Cecilia Figueroa-Figueroa never expected to make headlines.
But since early September, when the Salt Lake City advocate for immigrant health care faced the daunting choice of either leaving the country on her own or deportation, her story has been all over local and national news.
In an interview Friday with KUER, she said it’s been weird to see how people have reacted to her story — of leaving the growing violence in her home state of Guerrero, Mexico. Or judging her for her decision to start a new life — a safer life — in the United States and to enter the country without legal authorization 11 years ago.
“On one hand, I feel like I am singled out as if I was one of the worst criminals,” Figueroa-Figueroa said in Spanish. “On the other hand, it hurts being judged in this manner when the only thing I have done is help my community.”
Figueroa-Figueroa had a work permit and was attempting to adjust her immigration status. But after her application to change her status was denied on Aug. 27, she was briefly detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Figueroa-Figueroa was released on humanitarian grounds later that same day, according to ICE, and had told immigration officers she would return to Mexico on Sept. 2.
Luis Garza, the executive director of Comunidades Unidas, a local immigrant rights group and Figueroa-Figueroa’s employer, said the day after she had planned to leave that Figueroa-Figueroa instead would be staying in the country to work on her asylum case.
An ICE spokeswoman has said Figueroa-Figueroa “remains at large,” adding that she did not voluntarily return to Mexico as agreed upon, suggesting she’s a fugitive.
But her attorney Aaron Tarin said Friday that “at-large” simply means Figueroa-Figueroa, 55, is no longer in ICE’s custody, not that she is on the run.
“There’s plenty of people in this circumstance that are placed under ICE supervision that are not detained who are still technically considered at-large but that word does not mean that she is hiding or ICE is seeking to detain her,” Tarin said.
In fact, the vast majority of Utah families show up for their immigration court removal hearings, according to an analysis of federal data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
ICE may exercise prosecutorial discretion and choose not to detain someone or hold them in a facility and deport them immediately, said Sui Chang, the American Immigration Lawyer Association’s vice president of ICE Liaison Committee.
“Sometimes they are forced to do these exercises of prosecutorial discretion because either a compelling nature or the facilities are full and there’s no bed space,” Chang said.
‘I Feel Cheated’
Tarin took on Figueroa-Figueroa’s case after her previous attorney, Joe Johnson with Salt Lake City law firm of Stowell, Crayk and Bown, attempted to file a change of immigration status on Figueroa-Figueroa’s behalf so she could receive a green card.
She said Johnson failed to tell her that she had an open deportation order against her that made her ineligible to adjust her immigration status. She doesn’t know if the mistake was just that — a mistake — or if Johnson had malicious intent, but either way it led to Figueroa-Figueroa being briefly detained by ICE.
The experience left Figueroa-Figueroa shaken up. She said there are times when she can’t sleep or eat or even forgets where she is.
“I feel cheated because I trusted someone and they let me down,” she said.
Figueroa-Figueroa was twice arrested by immigration officials and was issued an expedited removal order. She was also federally convicted of illegally entering the U.S. in March 2008, according to an ICE statement.
Johnson told KUER on Monday that Figueroa-Figueroa did not disclose that she had been apprehended at the border for 15 days when he started working on her paperwork in March 2018. Johnson said he took her case with the understanding that there were no problems. It wasn’t until they started prepping for her interview with immigration officials that he learned this wasn’t the case.
It was only then that he submitted Figueroa-Figueroa’s fingerprints to the FBI to run a background check on her, Johnson said. When the results came back, he said, all that Figueroa-Figueroa’s record showed she had a federal conviction for entering the country illegally. Since that conviction alone doesn’t make an immigrant ineligible for a green card, he said they decided to proceed.
Tarin, Figueroa-Figueroa’s new lawyer, said they have discussed taking some kind of action against Johnson, but right now they’re putting all their focus on the immigration case before them.
Navigating The System
Figueroa said she went into an interview with immigration officials on Aug. 27 confident that she would soon receive good news, but that wasn’t the case. She said he asked her lawyer several times if she was eligible to apply for a green card, and he kept telling her she was.
“If he had told me something, I wouldn’t have gone to my interview,” Figueroa said. “I was surprised because I had no idea something was wrong.”
She was soon released from ICE custody, but still faced deportation when more than 100 community advocates and supporters held a rally outside ICE’s field offices in West Valley City on Aug. 30 urging officials to grant Figueroa-Figueroa a “credible fear” interview.
Figueroa said she’s currently in the process of setting up the interview, but in the meantime she reaffirmed that she is not running or hiding from anyone, though that’s what ICE’s “at large” statement might suggest. She said even though she’s not in ICE custody, immigration officers are supervising her.
“I think I have done things the right way so far because that’s what I want to do — do things the right way because I don’t want anyone later to say that immigrants are what they say we are,” Figueroa said in reference to statements from the Trump administration that immigrants fail to show up to court hearings. “We (immigrants) are people who can follow the rules.”