SAN FRANCISCO - A group of students from a small San Francisco school skipped their senior trip to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk this week, and instead took a five-hour road trip to visit an Afghan ICE detainee at the Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield.
And on Tuesday, the graduating seniors at June Jordan School for Equity will save an empty chair for Hamid, a teen seeking political asylum from the Taliban and is currently being held on $35,000 bond – a price he can’t afford to pay.
“None of us were prepared to see all the pain and suffering that was in his eyes,” said graduating senior Jacob Castillo, who is part of a club on campus 415 Unidos for Freedom. “He’s worried, he’s scared, he’s intimidated by the guards.”
The students drove down with a chaperone and their principal, Matt Alexander, and were accompanied by a Pashto-speaking interpreter who lives nearby who could help them speak to Hamid, a pseudonym.
"When we asked him about his family, he burst into tears," graduating senior Keytlen Ramirez said.
There were some touching moments of the visit, the students, especially when they were talking about their shared love of soccer and career goals. “He told us he wants to be a doctor,” student Alam Yair said.
Hamid’s father and brother were killed by the Taliban more than a year ago and the young man forged a passport to flee the country, stating he was in his 20s. He and his lawyers say that he is either 16 or 17, as there are no birth certificates in his village, so it’s hard to pinpoint his exact age. He has been in a five-month legal battle with ICE over whether he should be released to a children’s shelter in Pleasanton, or a family friend in Texas. ICE has wanted to hold him as an adult. He lied on his documents, his lawyers said, because minors aren't allowed to leave the country without their parents' permission.
“He’s clearly a kid,” said graduating senior Alan Gutierrez. “When I asked him if he’s spoken with his mother, he broke down crying because he hasn’t talked to her in six months.”
Last week, ICE allowed him to be released on parole, as long as he put up a $35,000 bond and wear a GPS bracelet. The students and his attorney, Maria Villareal at Pangea Legal Services, started a GoFundMe page to help raise money to pay for his release.
The students connected with Hamid after Villareal's office reached out to them and told them of Hamid’s case. They had supported another undocumented youth last year and when they realized Hamid was their age, they wanted to show their support for him too, Alexander said.
On Friday, the students held a rally in front of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’ office in San Francisco to put pressure on leaders to make ICE lower the amount. A representative from her office met with the students and met with Hamid, too.
As of Tuesday, however, only about $4,000 had been raised on his behalf.
“He should be graduating with us and getting an education, not sitting in a jail in Bakersfield,” Keytlen said. “He hasn’t done anything wrong, but they are treating him like a criminal. We won’t stop until he is free.”