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U.S. immigration officials on Tuesday night released 11 of 25 immigration activists who have been in detention since surrendering last month at the Texas-Mexico border to protest immigration policies, which was the most recent of a series of increasingly provocative protests against the record number of deportations under the Obama administration.
Five of the 11 immigrants released were women. The releases came after one of the 25 — a Mexican woman — was deported. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said a judge determined Rocio Hernandez Perez, 23, was ineligible for immigration relief. No explanation was provided on her case.
Perez "was removed from the country," ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa told The Associated Press. Raul Garcia, the Mexican consul for protection in El Paso, confirmed Perez was sent back to Mexico City.
"She is no longer here and we are heartbroken," Israel Rodriguez, one of the other detainees, said in a phone call from the detention center.
Eleven, however, tasted freedom as they left ICE's El Paso Processing Center about 7 p.m. MDT Tuesday. Protest organizers had been ordered to pick those released up by car. Instead of leaving immediately, the 11 left the vehicles as quickly as they had entered them so they could rejoice with each other. The center guards eventually shooed them off the property.
Former detainee Leonardo Contreras said it was a bittersweet victory. "We should be happy, but we are saddened by the news of her deportation," said the 33-year-old suburban New York City resident.
Contreras said he was a semester away from completing his civil engineering studies at Westchester Community College last year when he learned his father was dying of cancer at the family's Guadalajara, Mexico, home. He was faced with the choice of staying in the United States and continuing his studies or returning to Mexico to be with his father in the last days of his life.
He chose being with his family, only to face huge obstacles to his return to the United States. Now that he was freed, he said his next step was to travel to Washington, D.C., to try to rally support for the 13 still in detention, eight of whom have failed the crucial immigration interview.
Sara Roman, the mother of one of the women released, said she was happy for her daughter. The Lancaster, S.C., woman said she was sad for those still in detention, however.
"They came here as children, and they didn't have a say in it," she said of their illegal entry into the United States. "They all deserve a chance. They need to be here."
The 25 were among 34 immigrants who crossed an international bridge from Mexico into Laredo on Sept. 30, knowing they did not have the legal status to enter the U.S. Nine of them were released previously: three parents and four children, an unaccompanied minor and the mother of a 4-year-old U.S. citizen with health problems.
The 25 detainees spent years in the U.S. after being brought to the country illegally as children and are asking that they now be allowed to return. They are part of a group of immigrants known as "dreamers," in reference to the U.S. Dream Act bill that would grant permanent residency to students whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally.
Local immigration attorney Carlos Spector, who represents more than 100 families of asylum seekers, lambasted the group.
"What they are doing plays into the anti-immigrant narrative that people (who claim the need for asylum in the U.S.) are just coming to fix their papers," Spector said. "It's tragic and sad that people are forced to take desperate measures, but you don't use a desperate measure if it will hurt others."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.