Susana Arevalo and her two kids were already on a plane, moments from being deported, when they were led off by immigration agents, the result of a successful last ditch effort by their attorneys to stop them from being sent back to El Salvador.
“Immigration agents told me we didn’t have any more legal options, that we had a final order of deportation,” Arevalo told BuzzFeed News. “Now, I know they lied.”
Arevalo, other women detained in the January raids, and their attorneys are accusing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of violating their own rules by telling them they had no legal recourse to dispute their deportations.
The families were held at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Arevalo was one of 33 people in 12 families who obtained temporary stays of their deportation orders with the help of CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, a nonprofit that connects immigrants with attorneys.
ICE denied the allegations.
Upon arrival at the center, "ICE officers provide incoming residents with a notice of right to legal counsel," agency spokesman Carl Rusnok told Reuters. "The residents in question all had an opportunity to meet with legal counsel."
While detained immigrants don’t have the right to counsel, they do have the right to access a lawyer. Many can’t afford attorneys and there aren’t enough pro bono lawyers available to help them.
As it is, the nation’s immigration courts are struggling to wade through their case loads. On Friday, an analysis of federal data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that the average wait time in immigration court rose to 667, a new high.
The raids conducted by ICE were in response to the spike of Central American families and unaccompanied minors who started crossing the U.S. border in 2014.
Shortly after the raids, officials with the Department of Homeland Security said all of the detained immigrants had been given final orders of removal by an immigration court, and had exhausted all available legal recourses.
Ian Philabaum, advocacy coordinator for CARA, said the fact that some of those families were spared from deportation shows that DHS was wrong.
“These women were not told about orientation and actively told they had no legal recourse and could not call their attorneys,” Philabaum told BuzzFeed News. “They violated their own rules.”
Using the raids as a deterrent to keep other people from coming to the U.S. to seek asylum is wrong and criminalizes a vulnerable group, he added.
“When people are faced with a choice between life or death they’re going to choose life and use whatever power they have available to them,” Philabaum said. “One option is asylum and they’re going to exercise it and they should be allowed to.”
Gloria Marina Diaz, 38, came to the U.S. seeking asylum from El Salvador with her three sons and 12-year-old daughter.
Shortly after arriving in July, she was placed in detention with her children for a month-and-a-half before being released with an ankle monitoring bracelet. Diaz said she hired an attorney, but didn't know she had been ordered deported until Jan. 2
On that day she was at work, cleaning hotel rooms, when her daughter called her to tell her ICE agents were at the house asking for her.
Diaz’s sister decided to take her daughter to her at the hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, and likely led ICE agents to the location, she said. Diaz was then handcuffed in front of her coworkers and taken to the detention center with her daughter.
On Jan. 4, Diaz said she was taken to a room and told she was being deported.
“They told me I had to sign a document and that I didn’t have a right to a lawyer,” Diaz told BuzzFeed News. “I was told that because I had a final deportation order there was nothing I could do so I signed.”
Afterwards Diaz was able to speak to a representative from the Salvadorean consulate who put her in touch with an attorney who, in turn, helped her get a temporary stay on her deportation. One of her sons wasn’t so lucky, however, and was deported on Jan. 6. Another remains in detention since being taken into custody in July.
Diaz said her daughter has a hard time leaving their home after going through the ordeal.
“I want people to know that we came seeking asylum, we’re not trying to take food away from anyone or commit crimes,” Diaz said. “Don’t send us to our country to die.”