The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a flight attendant from Texas ended up in an ICE detention center for six weeks

Selene Saavedra Roman pictured last fall. In February, the flight attendant and DACA beneficiary was detained after working a flight to Mexico. She was in custody for six weeks before being released March 22. (David Watkins) (David Watkins)
Placeholder while article actions load

Selene Saavedra Roman was nervous about going to work.

She’s been a “dreamer” since 2012, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program began. Born in Peru, she has lived in the United States for 25 years, since she was 3. But her immigration status has always loomed in the back of her mind.

Which is why, when she got a job as a flight attendant, she decided to work for a regional company, Mesa Airlines, that would not ask her to travel around the world. And it was why she told the company she was a DACA beneficiary and didn’t want to fly internationally.

Yet, in February, Mesa scheduled her to fly to Mexico, Saavedra Roman’s attorney said. And when she told the company of her concerns, she was assured that she would not have trouble reentering the United States.

But on Feb. 12, customs officials detained Saavedra Roman shortly after she landed in Houston on her return flight. She would remain in custody for another six weeks. She was released Friday evening, but advocates are pointing to her case as an example of how the Trump administration’s attempts to end DACA — and the tug of war with the courts that followed — have confused program beneficiaries, their families, government agencies and private employers, muddling an already complex web of immigration policies.

"They’ve been lost in legal limbo, and it’s getting quite ridiculous,” Saavedra Roman’s attorney, Belinda Arroyo, said in an interview before her client was freed. “Her case is basically the poster child for what happens when you leave these people in legal limbo.”

A vegan YouTube star went to Bali. A video of her there brought her platform crashing down.

Arroyo acknowledged that Saavedra Roman made a mistake by leaving without seeking the government’s permission — permission that would have been denied, as Trump’s DACA order also ended the exemption that allowed recipients to leave and reenter the country.

But, Arroyo said, Saavedra Roman didn’t know any of that: She relied on Mesa Airlines to determine whether she was able to leave and come back, and company officials made a mistake. They could have consulted an immigration lawyer or recommended that Saavedra Roman do so. In a statement, the airliner’s chairman, Jonathan Ornstein, apologized and said he was asking authorities to drop any charges that stemmed from Saavedra Roman’s detention.

”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,” Ornstein said.

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

A transgender senior was a prom king candidate. The school said he could run — as queen.

After Saavedra Roman was detained, officials tried to revoke her DACA status, Arroyo said. They considered her an “arriving alien,” which gave her fewer rights than she would have had before leaving the country. And, paradoxically, her status as a DACA beneficiary prevented authorities from deporting her and was one of the reasons she was initially taken into custody, Arroyo said.

President Trump's position on DACA has taken several twists and turns over the years. (Video: Meg Kelly, Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman, Steve Blando, said the agency doesn’t comment on specific cases but reiterated the Trump-era policy shift that prevents DACA beneficiaries from getting permission to leave the country.

In a statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Tim Oberle acknowledged that Saavedra Roman was released Friday “pending adjudication of her immigration proceedings,” though it wasn’t immediately clear why she was released Friday and not six weeks ago. The agency says it makes its custody decisions on “a case-by-case basis.”

David Watkins, Saavedra Roman’s husband, found out in a text message: “I’m being detained, please call the lawyer.”

“I called, I texted, I screamed to the sky,” he said. “I dropped to my knees and screamed as loud as I could.”

A 19-year-old dies by suicide one year after surviving the Parkland school shooting

Right then, he said, he knew they were headed for a legal “quagmire,” but he didn’t think it would be a month and a half before he’d hug his wife again. The weeks that followed, Watkins said, were the hardest of their lives. In custody, Saavedra Roman struggled with anxiety and depression, he said.

“I think my wife is going to have PTSD for a long, long time,” Watkins said in an interview, which he did from his car as he sped from his parents’ home in San Antonio to the detention center in Conroe, 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 revisiting the details of the immigration case, almost always through tears.

After she got out, Saavedra Roman said she couldn’t describe how it felt to be released.

“I cried and hugged my husband and never wanted to let go,” she said in a statement. “I am thankful and grateful for the amazing people that came to fight for me, and it fills my heart. Thank you to everyone that has supported. I am just so happy to have my freedom back.”

Police handcuffed a black man who was moving into his own home. Now he wants them fired.

Arroyo and Watkins had negotiated with immigration agencies for weeks to get Saavedra Roman out of detention. Then their fears grew that the hearing process could stretch on indefinitely. At that point, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA — a union that has previously sparred with the Trump administration — sounded its own alarms, publicly, Thursday night.

In less than a day, Saavedra Roman became a symbol for those who oppose Trump’s immigration stance.

Major news outlets filed stories, more than 20,000 people signed a petition supporting Saavedra Roman, and national political figures championed her case.

“This is an awful story,” Hillary Clinton tweeted Friday before Saavedra Roman was released.

“Heartbreaking stories like Selene’s underscore the cruelty of the Trump immigration agenda,” Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro said in a tweet, a little more than four hours before she was released. “The hundreds of thousands of DREAMers whose futures are jeopardized by this administration deserve better.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) celebrated in a tweet when he heard Saavedra Roman would be released Friday evening but said there is work to be done.

“Selene has been released, but the fight is not over!” he said. “She will be fighting her deportation in the upcoming months. It makes no sense to deport Dreamers like Selene from the only country they have known as home. We must stand with our immigrant sisters and brothers.”

Watkins said 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 all they’ve experienced in the past six weeks, she inside the detention facility and he outside, they might reconsider it.

Right then, though, in the hours before they would be reunited, Watkins was still driving down a Texas highway toward Conroe, recounting how the last month and a half had been like a living nightmare for the couple. All he could think about at the moment, he said, was finally waking up.

Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.

Read more:

Trump can’t immediately end DACA, appeals court panel says, setting up Supreme Court fight

A ‘dreamer’ traveled to Mexico. Now he can’t get home to his husband.