If the Southeast Whitfield Raiders win their game tonight against top-ranked St. Pius X of Atlanta, Bernabe Rangel will play for the Georgia Class AAA soccer championship Saturday.
Two days later, the standout midfielder for the Dalton, Ga., high school will be deported to Mexico.
“I’d love to stay here. Who wouldn’t?” said Rangel, a four-year starter for the Raiders. “Some of the teachers ask me if I’m scared, and I’m not. They worry, but I tell them that God’s always there.”
He and his teammates were Class AAAA state runners-up in 2008 and are 20-1 and ranked third in AAA this season.
Rangel will be deported three days before his 19th birthday.
His tale “could be pitched to a movie producer,” Raiders coach Jamison Griffin said. “This kid has been through a lot.”
A seemingly routine event last year — a teenager accepting a Nintendo DS — sent Rangel’s life into a tailspin and left his college plans in America in limbo.
Rangel said a friend gave him the Nintendo game and asked him to “hold it.” The next day, he was called into an assistant principal’s office and asked if he had it. He said yes. It turned out the game was stolen.
He was arrested and charged with theft by receiving, a Class A misdemeanor. That charge was dropped after Rangel performed community service, according to Griffin. But it triggered the involvement of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because Rangel was in the country illegally.
He arrived with his parents and older brother when Bernabe was 6, and he began to attend Dalton schools. He hasn’t been back to Mexico since.
Whitfield County, under a federal program, has one of 69 state and local law enforcement agencies in 24 states whose officers can perform immigration law-enforcement functions.
Four Georgia counties and Davidson County in Tennessee participate in the 287(g) program.
Whitfield County launched its 287(g) program in 2008 and now has nine officers trained in immigration duties. The county sent about 350 inmates to ICE in 2008, with the number growing to 400 in 2009 and to 600 last year, according to a news release from the county.
Griffin and a lawyer working pro bono tried to help Rangel avoid deportation. Now their efforts are to help him return to the United States “the right way,” Griffin said.
Multiple calls made to Temple Black, the New Orleans-based Southeastern public affairs officer for ICE, were not returned. The United States had 393,000 deportations in the 2010 fiscal year. Nearly half — 195,000 — were for what were considered criminal offenses.
Rangel’s parents, like many Mexicans living in Dalton, moved to the United States for jobs.
His father and brother work in the city’s carpet mills that over the years have drawn many immigrants — legal and illegal — from Mexico, Guatemala and other Central and South American countries. His mother stays at home and takes care of his younger cousins.
Nearly half the people in Dalton and one out of three in Whitfield County are Hispanic, according to information from the 2010 census. Hispanic students account for more than 80 percent of students in some Dalton schools.
The rapid growth of Georgia’s immigrant population spurred not only widespread anti-immigration sentiment, but tougher immigration laws.
In 2006, Georgia passed what at the time was considered one of the toughest immigration enforcement laws in the country, which made it harder for illegal immigrants to receive health care, higher education and other public benefits. And Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is expected this week to sign new legislation that is even stricter. It allows police officers to ask about the legal status of anyone they stop for other reasons.
According to a Pew Hispanic Center report released in February, Georgia ranks seventh in the nation for states with illegal immigration, behind California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. An estimated 425,000 unauthorized immigrants live in Georgia, about 4.4 percent of the total population, and about 325,000 hold jobs, comprising about 7 percent of the state’s labor force.
Once he is deported, Rangel will live with his grandparents in Guanajuato, Mexico.
“It’s going to be hard for him because he’s adapted to the culture of the United States,” said his cousin Patricia Rodriguez, who also lives in Dalton. “He’ll have family there with grandparents, aunts and uncles, but he’s leaving his family and the place he grew up at and starting all over.”
Coach Griffin and Rangel’s lawyer and family are hoping to secure a student visa that would allow him to re-enter the United States.
With the coach spurring cooperation from the Southeast faculty and staff, Rangel is on track to fulfill graduation requirements before leaving although he will be deported before Southeast holds its graduation ceremony.
“This whole situation has given me a new perspective on things,” Griffin said. “Yes, Bernabe is an illegal immigrant, but he’s not here because he’s done anything wrong, but because it was a choice his family made because of the job opportunities they were told America would give them.”
Rodriguez, who acts as the family’s primary interpreter and spokesperson, said the Rangels now understand everything that’s going on with Bernabe, but they still have questions about the situation that got him to this point.
“They wonder why this is all happening to them,” Rodriguez said. “The whole situation [with the game system] could have been handled in school. Why wasn’t there a conference or something? We should at least have had that.”
Rodriguez said that if Bernabe is not able to work out a U.S. return, his family probably will move back to Mexico, too.
On July 7, 2010, Rangel, Griffin and the attorney went to Atlanta for a meeting with ICE. At the time, Rangel’s case worker wasn’t present, but the one assigned to them told the group to report back in September.
When they showed up, court officers slammed Rangel on the desk and arrested him, citing a failure-to-appear violation for a July 11 court date for his immigration case, Rangel said.
“We didn’t know anything about that court date,” Griffin said. “If they knew we had a court date on the 11th, why didn’t they tell us?”
Rangel was shocked by the arrest.
“I thought everything was cool,” he said. “I thought I would just go to the check-in and come right back out.”
Instead, he was taken to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga.
His fourth day there, he called Griffin with the news that he was about to be bused to the airport for deportation to Mexico. Griffin called the attorney, who immediately filed an emergency motion to have Rangel’s case heard.
By the time the judge granted the motion, Rangel was in line to get on the airplane for deportation. He was returned to the detention center, where he spent a total of 30 days.
“I just got into a routine,” Rangel said. “I got up at 5 a.m., ate breakfast and went outside, because when I was in my cell, all I did was think, and I didn’t want to think about things.”
He said he felt isolated.
“I didn’t know anything going on on the outside,” Rangel said. “I wondered when I would get out. I wanted to get out right away, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
“I started going to a group that got together at 7 at night and talked about God. I really wasn’t into that before, but now it’s so much different. Sometimes you go through things like this, and you have to learn from it.”
Upon his release, Rangel was given a January date for a court hearing. That later was continued to Tuesday in Atlanta, where he showed proof that he has travel plans to be back in Mexico before his birthday.
In his final days in the United States, Rangel is enjoying his soccer team’s run.
“It’s what I look forward to,” he said. “When I get to practice or a game, I’m able to get my mind off things. I could look at it like I’m alone, but I’m not. My team is like my family. If I’m having a bad day, I get to practice and it’s like I’m starting a new day. They bring me up.”
He’s hoping for an upset win tonight on the home field of Georgia’s No. 1 Class AAA team.
“All I want to do is to go back to the state finals and win it all,” Rangel said. “It would mean the world to me.”
Griffin noted that he and Rangel “didn’t get along so well at first. He actually tried to quit his sophomore and junior years. But this experience has brought us closer.”
Rangel is grateful.
“What Coach has done means everything to me,” Rangel said. “He was the only one who came to see me while I was locked up. He’s been there the whole time, telling me what to do.”
Griffin downplays his involvement.
“This story doesn’t have anything to do with me,” he said. “More than anything, we’re just trying to promote awareness on the situation that this happens. It’s changed me in so many ways. Bernabe didn’t ask for any of this. He’s just trying to make the best of a bad situation.”
Rangel has an opportunity to attend and play soccer at a private college in Georgia, should he be able to return.
“If I got that opportunity, it would mean a different life,” he said. “It would give me something to fight for, something to keep me going.”