HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Julio Perez, 13, said he plans to join the military. He wants to defend the freedom that was allowing him to protest in front of a government building Wednesday night.
The Keys Gate Charter School student was among dozens who walked to Krome Detention Center in West Miami-Dade to ask immigration officials for his father's release.
"I miss him. I feel sad," the seventh-grader said. "How they got him was terrible. I still can't believe what I saw. We were in the car and they came out of nowhere with guns and told us to put our hands up."
Julio, who was born in Homestead, may soon join the more than 150,000 U.S. citizen children who are missing at least one parent to deportation. He said he has nightmares that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who took his dad are going to come back for his mom.
While most of the political attention has been on the recent influx of migrant children from Central America, Miami remains at the epicenter of a crisis that is tearing families apart. Immigration law doesn't protect U.S. born children from being separated from their families.
Julio's parents and sisters ages 14 and 20 are among the estimated 11 million undocumented migrants in the U.S. The idea that they could be deported to Mexico after 14 years of living in Homestead is terrifying to Julio.
Mexican drug dealers from "La Mano con Ojos," Spanish for the hand with eyes, are vengeful. They burn and mutilate their victims. The criminal organization threatened Julio's family in Mexico and killed two relatives.
"We are afraid," Julio's mom Josefa Cid said in Spanish. She cleans homes for a living and doesn't have a criminal record.
"In many occasions the men [of La Mano con Ojos gang] called my mother-in-law to tell her that they had kidnapped her two sons," Cid, 38, said in Spanish.
The Perez family was not alone Wednesday. Dozens of people stood with them in front of the detention center where Julio's dad was being held. Julio Perez-Rojas, 41, a construction worker and repairman, does not have a criminal record.
Some of the protesters were members of the San Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Homestead. Others were groups that advocate for immigration reform. Among them were Homestead's Equal Rights for All, Florida Immigrant Coalition, United Families and WeCount.
On the web, a petition asking immigration officials to stop Perez-Rojas' deportation had about 325 signatures. It is one of the many petitions on the website Change.org that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform.
Under the Obama administration deportations have spiked. Immigration advocates want officials to ease up on deportations of long-settled immigrants. Attorneys have been asking that officials follow the guidelines of former ICE director John Morton, who prioritized the deportations of felons and repeat offenders.
"It's not easy to change the government. Even with this and the racism, I'm still grateful to be an American," Julio said. "Here I can do anything and be anything. That's why I want to be a soldier and fight for my country."
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