A Flight Attendant With DACA Was Cleared By Her Airline To Fly To Mexico. She Was Detained By ICE For Over A Month.
The CEO of the airline said her detention was the result of "an administrative error and a misunderstanding."
Selene Saavedra-Roman always had a dream to travel. The 28-year-old woman was a step closer to fulfilling her goal in December when she finished training to become a flight attendant.
For Saavedra-Roman — a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals who came to the US when she was three, married an American citizen, and is in the process to obtaining citizenship — the job she had dreamed about resulted in her being detained by US immigration agents for six weeks, over what her employer calls "nothing more than an administrative error and a misunderstanding,"
Saavedra-Roman, who grew up in Texas, came to the United States illegally from Peru when she was three years old and now has legal status under DACA. She has not left the US since she arrived nearly 25 years ago.
After graduating from Texas A&M University in 2014, Saavedra-Roman married David Watkins, an American citizen, in 2017. She's currently working toward getting her US citizenship and the government has approved her I-130 Petition, which puts her on the path to permanent residency, her lawyer Belinda Arroyo told BuzzFeed News.
Watkins said that while the couple was on their honeymoon, he urged his new wife to pursue a career as a flight attendant. She was working as a teacher at the time, but she wanted to try something new that would allow her to travel.
Last December, Saavedra-Roman completed her flight training and in January she officially joined Phoenix-based Mesa Airlines. She had been on the job for about a month when the company assigned her to a roundtrip flight from Houston's George Bush International Airport to Mexico.
Saavedra-Roman raised concerns about flying outside of the US, telling her supervisors she was worried the flight could jeopardize her DACA status.
In a Jan. 11 email, Saavedra-Roman asked if she would "be able to re-enter the United States with my Peruvian Passport?"
"I'm confused on the legalities in regards to my passport/employment authorization due to my citizenship. Is there anyway we can look into this before I'm scheduled to work in Mexico/Canada please?"
The woman's lawyer and husband told BuzzFeed News that Mesa officials reassured Saavedra-Roman she would be fine because her DACA status was valid until November 2019.
Saavedra-Roman agreed to work the flight — she was new at the company and still on probation, her husband said. With her Peruvian passport in hand, Roman boarded the roundtrip flight to Mexico on February 12.
Upon her return that same day, officials at Houston airport told her she did not have the proper paperwork to reenter the country. Saavedra-Roman, still wearing her flight attendant uniform, spent the next 24 hours at the George Bush International Airport sleeping on a couch before being transferred to the Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe, Texas, where she was detained for more than a month, her husband said
"I'm allowed to see her one hour a week through two inches of glass," Watkins told BuzzFeed News of her time in detention. "I'm not allowed to touch her whatsoever."
On Friday, after public outcry, Saavedra-Roman was released.
"On March 22, at approximately 6:15 p.m. (CDT), Peruvian national Selene Saavedra Roman, 28, was released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody pending adjudication of her immigration proceedings," an ICE spokesperson said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
Watkins said his wife suffers from depression and anxiety and the lengthy detention exacerbated the conditions.
"She’s not doing hot," he said. "I’m not doing well either, but at least I’m on the outside."
Saavedra-Roman's lawyer Belinda Arroyo told BuzzFeed News the airline "gave her bad advice" by telling her she was authorized to travel outside the country, adding that US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has no reason to hold her client.
"Why are we wasting precious government resources to detain someone who is a DACA recipient, married to a US citizen, and has no criminal history?" Arroyo said. "[ICE] has the power to release her."
In joint statement with the Association of Flight Attendants on Friday, the CEO of Mesa Airlines said Saavedra-Roman's detention was the result of "an administrative error and a misunderstanding," and called on the Department of Homeland Security to release her.
"We are deeply sorry Selene and her husband have had to endure this situation. It is patently unfair for someone to be detained for six weeks over something that is nothing more than an administrative error and a misunderstanding," Mesa chairman and CEO Jonathan Ornstein said in a statement. "We are doing everything in our power to ask the administration to release Selene, and drop all charges stemming from this horrible situation."
Arroyo submitted a request for parole, which would have allowed Saavedra-Roman to be released, nearly three weeks ago, but no determination was issued, she said.
The holdup, Arroyo speculated, may have been because ICE had sought to revoke Roman's DACA status and deport her back to Peru, a country she has not been to since she was 3 years old, Arroyo said, calling the move "shocking."
"They know it was an inadvertent mistake," she said.
A spokesperson for ICE said Saavedra-Roman applied for admission into the country "without valid entry documentation."
"She was taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and processed as a refused crewmember. Saavedra Roman is currently in ICE custody pending adjudication of her immigration proceedings," the statement continued.
The agency did not say whether ICE had attempted to revoke Saavedra-Roman's status. A spokesperson for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the union had mobilized to support Saavedra-Roman.
"She has followed the rules, paid taxes, and is currently in process to citizenship,” Nelson said. "The United States is her country and we need to bring her home."
This story has been updated with confirmation from ICE that Saavedra-Roman was released Friday.