Central American moms, kids stuck in legal purgatory after deportation raids

Gloria and her 12-year-old daughter left an abusive home in El Salvador to come to the U.S. last year. If this month’s immigration raid that targeted her had followed its course, she would have been returned to a situation that still traumatizes her.

Instead, the raid left her and her daughter stuck in limbo. They sit in a detention center in Dilley, Texas, hundreds of miles from their Georgia home. She is among the more than 30 mothers and their children who were targeted in the Jan. 2 raids and now wait in the same purgatory — each were granted a reprieve from deportation but are still being held in captivity.

Their lawyers claim that by keeping them detained, the government is breaking the law.

“The children should be released immediately, with their mothers, as the law requires,” said Katie Shepherd, an attorney with CARA, a pro-bono network providing legal representation to detainees.

The raids were part of an operation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents that targeted families who came to the U.S. after 2014. ICE officials maintain that they were within their bounds to pick up the families, each of whom had deportation orders.

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But Gloria, who did not want her last name used, said she had no idea that an order of deportation had even been issued against her. She arrived in the U.S. illegally in May 2015 and filed immigration paperwork — but at one point she got lost in translation and apparently misunderstood what the next step was, she said.

“I was surprised,” Gloria said, in Spanish, during a phone interview. “No one ever said anything about being deported.”

Stories like Gloria’s have sparked political pushback, with 146 House Democrats signing a letter asking the Obama administration to end the raids and revise the refugee criteria.

Though Secretary of State John Kerry announced Tuesday that the U.S. would increase the number of refugees it would accept from Central America, calls for relief from the raids continued.

“We are concerned that many of these families did not receive adequate due process and some may have already been deported to countries where they will face persecution, torture or death,” wrote U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), and Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) in a statement.

Political statements and maneuvering keep trickling out of Washington, D.C., but Gloria still sits in Dilley. She says she followed procedure, as she understood it. She is still unsure why she was targeted in the raid and she has no idea why she is still detained.

When she and her daughter first came to the U.S. last year, they wound up in Dilley for over a month. She paid bail to be released, with instructions to appear in court to file for immigration paperwork. She hired an attorney and went to three court dates.

Gloria said she never gave information beyond her name and address in court. Her lawyer and the judge spoke in English and didn’t translate for her, she said. Even on her final day in court, no one gave her a deportation date so she assumed, wrongly it turns out, her case was continuing. She was not issued a deportation order until about a week ago, she said.

On the day of the raid, Gloria was at work. The officers showed at her sister’s home, where she lives with her daughter, and asked for her. The daughter called her and told her immigration officers wanted to talk to her, Gloria said, so her sister brought the officers – along with her daughter – to the hotel where Gloria works. There, Gloria said, the officers told her they wanted to ask some questions and the that she and her daughter would be home in two hours.

Instead, she found herself on a Texas-bound plane with her daughter. Her daughter kept asking questions but she didn’t know how to respond.

“I didn’t know what to say,” she recalled. “I just kept telling her I have no idea where they are taking us or why.”

In Dilley, she was processed and sequestered along with others from the raid in a building called Blue Butterfly. On Monday, she learned she would be deported and was asked to sign the corresponding papers. After signing, however, she attended a teleconference hosted by the El Salvadoran consulate, where she was encouraged to seek out an attorney. That is ultimately what saved her, she said. She applied for asylum under the advice of her attorney and the Board of Immigration Appeals granted her a stay of deportation.

Her daughter is worried they will be returned to El Salvador. She already misses her school and her friends. But Gloria maintains her faith.

“I have confidence in God and the law,” she said.