ALEXANDRIA, La. (CN) – Attorneys for a Mississippi woman whom immigration agents arrested after she publicly denounced their arrest of her father and brother went to Federal Court twice this week to try to stop the government from deporting her to Argentina.
Daniela Vargas, 22, came to the United States at age 7 with her parents under the visa waiver program, which lets people from certain countries into the United States for 90 days without a visa, according to her habeas petition filed Monday in the Western District of Louisiana.
The family settled in Morton, Miss., where Vargas thrived, graduating with honors from Morton High School and enrolling in the University of Southern Mississippi with dreams of becoming a math professor.
Vargas took advantage of a program President Barack Obama’s administration started in 2012 to protect immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children from deportation.
She is one of an estimated 750,000 people, called Dreamers, who have received two-year renewable federal work permits and authorized status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Vargas says in her petition that ICE raided her house on Feb. 15 and arrested her father and brother. She told them she had DACA protection and they left, but fearing they would return, she locked the door and hid in a closet.
“Later, the ICE agents returned with a search warrant and entered the home with force, breaking down the door. Ms. Vargas remained in the closet out of fear of the armed ICE agents, one of whom pointed a gun at her when she emerged. Before the agents left her house, they told Ms. Vargas that they knew her DACA had lapsed, but that they were giving her a ‘hall pass,’” the habeas petition states.
Vargas says her DACA protection lapsed in November 2016 as she scraped together the $495 filing fee. She sent her renewal application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which received it on Feb. 10.
Angry and galvanized by the ICE raids, Vargas says, she gave numerous interviews to media outlets about her family’s arrests and spoke at a March 1 press conference in Jackson, Mississippi organized by advocacy groups speaking out against ICE raids.
Vargas’ friend picked her up at the press conference and ICE agents pulled them over five minutes later.
“One ICE agent who was also present during the raid of her home said to Ms. Vargas, ‘Remember me? You know who we are; you know why we’re here,’ and ‘you’re under arrest for being an illegal immigrant.’ They immediately placed Ms. Vargas in handcuffs and removed her from the car,” the petition states.
They took her to an immigration detention center in Jena, Louisiana and told her attorneys she will soon be deported to Argentina, with no right to contest that order before an immigration judge, because she supposedly waived her rights to contest deportation when she entered the U.S. at age 7 under the Visa Waiver Program.
“How does a minor waive their rights? Well, probably their parents waive their rights for them, but now she’s a 22-year-old adult that wants to assert her rights,” her local attorney Abigail Peterson with Elmore & Peterson in Jackson told the Jackson Free Press.
Another of Vargas’ attorneys, Michelle Lapointe with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Atlanta, said in an interview that Vargas has complained that the detention center, which is in a rural part of Louisiana, is cold and the food is bad.
Lapointe said ICE raided several Chinese restaurants in Jackson and arrested 55 unauthorized immigrants around the time they arrested Vargas’ father and brother.
She said the Southern Poverty Law Center is representing only Vargas, so she does not know why ICE arrested her brother and father, nor whether they have been deported.
In a statement after Vargas’ arrest, ICE called the Mississippi raids “part of routine targeted enforcement operations. … ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately.”
But Lapointe said the restaurant raids call that into question.
“ICE says it’s doing targeted raids. That doesn’t sound very targeted to me. I think they do sweeps and they raid somewhere looking for a particular person and if they don’t find them they arrest others as collateral targets,” she said.
ICE did not respond Tuesday to an email asking for details about the arrest and detention of Vargas’ family and the conditions of the Jena detention center, run by the GEO Group.
Her attorneys demand her release in the habeas petition, claiming her arrest violated her speech and due process rights under the First and Fifth Amendments.
They also say the government should consider her pending DACA-renewal application and “longstanding ties” to the United States.
They filed an emergency motion to stay her removal Tuesday.
The defendants are the Department of Homeland Security, DHS Secretary John Kelly, ICE New Orleans Field Office Director David Rivera, and David Cole, warden of the Jena detention center.
President Donald Trump’s recent executive actions on immigration expanded the Department of Homeland Security’s focus under Obama on deporting serious criminals, to guidelines that make anyone arrested on even misdemeanor charges fair game to be deported. But the new guidelines kept DACA intact, so Dreamers, in theory, should continue to be protected.
But ICE sowed uncertainty when they arrested DACA recipient Daniel Ramirez Medina in Seattle in February and placed him in immigration detention due to alleged gang ties.