Maria Bolanos Hernandez: Hyattsville, MD

Victim of “Secure Communities” program who is now a vocal critic

On Christmas Eve 2009, Maria Bolanos Hernandez had a heated, violent argument with the father of her two-year-old daughter and she called the police for help. It is a call she now deeply regrets, because instead of assistance, she received deportation proceedings.

Bolanos is a 28-year-old undocumented worker from El Salvador living in Prince George’s County, MD. Before she was targeted by local police responding to her domestic violence call, she worked long hours as both a janitor and restaurant worker.

After her incident, Bolanos found herself ensnared in an increasingly controversial immigration enforcement program designed to deport undocumented criminals. The Secure Communities program is the centerpiece of current immigration enforcement efforts and a program that has helped generate a record number of deportations. It relies on the fingerprints collected by local authorities when a person is charged with anything from a traffic violation to murder. It was billed as a means of ridding the nation of serious criminals, but it has been used to identify and deport hundreds of thousands who had committed no crimes except overstaying their visas or entering the country without authorization.

In Bolanos’s case, the officer who responded to her call for help chose to later charge her with illegally selling a $10 phone card to a neighbor – an unsubstantiated allegation that Bolanos denies and the police dropped. Still, Bolanos had been fingerprinted and found by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be in the country illegally.

She was placed in deportation proceedings, even though there were no criminal charges against her. Unwilling to accept her deportation as a fait accompli, Bolanos decided to speak out against “Secure Communities,” the dangers of I.C.E. access programs to local communities and their detrimental effects on people’s access to protection and justice. Her story was profiled in The Washington Post and the Univision program “Primer Impacto,” among others. She has led protests and picket lines to draw attention to Secure Communities’ devastating impact including how it is destroying families in her neighborhood.

She has also confronted local police officers in town hall meetings in her neighborhood. But her most extraordinary display of courage happened on November 2010 when she traveled to Washington and addressed David Venturella, a high level I.C.E. official and the Director of Secure Communities. In dramatic fashion, she told her story and demanded that her deportation be terminated. Venturella attempted to deflect her call for fairness, saying that her case was not a Secure Communities referral. But later substantiation efforts verified her claim.

Maria has taken many risks by coming forward and speaking out. She knew she could lose one or both of her jobs after being identified by ICE and featured in the media. She also feared backlash from local police, from her landlord and even from the father of her child, who is now also facing deportation after being stopped in a traffic incident. She is still facing likely deportation but continues to fight, and is helping to make society more just. She says she is willing to fight until the very end, for her family.

Maria’s actions have inspired many in the Immigrant Rights movement to speak out and tell their painful stories of family separation. She has personally encouraged another local individual who was the target of the Secure Communities program to speak out, and she has organized and inspired her neighbors to learn their rights and protect themselves. Maria’s story has been instrumental in the nationwide fight against Police-ICE collaboration. Her story exemplifies the dangers of this program, and activists from coast to coast have been able to better educate their local legislators about the reasons their localities should not participate in Secure Communities.

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The Freedom From Fear Awards are produced by Public Interest Projects, (PIP).  PIP is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that brings together and strengthens the work of philanthropic institutions, donors, nonprofit groups and other public interest organizations sharing a vision of a society that ensures justice, dignity and opportunity for all people.   Statements and activities of Freedom from Fear Award winners do not necessarily reflect the views of PIP.

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