Protesters gathered outside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters Monday to demonstrate against the imminent deportation of a local immigrant rights activist.
As police watched, about 40 protesters — many of them undocumented immigrants — marched in the whipping wind to demand the release of Wendy Uruchi Contreras, 33, an undocumented activist held in federal custody since she pleaded guilty to drunken driving this summer. Among the protesters were her husband, Giovani Jimenez, and their two children.
“My wife is not a criminal,” said Jimenez, calling his wife’s arrest near their house in Northern Virginia “something that can happen to anybody” and asking ICE officials to reunite his family in time for Christmas.
“I beg them to release her,” he said, breaking into tears as workers hung golden holiday wreaths on ICE headquarters behind him.
The protest came at a crucial moment for both Uruchi and undocumented immigrants around the country. Uruchi, who was profiled in The Washington Post in September, could be deported to Spain any day now after her appeal was recently rejected. Her supporters are hoping Monday’s protest pressures ICE officials to reverse their decision.
The election of Donald Trump, meanwhile, has stirred fear among undocumented immigrants locally and across the country. During his campaign, Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and promised to deport the more than 11 million people in the country illegally. More recently, he has vowed the immediate removal of 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants who “have criminal records.” Protesters said they feared he would keep his word.
“I’m afraid of the racism that is on the rise since Donald Trump was elected,” said Ana Gonzalez, a 45-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, as she held a sign reading “Justice and dignity for immigrants.”
“There is a lot of fear in our community right now,” said another undocumented immigrant who declined to give her name.
The demonstration was organized by CASA, the immigrant rights organization where Uruchi worked before her arrest. Born in Bolivia and raised in Madrid, Uruchi had come to America in 2002 to escape from an abusive stepfather. As a Spanish citizen, she entered the country under the United States’ visa waiver program, which allows visitors from 38 countries to stay for up to 90 days without a visa.
Uruchi stayed beyond her 90 days, however, instead starting a life with Jimenez, another undocumented immigrant from Bolivia. They married, had children and settled in Fredericksburg, Va. He worked as a truck driver; she cleaned hotel rooms. Three years ago, Uruchi joined CASA, first as a volunteer and then, in 2014, as a paid, full-time community organizer.
At the protest, friends and co-workers described how Uruchi had helped undocumented immigrants, even as she hid her own undocumented status.
“She helped a pregnant woman access prenatal care,” said Naldy Sandoval, 44, who is from Guatemala. “The woman was six months pregnant and had never seen a doctor.”
The work took a toll on her marriage, however. And on May 28, after drinking margaritas and discussing her marital problems with a friend, Uruchi was pulled over by a Stafford County sheriff’s deputy. Her blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit for driving of 0.08 percent.
She has been held in a jail in Williamsburg, Va., since July.
Under Obama administration guidelines, her drunken-driving conviction makes her a priority for deportation. And because Uruchi entered the United States under a visa waiver, she is not entitled to see an immigration judge.
For the past four months, Jimenez and his two American-born children, Lucia, 7, and Alex, 13, have driven 200 miles round-trip every Sunday to visit Uruchi in a tiny interview room, divided in two by plexiglass. With the help of CASA and an immigration lawyer, the family filed a last-ditch appeal in early October asking ICE officials for a stay of deportation.
On Nov. 4, Uruchi learned that her appeal had been denied. She was given documents authorizing her deportation to Spain but refused to sign them. During a telephone interview from jail Sunday, she said she thought the protest would change officials’ minds.
“I still have faith that somebody in immigration will hear my case,” she said. “The Obama administration promised to keep families together. So I hope in my case they will keep my family together, let me stay in the United States with my kids, who are citizens, and my husband. I really miss them.”
During the protest, Jimenez told reporters that Alex, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, had only just realized that his mother could be deported at any moment. The teenager took the microphone but struggled to address reporters, prompting cries of “You can do it, Alex!” from fellow protesters.
“I have a hard time making friends and communicating with others,” he said, adding that he was struggling without his mom, who “would try to bring the best out of me.”
Jimenez said the family hadn’t yet decided what they would do if Uruchi was deported. Even if, against all odds, she is released, Uruchi would be far from safe in Donald Trump’s America, he said.
“She now has a bad record,” he said. “She would be the first person they will come looking for.”