas was "mean, insubordinate and angry." When he showed up at Snowy Peaks, an alternative high school, after being released from detention, he was different, she says: "He is an incredibly kind person and incredibly genuine. ... He acknowledges that he's done things wrong. Jaime is able to reflect with genuine perspective on the choices he's made and he's willing to talk about it." She describes him as respectful to teachers and a leader to his peers. At school, she says, "he crosses all groups and is really loved."

Law enforcement learned of Leon Rivas's undocumented status when he was in the juvenile detention center, says Sophia Clark, an organizer with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. But even though ICE had ordered him to be deported, she says the agency decided to put him under supervision instead. His case was assigned to an ICE officer, and Leon Rivas was ordered to check in with that officer on a regular basis. Things were going well; the officer had recently helped Leon Rivas get a work permit.

On March 4, Martinez drove him nearly two hours to his regular check-in in Glenwood Springs. But when they got there, Leon Rivas's regular officer wasn't there.

"I had a bad feeling," Martinez says.

Instead, two other officers appeared and took Leon Rivas into custody. Martinez says they told her that he was being detained because he had agreed to depart voluntarily when he was ten years old but hadn't left. Martinez says the officers refused to let her say goodbye. So she called Leon Rivas's family and then drove home in tears.

Leon Rivas was transferred to the Aurora facility on March 8 and has been there ever since. Martinez has been to visit him: "He says, 'I don't belong here. I feel like an animal,'" she says.

"He's turned his life around," Martinez adds. "You can tell he has a kind heart."

"I don't want him to get deported," says Julian Maldonado, a friend who attended the vigil. "He's been working really hard. He deserves a chance to make a better man of himself."

Leon Rivas's immigration attorney, Alex McShiras, has applied for a stay of removal, which, if granted, would mean that Leon Rivas would be allowed to remain in the United States for a time. That application is still pending. McShiras is also seeking to reopen Leon Rivas's case; if that request is granted, McShiras says it would vacate the removal order and allow Leon Rivas to seek some sort of relief that would prevent deportation. But technically, because ICE has already ordered Leon Rivas to be deported, he could be sent to El Salvador imminently -- an outcome that his friends and family say would be devastating.

"He really just wants to graduate," Martinez says.

More immediately, the two had plans to attend a Schoolboy Q concert in Denver tomorrow night to celebrate Leon Rivas's nineteenth birthday. "We were going to do a meet-and-greet because he's one of Jaime's favorite artists," she says.

"He was really excited about that."

More from our Immigration archive: "Alejandra Lamas on how surviving the Aurora theater shooting helped her get documented."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at [email protected]

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar