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Immigration targeted family, activist says
The Miami Herald
Andres Viglucci
March 4, 2008

In July 2006, U.S. immigration agents rousted Miami Dade College student-activist Gaby Pacheco's parents and two sisters from sleep, briefly detained them, and put them into deportation proceedings.

Now, on the eve of an immigration court hearing that could decide their fate, the Pachecos and their attorneys are making a touchy allegation: They contend Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents targeted the family to silence Gaby, a leader in efforts to legalize immigrant students who, like herself, were brought to the United States by their parents without permanent legal status.

In an e-mailed response to a request for comment, ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez declined to address the allegations, citing the pending court case, but added: "What I can tell you is that ICE officers are sworn to uphold our nation's immigration laws. Those who are in violation of U.S. law should not be surprised if they are arrested."

Gaby Pacheco, 23, who is from Ecuador, is not directly affected by the deportation effort because she has a student visa to attend MDC, where she is studying for a degree in special education.

She calls ICE's effort to deport her family members "punishment" for her advocacy. She contends ICE officials told her sister while the family was detained that they had Pacheco's activism to thank for their detention.

"It was heartbreaking for me," Pacheco said Tuesday during a news conference at the office of the family's attorney, Ira Kurzban. "I never imagined something like this would happen just because I have been outspoken in saying that every human being has a right to an education."

Pacheco and her two sisters were brought to Miami by her parents in 1993 with tourist visas. The family remained after the visas expired. While overstaying a visa is not a crime, it means the family can be ordered deported by an immigration judge.

The four Pacheco family members now facing deportation are scheduled for a court hearing Thursday.

Pacheco, who has lobbied Congress and state legislators and organized student rallies on behalf of undocumented students, has often been featured in media reports over the past few years.

Students Working for Equal Rights, the organization in which Pacheco has been active, will hold a demonstration at 1 p.m. Thursday at MDC's Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami to rally support for the family.

Although the family publicized the detentions when they occurred, Tuesday's news conference marked the first time they have publicly alleged that ICE targeted the family.

Pacheco, a former president of MDC's student association, has continued her activism since the detentions. She was prominent last year in supporting a bill in Congress known as the DREAM Act. It would allow the children of illegal immigrants a shot at legal U.S. residency after attending college or serving in the military for two years.

The long-stalled bill was revived after the highly publicized case of brothers Alex and Juan Gomez, who were detained by ICE along with their parents, who had brought them from Colombia as young boys. The bill died when the U.S. Senate refused to take it up for debate.

After graduating high school in Miami, Gaby Pacheco obtained an international student visa that allows her to attend MDC while working 20 hours a week to help pay tuition.

Family members say three ICE agents, accompanied by Miami-Dade police officers, woke them around dawn on July 26, 2006.

The family gave this account: The agents said they were looking for a Maria Pacheco Chavez, who might be involved in document fraud. Two of the Pacheco sisters are named Maria — including Gaby, whose full name is Maria Gabriela — but neither one has the Chavez surname.

Told there was no one at the house by that name, the agents then focused on the family. Eventually, all five wound up at ICE offices at Biscayne Boulevard and 79th Street, where they were questioned. Initially, they contend, agents confused one of Gaby's sisters, Erica, with the student activist.

"They asked her, 'Why are you coming out on TV and saying those things?'" Gaby Pacheco said.

While the Pachecos say the agents told them they came to their house in error, that comment and others they describe convinced the family that ICE knew who Gaby was.

Their attorney, Kurzban, said it's a case of selective prosecution and a First Amendment violation.