LOS ANGELES—It took 13-year-old Fatima Avelica exactly six hours and 48 minutes to run all 26.2 miles of the Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday.
She didn’t struggle until mile 18. She says what got her through to the finish line was picturing her dad cheering her on and yelling, “You can do it!”
Fatima had trained with her dad, Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, who often didn’t get to bed until 3 AM after working a restaurant night shift, but still dutifully got up at 5 AM to drive to the beach and ride his bike alongside Fatima and her sister as they trained.
“The training was fun because my dad was always there motivating us,” Fatima told me ahead of the marathon as we sat in a lobby by the main entrance at her high school.
That ended on Feb. 28, when Romulo was arrested by immigration agents moments after he dropped off Fatima’s younger sister at school.
Fatima’s cries were heard around the world as she recorded the incident on her cellphone. Four days later, she and her sister went on a 22-mile practice run to prepare for the marathon—without their dad. They almost quit the marathon, but their father called daily from the immigration detention center and convinced them to continue training.
Fatima says the practice run was hard and tiring, the longest distance she had ever run.
During the marathon, Romulo called multiple times for updates. By the fourth call, he got the good news. Both of his girls and his niece finished the marathon—and the youngest daughter, 12-year-old Yuleni, was one of the youngest to run the marathon.
Romulo is being detained at a for-profit immigration detention facility in Adelanto, in the high desert of California, about 85 miles away from his family in Highland Park.
“I’ve never been on the phone talking to someone that much, so it feels kind of weird to hear him but not be able to see him in person,” said Fatima.
Fatima and her family’s state of affairs illustrates how entire families and communities are affected when a family member is detained by immigration officials.
Like Fatima, there are an estimated 3.9 million kindergarten through 12th grade students in the U.S.—7.3% of all K–12 students—who are children of unauthorized immigrants, according to a Pew Research Center estimate based on 2014 government data. The share of children with at least one undocumented parent is highest in Nevada and Texas, followed by California.
You can see how these numbers play out at Fatima’s school. Her experience has been a catalyst for her classmates to have difficult conversations with their parents.
Often, some students don’t realize they themselves are undocumented until it comes time to apply to a driver’s permit or filling out college applications and applying for financial aid. Or some students don’t know their parent’s immigration status.
“This was a push to have these conversations,” Ricardo Mireles, the executive director at Academia Avance, a public charter 6–12 school that the Avelica sisters attend, told Fusion.
The school is 98% Latinx and about 90% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Mireles said he was not aware of how many undocumented students were enrolled at the school, but did speculate that about half the students at the school are part of mixed-status families, where at least one member of their family is undocumented.
He also said 43 of the students at the school were participating in the marathon. The school has partnered with a non-profit organization called Students Run LA that for the past 27 years has trained LA youth to run the Skechers Performance Los Angeles Marathon at no cost. There were about 2,800 students on the marathon course on Sunday with about 400 mentor leaders, according to a Students Run LA spokesperson.
After what happened with Fatima’s family, Mireles says the school is being more proactive and encouraging parents to develop emergency plans in the event a family member is detained by immigration officials.
Fatima’s father was detained by immigration officials because of a nearly decade-old DUI conviction and “apparently a conviction from over 20 years ago related to having bought a car that he did not realize had a registration sticker on it that did not belong on the car,” Emi MacLean, an attorney with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network told LAist, who first published the video of Fatima’s father being detained.
Before Fatima’s father was detained, Mireles said he didn’t think schools should get involved in immigration matters. Now he believes parents could start talking to their children about immigration as early as sixth grade.
“Let’s eliminate all the shock and surprise and instead be ready,” said Mireles, who founded Academia Avance 12 years ago.
Jocelyn Avelica, Fatima’s older sister, told a local news reporter that the family was not prepared. “We thought if we don’t talk about, it’s not going to happen,” she told KTLA.
After she watched and filmed her father being detained by immigration officials, Fatima went to school. There was a field trip that day—a visit to The Museum of Tolerance.
Mireles organized a school assembly that same day to discuss what happened. Many members of the community saw what happened. Fatima’s dad was detained on a busy thoroughfare at 7:50 AM in the morning, peak rush hour here as parents take their kids to school.
He said he organized the assembly to show students and parents that the school was standing along side them and their families.
“Fear is a natural response but what we’re pushing here at the school is that this is not the type of fear that pushes people to panic and paralyses,” said Mireles.