CINCINNATI (CN) - An Ohio mother of four children who was deported last year to Mexico scored a vital appeals victory on Wednesday when the Sixth Circuit vacated a federal immigration decision rejecting claims that she would face retribution from a prominent drug cartel if she was removed.
U.S. Circuit Judge John Bush wrote in a unanimous decision that the Board of Immigration Appeals had abused its discretion by finding that Maribel Trujillo Diaz had failed to support her bid for asylum with sufficient evidence to prevent her deportation.
Trujillo Diaz was forced to leave behind her four children in the southern Ohio city of Fairfield, including her infant daughter with epilepsy, when she was deported in April 2017.
Trujillo Diaz's father had described in a sworn declaration to the board how gang members of the Knights Templar drug cartel had kidnapped him in 2014 and mentioned they were looking for Trujillo Diaz.
Her brother had fled Mexico instead of joining a prior incarnation of the cartel, and Trujillo Diaz said she had left Mexico in 2002 because she feared retribution for her brother’s decision. She told the Washington Post last year that the cartel had extorted her mother in exchange for her father’s safe return.
Knights Templar and other cartels are known to exact revenge on family members of those who flee after declining to join their ranks. Knights Templar operates in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, where Trujillo Diaz is from, and has thrived in the past by trafficking methamphetamine and extorting businesses, farmers and workers.
The Board of Immigration Appeals concluded that her father’s affidavit did not do enough to support her case and was skeptical that cartel members would single her out for revenge.
However, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit vacated that finding Wednesday and remanded her case.
“In sum, the [Board of Immigration Appeals, or BIA] abused its discretion in finding that Trujillo Diaz failed to present prima facie evidence that her fear of persecution, or the threat to her life or freedom, was related to her family membership,” Bush wrote.
Trujillo Diaz received widespread support from religious leaders and politicians after Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents arrested her outside her sister-in-law’s home and moved to deport her.
She was removed last April after the Sixth Circuit denied her an emergency stay, even as Ohio Gov. John Kasich and other supporters argued she should be allowed to stay with her family.
For some, her case was a microcosm of the fear that swept through immigrant neighborhoods after Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. Trump had promised to target criminals in the country illegally but it appears that otherwise lawful unauthorized immigrants had been stung by the administration's policies.
Though Trujillo Diaz admits she broke the law to enter the country, she has otherwise been a law-abiding citizen since she arrived on U.S. soil in early 2002.
Five years later, she was arrested by ICE agents at the chicken processing plant where she worked, according to the Post. By 2012, she was seeking asylum, court records show. After losing an appeal in May 2014, Trujillo Diaz’s removal was postponed and she was allowed to work.
Trujillo Diaz later discovered that Knights Templar members had kidnapped her father. His affidavit described how in 2014 gang members had mentioned during the kidnapping that they knew his son Omar Daniel had fled and mentioned Trujillo Diaz by her first name. They said they would hurt his family “if they could not get their hands on Omar Daniel and Maribel,” according to the sworn declaration cited in the Sixth Circuit’s opinion.
The Board of Immigration Appeals found the evidence “speculative and conclusory,” however, and ruled that Trujillo Diaz did not make clear that her relationship with her brother made her a target or that her father's kidnapping was tied to her brother’s decision not to join the gang.
In a 15-page opinion, Judge Bush found that the only way the board could have reached that conclusion is if they had discredited the father’s sworn declaration.
“His declaration explicitly links his kidnapping (and the threats of harm to Trujillo Diaz) to his and his daughter’s familial ties to his son, who refused to join the cartel,” Bush wrote, adding that the board’s flawed reading of the evidence also led to its rejection of her claims under the Convention Against Torture. (Parentheses in original.)
The administrative panel did little to explain why it rejected Trujillo Diaz’s claim that she could not move to another part of the country to avoid the cartel’s reach, Bush wrote.
Joined by U.S. Circuit Judges Gilbert Merritt and Karen Moore, Bush granted Trujillo Diaz's petition for review and remanded the case back to the board for reconsideration.
Trujillo Diaz is represented by Emily Brown with the Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Ohio. Brown said that her client was "thrilled" when she heard about the court’s ruling.
"The whole family is very happy that a court has ruled in her favor. And we're really hopeful that soon she'll be able to reunite with the family which includes her four American children, and we're going to keep fighting and supporting her in any way we can to bring her back to the U.S. where she belongs," Brown said in a phone interview.
Office of Immigration Litigation attorney Brooke Maurer declined to comment on the ruling.
There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.
Some 226,000 people not authorized to be in the U.S. were removed in the fiscal year 2017, a significant decrease from the 409,849 people that were deported in 2012 under former President Barack Obama’s administration.
But arrests under President Trump have increased compared to recent years. ICE made 143,470 arrests in the fiscal year 2017, the highest number of arrests in the last three fiscal years, according to agency statistics.
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