Jonathan Chavez is a popular student in the Honors College at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The president of the International Student Christian Association, he is only a couple of semesters shy of graduating. He aspires to sing opera.
But Chavez didn’t return to school after the Christmas break. Instead, he is being held at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and faces deportation to Peru, where he was born.
Chavez was brought as a youngster to Rogers by his parents, who came to the U.S. from Peru with tourist visas. He graduated from high school there with a 4.0 GPA, friends say. He is seeking a degree in vocal performance at the U of A, friends say. (Bob McMath, dean of the Honors College, said the law prevented him from discussing Chavez, even revealing his major.)
Chavez attempted to begin a naturalization process at 17, but he turned 18 before it could be complete, leaving him in undocumented limbo. (UPDATE: Chavez’ lawyer says undocumented minors may not self-petition to be naturalized.) Ironically, his parents, who divorced and are now married to American citizens, are in the United States legally, friends say.
Chavez had traveled by bus over Christmas to visit his mother in Florida when he was caught in an ICE “roundup,” random sweeps in areas with high Hispanic populations. When he couldn’t produce documents, he was taken to a facility in Fort Lauderdale.
That was four weeks ago, says Elaine Edwards, who gave Chavez voice lessons when he was a high school senior and has advocated for him since, helping him with college applications and now providing moral support through the open Facebook page “Praying for Jonathan Chavez.” The page provides his address and was used to generate a letter-writing campaign to ask authorities that he not be deported. U of A assistant general counsel Scott Varady said Chavez’ lawyer, Sandy Lambert, told him that she received “glowing” letters about him that were “unparalleled in her experience.” To date, the U of A has had no formal comment on Chavez. Varady said the university did not know he was undocumented.
Chavez has a deportation hearing on Thursday. Edwards said his lawyer will ask for “deferred action,” to allow Chavez to graduate.
Steve James, who was a co-counselor with Chavez at a camp in Northwest Arkansas and is now the youth minister at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kan., described Chavez as an uplifting individual with an “infectious personality. … When you hang out with Jon you just feel good.”
James spoke on the phone with Chavez about a week ago. Chavez told him “it was the best Christmas break he ever had,” because he’d been able to take part in four Bible study groups and had translated passages of the Bible for non-English speaking persons incarcerated there. “He said he sees God working through the guys” at the ICE facility. Chavez is a member of Christ on Campus at Fayetteville.
James said Chavez is “the kind of guy you would want to be an American citizen. He exemplifies what it means to be an American, to work for a better life for yourself and a better life for others.”
“He does not want to go back to Peru if he can help it, but he understands it’s out of his control,” James said.
Had Congress passed the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act last December, Chavez would have been eligible to apply for citizenship. The law would have allowed undocumented persons who arrived in the U.S. as minors to earn permanent residency after completing two years in college or the military.
Chavez has a plan if he is deported, Edwards said. He wants to continue his singing; his voice is “magnificent,” she said. She’d like it to be heard in America.