Daniel Zhao

Outraged members of the New Haven community gathered on the steps of City Hall on Sunday to rally for Mario Aguilar Castañon, a Wilbur Cross High School student who has been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since September.

According to local immigrant rights advocate Kica Matos, Aguilar Castañon immigrated without documents two years ago after refusing to join a violent gang in his native Guatemala. He was initially arrested in August for allegedly driving under the influence — in a press release, Matos stated that the arresting officer did not perform a sobriety test. Aguilar Castañon’s lawyers denied the charges.

In September, Aguilar Castañon reported to the Milford Superior Court to address the charges and found federal immigration authorities waiting for him. The agents arrested Aguilar Castañon as he tried to enter the building, prompting widespread community activism. With Aguilar Castañon still in detention without bond, community activists and prominent officials advocated for his release on Friday.

“Today, our school community is suffering,” Wilbur Cross Principal Edith Johnson said. “[Aguilar Castañon] is missing from our classrooms, from our hallways, from our cafeteria. Wilbur Cross is simply not the same without him.”

So far, school administrators, students and other concerned community members have penned over 300 letters to immigration officials on Aguilar Castañon’s behalf, his attorney Dalia Fuleihan said.

Matos organized Friday’s rally with help from the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, the Connecticut Bail Fund and Unidad Latina en Acción. These groups have been on the front lines of the fight for immigrant rights in the Elm City and have pushed the Board of Alders to adopt a sanctuary city ordinance. In the past years, the groups advocated for the release of Nelson Pinos, an undocumented immigrant who has been living at First and Summerfield United Methodist Church on the New Haven Green for nearly 700 days.

Aguilar Castañon arrived in the Elm City two years ago and moved in with an uncle, who is just a year older than him. In addition to being a full-time student, he works over thirty hours a week to pay his rent and send money back home to his parents and siblings in Guatemala.

His September detention prompted a letter-writing campaign that ultimately failed to convince the immigration judge, who denied his release on the grounds of public danger and a lack community ties that would guarantee his reappearance in court. According to Matos’ press release, prior courts already ruled that Aguilar Castañon would pose no danger to society. Matos also emphasized that the letters constitute overwhelming evidence of Aguilar Castañon’s strong ties to the Elm City.

Rallying cries for Aguilar Castañon’s release on Friday echoed a national movement seeking protection for immigrants from the Trump administration’s crackdown. Stephanie Paucar — Castañon’s classmate and a member of a student civil rights group called Cross in Action — expressed her anger with national policies and said that Aguilar Castañon is “a regular teenage boy who came to follow the American dream.”

According to Matos’ press release, Aguilar Castañon has kept up with his studies while in detention. His teachers regularly send him course materials to ensure that he does not fall behind. A current junior, Aguilar Castañon is slated to graduate from Wilbur Cross in 2021.

“Many of our children in this society have seen the worst of humanity before they even step into high school,” Johnson said at Friday’s rally. “I cry for Mario’s mom, because … I imagine that she took solace in [her son’s] decision to journey and come here because she had strong enough faith in the promise of the American dream, the promise that my parents came here and gave me, the promise that I give to my children.”

ICE was established in 2002 as part of the Homeland Security Act, which was prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It is specifically charged with enforcing immigration laws, including detention and removal and investigating criminal operations and organizations, including trafficking of drugs, weapons, goods and people.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu

Mackenzie is the editor in chief and president of the Managing Board of 2022. She previously covered City Hall for the News, including the 2019 mayoral race and New Haven's early pandemic response. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a junior in Trumbull College studying ethics, politics and economics.