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Dozens rally to support family as father faces deportation

ST. PETERSBURG — There's nothing the crowd who gathered Thursday night at Allendale United Methodist Church can do to stop the deportation of Luis Blanco, a father of six who has lived in Plant City for 20 years.

But there were two things the 100 or so people could do:

They could lend their support to Blanco's family. And they could decry an immigration system that entangled a man who has lived in the U.S. for two decades and raised a family of American citizens.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Family resolved that Plant City father of six is headed for deportation to Mexico(w/video)

While they rallied in St. Petersburg, the 40-year-old Blanco was taken to the Krome Detention Center in Miami by federal agents.

It was only Tuesday that he learned at the Tampa offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he'll likely be deported back to Mexico.

At the church, Blanco's family felt the warmth. Speakers offered prayers and supportive words, songs were sung and Rev. Andy Oliver promised his congregation would gather donations to pay the family's rent. Blanco and his wife Lourdes Medrano are expecting a seventh child.

His 15-year-old daughter, Jennifer Blanco, smiled throughout the event.

"Talking about my dad makes me happy," she said. "I try to hold it in. I try to be strong."

Her mother couldn't hide her feelings. When the family walked into the church, all in attendance were on the dais holding protest signs and clapping. Medrano cried.

She and her husband hoped immigration officers would reconsider their decision when he came to ICE's offices on Tuesday. It was a 2014 traffic ticket in North Carolina that brought Blanco to their attention.

He was allowed to stay in this country thanks to a humanitarian stay, so long as he checked in each year. Not this time.

The circumstances baffled some in attendance, Maria Rodrigúez, 63, among them.

She said she understands some immigrants commit crimes and that they should be "held accountable for their actions."

"But I don't think this man did anything so wrong that he needs to be deported," said Rodrigúez, who came to the U.S. when she was 18 on a student visa and is now a citizen.

Scenes of immigrant parents being separated from their families have surged since President Donald Trump took office as he fulfills a campaign promise to step up immigration enforcement.

Rally organizer Pamela Gomez said even though former President Barack Obama's administration deported millions, she called the Trump administration's methods "cruel" by comparison.

"There's no discretion in terms of case by case looks at families," said Gomez, a regional organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "Deporting a father of six does not make America safe."

Speakers also denounced Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who took the lead in creating a workaround that will allow local sheriffs to legally hold undocumented immigrants on behalf of ICE.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas sheriff, feds announce changes to controversial immigrant detention policy

Luis Blanco worked in construction and was the sole provider of the family. His eldest daughter, Sonya Blanco, had attended Hillsborough County College and was registering for classes at the Art Institute of Tampa. Instead, now she has started looking for jobs instead to support her family. Jennifer Blanco said she'll start looking for jobs to help her family, too.

"Part of my job as a pastor is to name evil," Oliver told the family from the dais. "What happened to your husband is evil."