WEST HUMBOLDT PARK — Within a matter of days, the Carl Schurz High School community and local organizations raised thousands of dollars for a West Humboldt Park father facing deportation who couldn't afford to post bond.
On May 2 around 7 a.m., Alberto Sepúlveda, 39, was getting his five kids ready for school when federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at his home, handcuffed him and took him to a detention center.
It was a traumatic experience for his wife, Elena, and their children — ages 6, 7, 9, 15 and 17. After abruptly losing their husband and father, Elena and her children went to bond court, where a judge set Sepúlveda's bail at $6,500 — an amount the family couldn't afford to pay.
"When they set the bond, I was shocked and couldn't comprehend how I'd get the money to pay for it," said Elena, who asked DNAinfo not to publish her last name for legal reasons.
It's unclear why ICE agents detained Alberto at that time or why his bond was set at $6,500. A spokeswoman for ICE couldn't provide information on Alberto's case, but a family spokesperson said he's likely to be released Thursday after posting bail thanks to the fundraising effort.
Elena said she and her husband moved to Chicago in 2006 from Mexico and have worked here since, currently at a West Side factory. She said they came here illegally.
After the arrest, Elena sprang into action: She promptly called her 15-year-old son's school, Carl Schurz High School, and spoke with one of the counselors. The counselor spread the word and referred her to local organizations that advocate for families facing deportation such as The Resurrection Project and Logan Square Neighborhood Association.
The advocates set up an online fundraising campaign and immediately shared it across social media platforms. With the power of their networks, donations started rolling in from teachers, students, neighbors and other supporters.
"By the time teachers had gotten back from Memorial Day weekend, we had raised well over $4,000," said Raul Islas, a teacher at Schurz who helped set up the campaign.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the campaign had raised $5,455 toward its $4,000 goal. (The advocates set the goal at $4,000 rather than $6,500 because Sepúlveda's neighbors had pledged to make up the rest.)
Islas attributed the success of the campaign to both Elena's willingness to go public despite the sensitive nature of the situation and the strength of the sanctuary network set up by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.
He said if Elena had not called the school and made it clear that she "was willing to fight for this," there would be no campaign.
"We haven't really had a family or student yet that approached us and said, 'We want to fight and go public with this,'" Islas said.
That, plus the Logan Square Neighborhood Association's links to local schools and organizations through its sanctuary network created a recipe for success, he said.
"I really think that being part of a community organization that is a leader on this issue is really what got this moving quickly and grew it as a campaign," he said.
"Lately, I've been much more scared to be outside"
Sepúlveda's family is originally from Michoacán, Mexico. They moved to Chicago in 2006 in search a life away from violent crime and poverty, according to Elena.
"Life [in Mexico] isn't easy. It can actually be really sad," she said. "It was hard to make ends meet and have any money to buy clothes and shoes. Oftentimes, we were only eating once a day."
Elena said she and her husband decided to move to the United States to provide a better life for their children. While living in Mexico, they were surrounded by "a lot of violence and organized crime," she said.
"There's a lot of infrastructure and a lot of support here. There's so much for us. But lately, I've been much more scared to be outside. I think a lot of people are feeling the same thing. That's what Donald Trump is causing," Elena said, referring to President Trump's pledge to increase deportations.
When the family moved to Chicago in 2006, Sepúlveda got a job installing shelves in grocery stores and Elena worked at a poultry factory. Up until Sepúlveda was detained, they were both working full time at a West Side factory that produces hair gel.
Elena said she makes $9.75 per hour, and her husband wasn't making much more than that. With five children, she fears her husband's absence will create a serious financial strain and could force them to move back to Mexico, which she said would rip her family apart.
"If I close my eyes and try to imagine myself in Mexico, I can't imagine myself there anymore," she said. "If you're in Mexico and your kids need medical attention, you need money, and if you don't have any money, your kids don't eat. It's not where I envision our family anymore."
Remembering how difficult it was to move from one country to another, Elena added, "When I got here, I didn't understand anything, and I wouldn't want the same thing to happen to my kids."
According to Elena, her husband's next court date is set for Wednesday. The court proceedings could go on for months or even years, according to Erendira Rendon, director of national projects for The Resurrection Project.
Rendon said Sepúlveda hasn't been deported before. A review of court records shows Sepúlveda has not been convicted of any crimes in Cook County.
Sepúlveda's pending release is welcome news for Elena, who said her life has been exceptionally hard since her husband was detained. Not only are finances tight, but her children, particularly her 15-year-old son who has special needs, keep asking when their dad is coming home.
Their 9-year-old son, Jonathan, burst into tears before saying, "I want to thank all of the people that gave money so my dad could come out. May God bless them and protect them."
Elena, too, was emotional and would often cry while talking about her husband's detention and the ensuing fundraising campaign.
"I don't know how to express my gratitude to all of the people who helped me," she said. "I wish I could say it to each person. It has been a very difficult few weeks."
Contributing: Erica Demarest