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Immigrant with Down syndrome released from detention facility

Juan Gaspar-García and his sister Dolores reunite outside the detention center for undocumented immigrants in Broward.
Juan Gaspar-García and his sister Dolores reunite outside the detention center for undocumented immigrants in Broward. Courtesy: Florida Immigrant Coalition

A Guatemalan immigrant whose family says needs special care because he has Down syndrome and was arrested during a recent Department of Homeland Security search in Florida, was released Wednesday from a detention center for undocumented immigrants in Broward.

Juan Gaspar-García was released after his sister launched an online petition, signed by nearly 900 people. The 30-year-old still faces possible deportation but can now stay with his family while the case is pending in immigration court. Gaspar-García must attend hearings in Miami.

"We are going to keep fighting to see if he can get legal status," his sister, Dolores Gaspar-García, said Wednesday afternoon, after reuniting with her brother outside the detention center. "We are very happy that he is free."

Gaspar-García was one of 28 people detained in Fort Pierce on March 28, when federal agents served a search warrant at a tent installation company, a family member said.

He worked at TentLogix with his brother, whose name was not disclosed. Gaspar-García's brother was released because he is protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA), a protection from deportation granted to certain undocumented youth.

But Gaspar-García, who immigrated to the United States when he was 14, after the death of his mother in Guatemala, did not apply for DACA and doesn’t have any other immigration protection status.He was held at Broward Transitional Center, in Pompano Beach, for three weeks.

His sister, Dolores Gaspar-García, launched a petition on the website, asking Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to help protect Juan Gaspar-García from deportation.

“My brother does not have the ability to understand certain situations without a proper explanation because he has Down syndrome, and probably does not understand why he is there or what is happening,” Dolores told el Nuevo Herald on Monday. “He also has diabetes, he takes medication and it is very important that he is with us so we can take care of his special needs.”

Dolores said that if Gaspar-García is deported to Guatemala, he has no one to take care of him in his native country. His three siblings and his father live in Florida. In 2007, Gaspar-García graduated from South Fork High School in the city of Stuart, Florida in a special program for people with disabilities.

“We are a family of four. Juan is the oldest but we have always seen him as the youngest due to his developmental delays,” Dolores said. “In reality he does not know how to read, write or express himself well and stutters when he gets nervous. I’m sure he needs me right now.”

Rubio’s office was made aware of the online petition on Tuesday and reached out to the family to offer assistance, a staff member said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Nestor Yglesias, a spokesperson for ICE in Miami, issued the following statement:

“ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations special agents encountered Juan Gaspar-Garcia while executing a criminal search warrant at his place of employment. They contacted their counterparts with the ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations who determined Gaspar-Garcia was in the country illegally, arrested him and issued him a notice to appear in immigration court. His immigration proceedings are ongoing,” the statement says.

“ICE conducts targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy. However, as ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan has made clear, ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

The agency also provided a manual that details the protocol immigration detention facilities must follow when dealing with people with disabilities or special needs.

The document says, in part, that detainees who are identified as having “a cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disability” may be referred to a “multidisciplinary team”.

“Such detainees may face difficulties navigating the detention environment… Additionally, such detainees may not understand the process for requesting an accommodation or be aware of limitations on their access to facility programs,” the manual says. “Facility staff should provide appropriate assistance to a detainee with a cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disability, even if not explicitly requested (for example, reading and explaining a form to a detainee with limited cognitive abilities)”.

It is also required that the facility reports the identification of detainees with certain disabilities to the immigration agents in charge of the detainees’ case.

It isn’t clear if any of those steps were followed in Gaspar-García’s case.

“When we talked on the phone, he told me that he had to be taken to the clinic [in the detention center] the night he got there,” Dolores said of her brother. “When he gets nervous or has strong emotions we have to check his blood.”

Although during the raid on March 28 at the company TentLogix almost 30 immigrants were arrested, federal authorities insist that it was not an immigration raid but a “criminal search” conducted at the business. When agents arrived to serve the warrant, they found the group of undocumented workers, according to the authorities.

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In its website the company says it has installed tents for big events such as the Miami Open tennis tournament, in Key Biscayne and the Ultra electronic music concert. Also, through the company Disaster Management Group, which belongs to the owners of TentLogix and operates at the same address in Fort Pierce, they have provided services to government agencies such as “FEMA, General Services Administration and the United States Army,” according to the website.

Under the administration of President Donald Trump, authorities have enforced immigration laws more aggressively, resulting in a 30 percent increase in arrests of undocumented immigrants from 2016 to 2017.

On January 25, 2017, Trump signed an executive order that gives ICE authority to detain undocumented immigrants in the U.S., regardless of whether they have a criminal record. Former President Barack Obama’s administration focused on arresting immigrants who have committed felonies and urged immigration officers to exercise discretion regarding arrests.

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Gaspar-García hired an attorney last week.Dolores, the sister, also contacted the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), after hearing an activist from that organization talk about immigrant rights in a community radio show.

“Of the 1.8 million dreamers who qualify for DACA, only 800,000 applied,” said Julio Calderón, the FLIC activist. “Many people asked ‘what will happen to the other million?’ Clearly, the case of Juan [Gaspar-García] is the answer: even if authorities say otherwise, they will be detained and possibly deported.”

A previous version of this story misstated Gaspar-García's age.

Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar and on Facebook: @BrendaMedinaJournalist.