Selene Saavedra Roman: flight attendant with DACA status released after 6 weeks in ICE detention


Selene Saavedra Roman introduced last fall. In February, the flight attendant and the DACA beneficiary were detained after working on a flight to Mexico. She was detained for six weeks before being released on March 22. (David Watkins)

Selene Saavedra Roman was nervous about going to work.

She has been a "dreamer" since 2012, when the Deferred Action program for the Childcare program started. She was born in Peru and has been living in the United States for 25 years. But her immigration status has always surfaced in the back of her mind.

That's why, when she got a job as a flight attendant, she decided to work for a regional company, Mesa Airlines, that wouldn't ask her to travel around the world. And that is why she told the company that she was a DACA beneficiary and did not want to fly internationally.

Still, in February, Mesa suggested she fly to Mexico, Saavedra Roman's lawyer said. And when she told the company about her concerns, she was sure she would not overtake the United States.

But on February 12, customs officials arrested Saavedra Roman shortly after she landed on her return flight to Houston. She was to remain in custody for another six weeks. She was released Friday night, but lawyers point to her case as an example of the Trump government's attempts to end DACA – and the tug of war with the courts that followed – confused program beneficiaries, their families, government agencies and private employers by tackling an already complex web of immigration policies.

"They are lost in a legal framework and it becomes rather ridiculous," said Saavedra Roman's lawyer, Belinda Arroyo, in an interview before her client was released. "Her case is basically the poster child for what happens when you leave these people in legal limbo."

Arroyo acknowledged that Saavedra Roman made a mistake by leaving without seeking government permission – permission that would have been denied, because Trump's DACA order also ended the exemption that allowed the recipients to leave the country and to visit again.

But, Arroyo said, Saavedra Roman knew nothing about it: she relied on Mesa Airlines to determine if she could leave and come back, and the company officials made a mistake. They could have consulted an immigration lawyer or recommended that Saavedra Roman do that. In a statement, the president of the aircraft, Jonathan Ornstein, apologized and said that he asked the authorities to drop all accusations that resulted from the detention of Saavedra Roman.

"It is clearly unfair that someone is being held for six weeks for something that is nothing more than an administrative error and a misunderstanding," Ornstein said.

Saavedra Roman is married to an American citizen, a man she met while they were both studying at the University of Texas A&M. She graduated in 2014 and the couple has been working to obtain a permanent residence permit for her.

After Saavedra Roman was detained, officials tried to withdraw her DACA status, Arroyo said. They considered her a & # 39; coming stranger & # 39 ;, who gave her fewer rights than she would have had before leaving the country. And paradoxically, her status as a DACA beneficiary prevented the authorities from deporting her and was one of the reasons why she was initially detained, Arroyo said.

A US citizen and immigration service spokesperson, Steve Blando, said the agency does not comment on specific cases, but reiterated the shift in Trump era policies that prevent DACA beneficiaries from leaving the country.

In a statement, the spokesperson for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Tim Oberle, acknowledged that Saavedra Roman was released on Friday "pending the trial of her immigration procedures," although it was not immediately clear why she was released Friday and not six weeks ago. The agency says it makes its custody decisions "case by case".

David Watkins, the husband of Saavedra Roman, found out in a text message: "I'm being detained, call the lawyer."

"I called, I text & # 39; the, I screamed to heaven," he said. "I dropped to my knees and screamed as loud as I could."

At that time, he said, he knew that they were on their way to a legal "swamp", but he didn't think it would take a month and a half before he would hug his wife again. The weeks that followed, Watkins said, were the most difficult of their lives. In custody, Saavedra Roman struggled with anxiety and depression, he said.

"I think my wife will have PTSD for a very long time," Watkins said in an interview that he did from his car when he was traveling from his parents' home in San Antonio to the Conroe detention center near Houston. .

He'd seen her a handful of times since she boarded the flight to Mexico, but they had to look at each other through a thick plastic window and they spent those visits reviewing the details of the immigration case, almost always with tears .

After being released, Saavedra Roman said she could not describe what it felt like to be released.

"I cried and hugged my husband and never wanted to let go," she said in a statement. "I am grateful and grateful for the wonderful people who have come to fight for me and it fills my heart. Thank you to everyone who has supported. I am just so happy to have my freedom back."

Arroyo and Watkins had been negotiating with immigration agencies for weeks to get Saavedra Roman out of prison. Then their fear grew that the hearing process could continue indefinitely. At that time, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA – a trade union that previously sparred with the Trump administration – sounded its own alarms, in public, Thursday night.

In less than a day, Saavedra Roman became a symbol for those who resisted Trump's immigration position.

Large news stores submitted stories, more than 20,000 people signed a petition in support of Saavedra Roman, and national political figures defended her case.

"This is a terrible story," Hillary Clinton tweeted Friday before Saavedra Roman was released.

"Heartbreaking stories such as Selene & # 39; s underline the cruelty of Trump's immigration agenda," Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro said in a tweet, just over four hours before she was released. "The hundreds of thousands of DREAMERS whose future is endangered by this administration deserve better."

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Fourth in a tweet when he heard that Saavedra Roman would be released Friday night, but said there is work to be done.

"Selene has been released, but the fight is not over yet!" he said. "She will fight her deportation in the coming months. There is no point in deporting Dreamers like Selene from the only country they have known as home. We have to stay with our immigrant sisters and brothers. & # 39;

Watkins said that he and Saavedra Roman did not participate in much immigration activism in the past – he was afraid what would happen if she marched and drew attention to her status. It was safer to keep their heads down, he said. But after everything they have experienced in the last six weeks, they can reconsider it inside the detention facilities and outside it.

At that time, however, in the hours before they were to be reunited, Watkins was still driving across a Texas highway toward Conroe, explaining how the couple had been a living nightmare for the past month and a half. Everything he could think of right now, he said, finally woke up.

Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.

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A & # 39; dreamer & # 39; traveled to Mexico. Now he cannot come home to his husband.