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Government & Politics

After Nearly a Dozen Years in Akron, a Family is Abruptly Sent Back to Colombia

Laura Valbuena is one of the students featured in the Hoban High School billboards. She and her family were forced out of the U.S. last week.

Local immigration attorneys say undocumented immigrant families In Northeast Ohio are increasingly skittish as they prepare for routine appointments with federal immigration officials. They’re concerned that the policies that have allowed them to remain in the U.S. are abruptly changing. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports that one Akron family found out there’s reason for such fears.

Even people in Akron who don’t know Laura Valbuena likely know her face. It’s on billboards in the city and Facebook pages proclaiming “I am Hoban”

But the 16-year-old is no longer is at Archbishop Hoban High School. Her family abruptly left the country last week heading to Colombia, a country she hasn’t seen since she was 4. Technically, it wasn’t a deportation. It’s what they call a “voluntary departure.”

But it clearly wasn’t by choice.

Laura’s father, Leonardo, was wearing an ankle monitor. It was part of a deal with immigration officials, giving him a few weeks to gather his family and belongings and say goodbye to the Akron community. The other part of the deal was that Catholic social justice advocates who had been working with the Valbuenas provide proof that they bought the family’s airline tickets to head back to Colombia.

A life collapsed
None of them had expected what happened, least of all Leonardo Valbuena.

“All my life, in one second, collapsed.”

That’s from an amateur video made by those advocates before the Valbuenas left. In it, Laura’s parents sit on their couch, surrounded by boxes being hastily packed with what the family has accumulated over 11 years in Akron. A painting of Jesus Christ hasn’t been packed yet. It sits on the shelf above them.


Leonardo Valbuena apologizes for his English. But it’s not the only reason he struggles to explain what happened Jan. 23, the day he made his last regular visit to the federal building in Cleveland to renew his work papers.

Arriving legal, becoming illegal
According to the Migration Policy Institute, nearly half the estimated 11 million people who are in this country illegally arrive with valid visas – and overstay,

The Valbuenas were among them. They arrived from Colombia with temporary visitors visas that were apparently was never replaced with official asylum status. But Leonardo Valbuena met regularly with immigration officials and his job as a carpenter was on record.

And he says he always abided by the rules including for work and taxes.

“All these years I am working legally. Paying my taxes. Paying my bills and everything.”

There is no record of a recent criminal arrest that would have clearly affected his status.

Detention and a threat of deportation
But instead of renewing his work permit, Valbuena says, immigration officials informed him he was under arrest and would be deported in as little as a day. He says he was handcuffed, later belly chained and transported about a hundred miles west to the Seneca County Jail, one of four main holding areas for immigration enforcement in Ohio.

Before he left for Tiffin, he pleaded that he had children in school, that his boss expected him back at work, that his wife, who doesn’t drive, had accompanied him to Cleveland

He spoke with her through glass and told her to call a nun who had helped the family. A few days later, he was allowed to come home tp prepare his family to leave the country.

Protecting America?
Federal officials would not discuss details of this specific case. They referred policy questions to the new rules adopted under President Donald Trump’s executive order and subsequent Homeland Security directives.

Trump highlighted his immigration order in his first address to Congress last week.

“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions and billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone.”

The order expands the priorities for deportation set by the Obama administration. Under Obama’s rules, the priorities were national security risks, people stopped at the border, gang leaders and other felons who committed crimes other than immigration offenses. Under Trump, they can to include anyone who may have committed a criminal offense – convicted or not -- including immigration offenses.

The order became official days after Leonardo Valbuena was detained.

The Valbuena family’s situation has been a social media cause in Akron for the last week, and was highlighted in a debate over sanctuary cities and states at last week’s Akron City Council meeting.

Project Hope, big smiles and big tears
The family itself has not responded to requests for more information since they returned to Colombia. Greg Milo, a former Hoban teacher, keeps in touch with Laura and says the family doesn’t want to stir up more attention.

But whatever the details of their life now, he says Akron will miss Laura Valbuena. She was a regular with “Project Hope,” a group of Hoban students who joined him Wednesday nights to distribute food throughout the city to homeless people. He says it’s not an activity all students embrace, especially on freezing winter nights.

“But she was very willing to do that and very interested in that and she very much enjoyed bringing joy and humanity to those spaces.”

So he says it was natural that he raced up to Hopkins when he got word on Facebook that the family was leaving. He found her there with her family, and their dog and carrying a baby-doll she’d brought with her to the United States.

Greg Milo
Greg Milo says Akron lost something valuable when Laura Valbuena left for Colombia.

While he was there, someone took a picture of him with Laura – her with the same wide smile that appears on the Hoban billboards.

“I don’t know where that came from so she’s putting up a good front  because tears were right flowing before that. But luckily for me, I have that image of the big smile.”

What’s unclear is how often similar pictures will be taken with other Northeast Ohio families in the coming year. 

Click here for a link to relaated Beacon Journal stories.