ATLANTA -- The targets of a federal government operation to crack down on illegal immigration are speaking out to 11Alive News.
Operation Border Guardian is aimed at newly 18-year-old Central American immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
In many cases, they live here, they go to school here, but they’re not sure how long it’ll last.
For Kimberly Pineda Chavez, just telling the story brings back tears.
“I was going with my sister and my cousin and my aunt," she said.
The memories resurrect a fear inside her.
“She said get out of the car," Chavez said.
On her way to school in January, Pineda Chavez was pulled over by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer.
“It was horrible.”
Quickly Pineda Chavez realized she was in trouble.
“I didn’t know what would happen to me," she said.
She was no longer a child.
Newly 18-years-old, Pineda Chavez suddenly faced the reality of an immigrant living illegally in the United States.
“They felt like they out her heart,” said Lourdes Chavez, Kimberly’s mother, said through a translator.
Pain from that January day is so real that not even a language barrier can mask it.
“She doesn’t have words to explain that,” said the translator for Lourdes.
Kimberly’s mother, Lourdes Chavez, remembers getting the call. Her daughter had been picked up by immigration, and suddenly she was on her way to a detention center in Irwin County, Georgia.
“It was so hard,” said Lourdes Chavez, Kimberly’s mom.
Kimberly and her two younger sisters escaped gang violence in Honduras. They entered the United States as minors, and they were released to their mother who was already living in metro Atlanta.
“We know we are safe here,” said Elizabeth Chavez, Kimberly’s sister.
They were safe but not free.
Kimberly was released from jail in April.
Her case is pending.
Her family pastor is fighting.
“The way they’re treated the way they are talked about the way they’re looked down upon it’s not the American way,” said Pastor Larry Campbell, Corners Church of Christ in Norcross.
Campbell said he has 14 immigrant families at his Norcross church who are all facing similar realities. They are potential targets of Operation Border Guardian, the federal government’s latest effort aimed at now 18-year-old immigrations from Central America who came here as children.
“If you’re already here and not committing a crime and you’re contributing to our society we should welcome them in which is really what the statue of liberty says,” said Campbell.
Kimberly is one of the lucky ones because she is out of jail.
Jaime Hernandez from Guatemala and a girl using the alias “Johanna” from El Salvador were both picked up while living in metro Atlanta.
They spoke to 11Alive News over the phone from the Irwin Detention Center. Both are facing deportation.
“She cannot go back to her country and live and suffer the way that she has already suffered,” said a translator who repeated what Johanna told 11Alive.
“If I go back the same people that were threatening my family will kill me,” said Jaime Hernandez through a translator.
For now many of these families can only wait and wonder.
They laugh together, they love each other, not ever knowing how long they’ll live together.
“We are not bad people, we are all the same,” said Elizabeth Chavez.
ICE said these actions are an effort to really enforce our nation’s immigration laws.
At last check, there have been 336 arrests as a result of Operation Border Guardian -- two-thirds of those came from the Atlanta field office, which also covers the Carolinas.
ICE said repeatedly the borders are not open to illegal immigration. If someone doesn’t qualify for asylum or relief they have to be sent home.
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