Bryan Villegas, a 14-year-old freshman at George Mason High School, came to Falls Church in April 2014 from his native La Esperanza, Honduras, to flee the violence in the country and because his aging grandparents could no longer care for him. “I didn’t want to be in my country because no one could care for me,” Bryan said. “And my parents are here.”
Upon his arrival he was reunited with his parents and his 9-year-old sister, Ashly. He said that he was “nervous and excited” to see his parents, whom he had not seen in eight years. “It was good to see my parents and go to school,” Bryan said. Going to school might seem like a standard to many residents of Falls Church, but he spent most of his time in Honduras working with cows and horses.
Bryan said that his life in Falls Church is more “relaxed,” but he has not taken the opportunities he has discovered since coming to America for granted. He is in the middle of a wrestling season on Mason’s varsity team, played on the school’s junior varsity soccer team last spring and spoke to the News-Press just before volunteering at the Clock Tower Thrift Shop in Falls Church. He also regularly serves as a caretaker for his sister.
“It’s good because I didn’t get to see her all of the time when I was in Honduras,” he said. “So now [that I can] see her I have a good relationship with her and I play with her sometimes.”
But all of that is in jeopardy. Bryan, an undocumented immigrant, said that he has been facing the threat of deportation since he was reunited with his parents after he arrived in the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor in April 2014. And now the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has begun executing a plan to repatriate Central and Mexican Americans who migrated here to flee violence in their country over the last couple of years.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a press release on Monday, Jan. 4 that 121 individuals were taken into custody over the New Year’s weekend as part of that plan. And according to Emilie Faris, a mother of one of Ashly’s friends, Bryan has already been denied one request to adjust his status as an undocumented immigrant.
“Bryan’s fighting to stay in this country with his family,” said Adilene Núñez, an attorney for Benach Ragland LLP who is representing Bryan. “He’s a good kid. He’s in school [and] he gets good grades, but unfortunately isn’t all that certain here yet and so he’s fighting to stay here….We’re trying gather as much support as we can to show that Bryan really deserves to stay here.”
A cross-section of the Falls Church community – teachers, parents of family friends, school administrators and coaches – have written letters of support for Bryan.
Faris wrote one of those letters in support of Bryan and spoke to the News-Press about her impressions of him. “He’s very good at watching his sister and picking her up at activities and that kind of thing,” Faris said. “And I know [this situation is] just extremely stressful on him.”
“Bryan consistently performed well over the course of the year,” wrote Ty Harris, the Principal at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School where Bryan first attended school in the U.S. “He was an active participant in school activities as a member of the soccer team and choir.
“He was well regarded by his teachers and peers because he is a very positive student with a great demeanor and sense of humor….I do not believe that Bryan would be able to receive anywhere near the same level of academic or social support in a different setting, as Falls Church City Public Schools are widely regarded as some of the best in the nation. Bryan works hard and deserves an opportunity to achieve his goals and dreams.”
Bryan said that it was difficult for him to adjust when he first started taking classes at Henderson, but that over time he started to catch on, with the help of some of his teachers.
“It was hard for me because I couldn’t speak English so well, so the classes were hard for me,” he said. “But some of the teachers speak Spanish and they spoke to me and now I’m starting to get it.”
His teachers did not only help him adjust academically, but socially. Like many children his age, Bryan is shy. But even he admitted that it was difficult to do things like perform, which he eventually did in Henderson’s choir and in a drama class.
Bryan’s primary teacher, Kevin L. Blair, included a photo of him in a wig that was taken on the school’s Funny Hair Day. In the photo, Bryan, donning a mullet wig, is sitting with a classmate and both are smiling joyously.
When he related the story to the News-Press, he said that his teacher saw that he did not have a wig that day and asked if he wanted to wear one. That same teacher, an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigations for 22 years before retiring, inspired Bryan to want to become an agent when he gets older.
“I would consider him an excellent candidate for the FBI,” Blair wrote in a letter of support for Bryan. “His skills in math and science, combined with his rapid acquisition of English, lead me to believe he has a bright future in college. I see nothing in the future other than academic and personal success for Bryan. I look forward to the day when he walks across the stage and receives his FBI credentials from me.”
Bryan said that he feels that he’s adjusted well to his transition to living in Falls Church and that he likes that he gets to focus on helping to care for his sister, playing sports, volunteering and getting good grades, which he does. He earned all A’s and B’s during his first full school year in Falls Church.
And he said he was inspired to become an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigations because “he wants to make sure that there aren’t any bad people in this country and he wants to make sure that people are following the laws.”
Which makes his predicament ironic. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency wants to deport him because they say he entered the country illegally, but he has career aspirations of upholding the law.
But some arguments are being made by those representing undocumented immigrants that people like Bryan should be given Temporary Protected Status since conditions in the country prevent the immigrants from returning safely.
As recently as October 2015, the U.S. Department of State has issued a travel warning for Honduras, saying that “crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country.” According to statistics from the Honduran Observatory on National Violence, the homicide rate in the country in 2014 was 66 homicides per 100,000 people. The same year, there were 4.5 homicides per 100,000 people in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
This reality was more concrete for Bryan. He said that, when he lived in Honduras, he worried about the violence in the country “many, many times.”
When she spoke to the News-Press, Núñez made a different argument on Bryan’s behalf. She said that Byran should not be a deportation priority because he is an upstanding member of the community and has been reunited with his family.
“The President did issue his priorities for removal [Nov. 20, 2014]….The President has previously said that our focus is going to be felons, not families,” Núñez said. “And we think that Bryan is in that families category because he has no criminal record, he’s a really good kid, so personally we don’t think that he falls into their priorities for removal.”
Bryan said that he is scared that he might have to return to Honduras. He said that he has told some of his friends about the situation, but not all of them know. If he was forced to return, he said that he would likely have to care for his grandparents instead of them being able to care for him.
Núñez, translating for Bryan at times when he spoke to the News-Press, said that “He said he would feel bad – and mind you this is a minor trying to explain some very complex emotions. So the way he describes it he said, ‘I would feel bad because I wouldn’t be with my parents anymore and my grandparents are sick in Honduras and I wouldn’t have anyone to take care of me.’”
In Falls Church, Bryan has found community in addition to being reunited with his family. According to Nuñez, Bryan said that “he feels really happy about” all of the support he has received from members of the community. “So many people are supporting him and want him to stay here and have a good future,” Núñez said. “He feels really great about that.”