There wasn’t much time.
The hour was getting late at the North Miami immigration forum. The four members of Congress were hungry.
But 18-year-old Carlos Rivas had something to say.
“My dad, he was two months ago arrested by ICE. I have my family right here: my mom and my three brothers and sisters. We don’t know what to do,” Rivas said.
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“He’s about to be deported tomorrow [Tuesday] at 4 a.m.” he said. “And I wanted to know what you could do for us. … What can you do? Is there any help you can try to give us?”
It was just after 9 p.m. Monday. Rep. Frederica Wilson, the Miami Democrat who hosted the forum, was floored.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Four a.m., in the morning? Why are you just telling us? We could have helped you perhaps. It’s too late.”
Someone from the audience of 200 or so citizens at Haitian Evangelical Baptist Church chimed in: “It’s never too late.”
Wilson ultimately delivered, rousting an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official out of bed and getting the deportation of Rene Rivas, an undocumented immigrant and father of four, stopped with just a few hours to spare.
Still, his time in the United States is in doubt.
“Obviously, I want to thank Congresswoman Wilson. And we’re less stressed out,” Carlos Rivas said. “But this isn’t over.”
Court records indicate Rene Rivas could remain here until at least June 10, the deadline for an appeal. Family members —many of whom are illegally here as well — thought he might only have a week.
Rivas said the family learned of his father’s reprieve at midnight. It was an emotional moment. Earlier in the day, he thought his father would be sent back to Mexico.
“I thought he was gone,” Rivas said.
Wilson’s staff worked the phones as the congresswoman zipped off to dinner at The Forge restaurant with New York Rep. Yvette Clarke and Texas representatives Sheila Jackson Lee and Marc Veasey.
The Democrats compared notes, strategized and called.
The dramatic stay of Rivas’ deportation was a testament to Wilson’s determination, and also the human face of immigration.
Though the immigration system is often called “broken,” the Rivas family saga is an example of the people caught in the gears of government when it actually does its job by deporting people who shouldn’t lawfully be in this country.
It’s a machine that tears apart families every day. And, under President Barack Obama, it has done it at a record pace — more than 1,000 deportations daily. Some say the number is as high as 1,400.
Those numbers should let up if Congress passes an immigration-reform plan that has a pathway to citizenship and allows the undocumented to legally remain in this country.
But the bill’s fate, like Rivas’, is uncertain.
The deportations continue. And that makes Rene Rivas one of thousands.
Most don’t have a son like Carlos Rivas, an 18-year-old graduate of Miami Senior High School who had to drop out of Miami Dade College when his dad was busted and he couldn’t afford to pay for schooling.
Carlos Rivas wants to get a business-management degree. But once he had to leave school, he lost special protections for college-bound undocumented children.
“We get cases like this every day. Every day,” Wilson said. “It’s like this is all my office does. It’s immigration. Immigration. It tops veterans’ issues. Prisons. Housing. Everything. It’s immigration.”
One reason for that is the nature of Wilson’s North Miami-Dade district. It has one of the largest populations of immigrants out of all 435 congressional districts in the nation. Wilson’s district is heavily Caribbean and Haitian.
And many turn to her, some at the last minute, when they have no where else to go. Wilson prides herself on getting results.
It’s tough to ignore Wilson. An iconic Miami politician known for her gaudy dazzling sequin hats (she had on an aqua ensemble Monday night), Wilson is a crusader, especially for children’s causes.
What made Rivas’ case different was the dramatic nature of the announcement at Wilson’s forum. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She wasn’t supposed to be put on the spot.
Wilson and the other members of Congress expected they’d make a few speeches and field a few questions, not be pressed into emergency constituent-service duty.
In Rene Rivas’ case, Wilson said, he was caught months before by immigration agents. But he voluntarily left the country to head back to Mexico. He then sneaked back in the United States to be reunited with his family.
“After he slipped back in, they caught him with no license. They ran his record and found out he had been deported and he wasn’t supposed to be here,” Wilson said.
As an immigrant who re-entered after being caught once before, Rene Rivas is a high-profile target for deportation. The top targets: terrorists, criminals and re-entrants.
Though Rivas will be incarcerated in a state of legal limbo, he won’t have to go back to Durango, Mexico, just yet.
A spokesman for ICE, Nestor Yglesias, said in a written statement that the agency “has re-scheduled the removal of Mr. Rivas to afford him the ability to provide ICE with any information that would be of benefit.”
“ICE is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that focuses on convicted criminals, repeat immigration law violators, and recent border crossers,” Yglesias wrote.
Then there’s the matter of Rivas’ wife, Ana, and his daughter, 17-year-old Karla. Like Carlos and his dad, they’re not lawfully here.
But 5-year-old Alexis and 11-year-old Viviana are U.S. citizens; the family moved here 12 years ago.
Rene Rivas had bad timing. His son didn’t.
Carlos Rivas said his dad was busted after picking up an acquaintance on their way to work in the Allapattah section of Miami. He had already been caught before, and voluntarily deported. This time, the government was going to forcibly remove him.
Rene Rivas, in detention, was fighting to stay in the country. On Monday, he was hungry.
“He was on his way to buy cookies,” Carlos Rivas said, “but his account that we put money into so he can buy things like food was canceled.”
“Why is my account canceled?” Rene Rivas asked officials at the immigration detention center, his son said.
“That’s when they told him he was going to be deported,” Carlos Rivas added.
Hours later, Carlos Rivas’ last hope was Wilson and her fellow Democrats.
After being asked for help, Wilson and her fellow Democrats zipped off to dinner at The Forge, but not before she left a tall order with her staff: “We’ve got to do something.”
Wilson’s staffer, Shirlee Lafleur, called everyone.
“We kept searching until we got the right person and the right number. We got him out of bed,” Wilson said, unable to recall the ICE worker’s name.
They patched Wilson through as she ate dinner on 41st Street in Miami Beach.
“I was trying to impress upon him: There are children involved. This is a family, real people we’re talking about here,” she said.
“He told me: ‘These are tear-jerkers.’ And they are. And they take them one at a time,” Wilson said. “And they’re willing to listen. That’s what we hoped.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report.