The father of a special needs student in San Diego may be sent back to Mexico in a matter of days, prompting an online petition that by Tuesday morning had garnered the support of thousands of people.
The tougher enforcement of immigration laws that began when President Donald Trump took office in January threatens to turn the lives of Gaston Cazares and his family upside down, KTLA sister station KSWB in San Diego reported Monday.
Cazares has been chasing the American dream since he was 16 years old and moved to this country illegally, leaving behind his family and everything he knew. Now, facing possible deportation back to Mexico under the Trump administration's harsher interpretation of the law, he may have to do it all over again.
Cazares says he is heartbroken at the thought of leaving his wife of 23 years and both his teenage children, all of whom are American citizens, but his greatest fear is for his son Ivan, who has autism and is heavily reliant on him.
"We watch movies together or go shopping or help me shave my beard," Ivan told KSWB.
"I tried to explain to him. I'm not sure that he understands everything," Cazares said. "The only thing he knows is they want to take me far from here."
Ivan is already struggling with recurring nightmares.
The man's daughter, Yahaira, a senior at Scripps Ranch High School, says there's no time to be a typical teenager.
"I've never had the issue of complaining about my parents. I can't take them for granted," she said.
Yahaira vividly remembers how it all began in 2011. Her dad was arrested in front of her when the restaurant where he works was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"He was taken and we didn't know where or for how long... and about a day or two later, we got a call, " Yahaira said.
In 2012, ICE granted Cazares a "stay of removal" based on Ivan's special needs. And every year since, he's checked in, and ICE has extended the stay for one more year – until this year's presidential election.
"Everything changed. Everything changed from night to day," Cazares said.
His immigration attorney, Nicole Leon, explains it this way: "Under the Trump administration, ICE is no longer exercising its discretion in this way, and so anyone who is subject to removal under the law is being deported regardless of circumstances."
The facts that Gaston is the breadwinner, pays taxes, has no criminal record other than his illegal immigration offenses, and has a son with special needs may no longer be enough to keep him with his family.
"My dad – he's important to me. He protects me, and I protect him," Ivan said.
"I want to ask him, 'What are you going to do if I'm not here. But I think it's a very tough question," Cazares said.
Cazares will find out Thursday, when he meets with ICE officials, if he'll have to ask that question.
Ivan's teachers are worried about the effect his father's deportation could have on his progress, and they have written letters to ICE on the family's behalf.
Friends of the family have started an online petition to keep Gaston in the country. It had the support of nearly 14,000 people by 9 a.m. Tuesday.