Mayra suffered three epileptic attacks in as many days while in federal custody, and now she was to board a plane with her two young kids and return to the El Salvador home they once fled.
The route was finalized and the coordinates were set. Mayra, the U.S. government had decreed, was to catch a flight Wednesday morning to the new murder capital of the world and vow never to set foot on U.S. soil for at least another 10 years.
Then, what seemed like a miracle happened. Mayra’s family was pulled from the plane. Their deportations were put on hold.
Mayra, her kids and the two other families rerouted from the Jan. 6 flight were among the 121 immigrants swept up in deportation raids the previous weekend. Officials said the aggressive enforcement action was meant to send a clear message that the Obama administration was serious about its threats to deport immigrants who came here illegally – including even women and children fleeing one of the most violent regions in the world.
But in the days since immigration agents first began the raids, the administration’s message has been undermined by a series of deportation orders that have been put on hold. Immigration officials may say they have the grounds to deport the families, but the courts say something different. The result has left the administration at risk of acting in haste and rushing to deport women and children who, in the eyes of the law, may face extreme danger if returned to their home countries.
In justifying the raids this week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson stressed that the feds were only deporting families whose legal options to remain in the U.S. had reached a dead end.
“This should come as no surprise. I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed,” Johnson said in a statement.
But just the opposite was true for many cases. Roughly a quarter of families swept up in the raids were granted 11th hour stays to their deportation orders by the nation’s highest immigration appeals court.
In fact, pro bono attorneys on the ground have a perfect record in winning requests to put deportations on hold, said Katie Shepherd, who runs the CARA project, a coalition of legal groups that volunteer to help families held at immigrant detention centers in south Texas. Of the seven families they rushed to protect out of the raids since Saturday, all have been allowed to remain temporarily in the U.S.
“This is a clear indication that something is very wrong,” said Shepherd said.
Around 8 a.m. on a Saturday, just two days into the new year, Mayra was asleep alongside her kids in Atlanta when immigration agents stormed the bedroom.
Mayra’s mother had answered the door and let them in. The officers assured the family they were being taken into custody to review Mayra’s documents, nothing more. But for such an informal visit, there were about 10 agents standing in Mayra’s home. They waited as Mayra woke her kids and got them dressed.
It wasn’t until Mayra stepped into the Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office that she realized the real reason for the visit.
Mayra – whose name has been changed to protect her identity – and her kids had arrived at the U.S. border in 2014 and promptly turned themselves in. They had fled El Salvador after gang members ransacked Mayra’s home in search of the father of her 8-year-old, a man who Mayra said had raped and beat her to the point that she was hospitalized.
“I am afraid that these same gang members might come back to kill me,” she said later in court documents filed to the Board of Immigration Review.
But according to the documents, the lawyer Mayra hired in the U.S. never asked about her abuser. She never explained to an immigration judge the full extent of her domestic abuse. When told on Saturday that she was about to be deported back to the violence she had escaped, she started to panic. She then collapsed onto the floor of the immigration field office. She was having a seizure.
Prone to epileptic attacks since she was a preteen, Mayra would have eventually suffer from two more attacks while in ICE custody. The episodes came after she and her kids, 6 and 8, were flown to south Texas, where they met the other 27 families caught up in the raids and awaited deportation back to Central America.
Immigrant rights advocates and faith leaders have condemned the raids for targeting the most vulnerable of undocumented immigrants. Early reports of the raids, first published by The Washington Post, gave groups a few days of advanced warning to prepare. But many in the immigrant community have been driven underground in fear as groups rush to warn people of their rights.
The uproar has gained traction with members of Congress, mostly Democrats, who returned from the holiday break to decry the administration for triggering such fear and panic. But given the relatively small number of families arrested in the raids so far, there has been a split among Democrats over whether to more broadly condemn the administration’s actions.
“These are folks who have been adjudged, as I understand it, by a court, have received an order to leave and have not left. And the law says that they need to leave,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said during a press briefing this week. “It’s a relatively small number.”
The raids come as anti-immigrant sentiment has reached new heights, and hard-line positions on immigration have become the new litmus test for GOP presidential candidates. Recent terror attacks that roiled California and Paris have only added to the alarm. It has tied issues of immigration with concerns over national security, shining a critical spotlight on those allowed to enter or remain in the U.S.
2016 Democrats, for their, part have tried to capitalize on the GOP’s incendiary rhetoric to fire up the crucial Latino voting bloc, but not all candidates are coalescing around the same position in response to the raids. While Hillary Clinton has said through a spokesman that she does not believe the U.S. should be conducting large-scale round-ups, she is the only Democratic presidential candidate to not explicitly denounce the raids. In a series of tweets on Thursday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders urged President Obama to halt the operations and “not deport families back to countries where a death sentence awaits.”
“We can’t continue to employ inhumane tactics involving deporting thousands of families to address a crisis that requires a humane solution,” Sanders tweeted.
More than 100,000 people from Central America have been caught along the U.S. border since last year. The flood of people, mostly unaccompanied minors and families, maxed out federal resources in a humanitarian crisis compounded by a broken U.S. immigration system. Advocacy groups have been adamant that the vast majority of people likely qualified for asylum or other forms of relief. Those cases were thrown into an immigrant court system already bogged down by backlogs and delay.
The aftereffects of the border surge are now bubbling to the surface. Because immigrants are not given court-appointed attorneys, many went through the system without legal representation. Even children were being brought before immigration courts without an attorney at their side. Adding insult to injury, immigrant rights advocates say asylum law is particularly complicated, even for general run-of-the-mill immigration attorneys. Imagine young children trying to plea for asylum on their own.
Melissa Crow, legal director at the American Immigration Council, said the system caused a great deal of confusion, which caused many families caught in the recent raids to be spit out of the system without their full, due-process rights.
“It became clear that they had legitimate claims for protection,” said Crow. “These conversations certainly raised questions not only about the quality of the representation but also the problems with the immigration system.”
Homeland Security Secretary Johnson hinted earlier this week that more raids are under consideration. According to a spokesperson for ICE, the U.S. has already deported 77 individuals out of the first round-up and rerouted them to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. And for those families who saw their deportations put on hold, the agency made clear that it planned to fight those orders in court.
“While ICE will respect any lawfully issued stays of removal, we also reserve the right to pursue any legal avenues available to us to further litigate these matters,” an ICE official said in a statement.
Shepherd, who runs the shop of pro bono attorneys out of the detention center in south Texas, said she’s weary that more of her clients would fall through the cracks and face deportation when they shouldn’t.
“We have them sit, all at a table, because I don’t want to let them out of my sight,” Shepherd said.