The guard searched the line of undocumented immigrants, placing each in shackles in the basement of a Homeland Security building in Northern Virginia. Then he came to a young woman in a blouse and blue pants that July day, and he paused.
“I know you,” the guard told her, she remembered later. Months earlier, Wendy Uruchi Contreras had come to the same facility under much different circumstances — as an immigration rights activist.
That day, she had helped a Mexican woman bring her husband his belongings before he was deported. Uruchi and the guard had struck up a conversation, quickly realizing they lived near each other in Fredericksburg. Now she was on the other side of the plexiglass divide.
“What are you doing here?” the guard asked.
“I’m not a U.S. citizen,” Uruchi answered. “And I got a DUI.”
“I can’t believe it,” he said.
Uruchi’s sudden fall — from immigrant advocate to undocumented inmate — has stunned many who knew her. At Casa, the immigrants rights organization where Uruchi worked, colleagues were caught by surprise. Two weeks before pleading guilty to drunken driving, she had led a demonstration outside the Supreme Court urging the justices to support undocumented immigrants, but she never hinted she was one of them. She had spent three years helping others fight deportation. Now she faces that very fate.
Her arrest has exposed her husband’s undocumented status and upended her children’s lives. Any day now, Uruchi, 33, could be sent back to Spain. Under Obama administration guidelines, her DUI conviction makes her a priority for deportation. And under the visa waiver program she used to enter the country 14 years ago, she forfeited her right to legal appeal. Her only chance is a plea to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for a stay of deportation, citing her otherwise clean record, community service and two American-born kids.
“These stays are not commonly granted,” said Kim Propeack, communications director for Casa, which is helping Uruchi. “And they are not granted without a fight.”
Uruchi’s case comes at a time of intense national debate over immigration, including what to do about mixed-status families like hers — parents who are in the country illegally but have children who are U.S. citizens. President Obama’s efforts at immigration reform, which could have opened a pathway to legal status for Uruchi and her husband, have been repeatedly blocked by Congress and the courts. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, meanwhile, has pledged to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants if elected, regardless of whether they have children born here.
Uruchi’s situation isn’t likely to generate much public sympathy. A recent CNN-ORC poll found that 83 percent of Americans favor deporting undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of a crime while living in the United States.
Uruchi knows she put everything at risk by getting into her car after drinking. “Driving that night,” she acknowledged, “was the worst decision of my life.”
In the Homeland Security complex many immigrants refer to as “Prosperity” after the avenue on which it sits in Fairfax, the guard waved a hand-held metal detector up and down Uruchi’s body. Then the man she had once befriended put her in shackles and loaded her into a van bound for jail.
Earlier this month, Uruchi’s husband, Giovani Jimenez, stood in the doorway of their small house and tried to corral his children toward the car. It was a Sunday morning, and they were late to visit Wendy in jail in Williamsburg, 100 miles away.
“You’re not taking anything?” Jimenez asked Alex, a quiet, gangly 13-year-old. Alex slunk inside and emerged with a thick library copy of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”
Lucia, a bubbly 7-year-old, clutched a stuffed panda in a pink dress and an iPad. She sat next to Alex in the back of the family’s beige 1991 Honda Accord, its mismatched hood and Ron Jon Surf Shop window sticker vestiges of a previous owner.
Jimenez held a manila folder. Inside were printouts of the kids’ grades, which had plummeted since Uruchi’s May 28 arrest. Alex, an eighth-grader, was suddenly getting D’s in English and algebra. He had begun to talk back to his father. Lucia, in second grade, was also struggling in math. She could only fall asleep while holding on to her father’s wrist. She woke up most nights crying for her mother.
Jimenez, 37, was coping as well as he could. Along with the lawyer’s fees and court fines, mortgage and car payments, there was the cost of a tank of gas for every Sunday visit, 15 cents per minute for every call from jail, $30 to print and mail photos of the kids’ pool visits and birthday parties because the jail didn’t allow Jimenez to email or hand them to Uruchi.
On Sunday night, after spending all day driving his children to see their mother, he would climb behind the wheel of a delivery truck and drive to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, hopefully returning home in time to welcome his kids from school on Monday.
His wife’s arrest had been like a bomb landing in their precariously built lives. Jimenez had come to the United States in early 2001 from Bolivia. He met Uruchi online. She, too, was born in Bolivia but was raised in Madrid. She told him about her abusive stepfather in Spain. He told her to come to America. When they met at Dulles International Airport in October 2002, they had never even seen a photo of each other.
As a Spanish citizen, Uruchi 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.
She and Jimenez got married, had kids and settled in Virginia. He worked as a trucker; she cleaned hotel rooms. When her back began to hurt, she took food safety courses and managed the hotel’s kitchen.
In 2013, Uruchi began to get involved in activism. Deportations had reached an all-time high of more than 409,000 the previous year. But Uruchi’s adolescence in Spain, where she saw women say and do what they wanted, had left the 4-foot-11 immigrant unafraid of speaking out. After meeting Casa employees at an event at the Salvadoran Embassy in D.C., she began attending the group’s events. Soon, she was organizing them. In 2014, she was hired full time as a Virginia community organizer.
“She was banging off the walls with excitement,” said Propeack, her Casa co-worker. Propeack recalled Uruchi organizing a Jan. 14 event in Richmond. It was the middle of winter, but Uruchi persuaded several dozen people to show up to the state capitol to lobby for immigrants’ rights. “Wendy got all these undocumented moms to come,” Propeack recalled.
Uruchi also helped undocumented immigrants fight deportation. Liliana Mendez, a 26-year-old Salvadoran woman from Falls Church, was about to be deported after a traffic accident when she came to Casa for help. Uruchi organized a news conference with a congressman. Within days, Mendez’s deportation was stayed, and her ankle monitor was removed. “Wendy helped me so much,” Mendez said.
Uruchi’s activism took a toll on her marriage, however. She would often come home at 9 or 10 at night, only to spend more time on the phone guiding immigrants through health care sign-ups or school applications. The couple was considering a divorce when Uruchi was arrested.
She had attended a Casa event in Woodbridge, then gone to a restaurant with a colleague for dinner. They drank margaritas and discussed Uruchi’s marital problems. As Uruchi drove them back to Fredericksburg, a Stafford County sheriff’s deputy pulled her over.
Uruchi was on the phone with Jimenez when she saw the flashing lights behind her. She knew an undocumented immigrant could be deported over something as small as a fender-bender.
“Pray for me,” she told her husband and hung up.
Her blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit for driving of 0.08.
On July 8, Uruchi and her husband went to Stafford County court. Their DUI attorney had negotiated a deal with the prosecutor: just one day in jail if she pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor. Only then did they tell the attorney Uruchi was undocumented. They say he told them not to worry: Stafford wouldn’t alert federal officials.
Jimenez said he begged his wife not to take the deal, telling her it would be better to challenge the Breathalyzer results in court. But Uruchi pleaded guilty. She wanted it to be over, she said. “I screwed up, and I needed to face it.”
She prayed she would be released after a day. Instead, she was sent from Stafford to “Prosperity,” where ICE officials asked about her husband. He, too, was undocumented, she admitted.
“They have all my information: Wendy gave it to them,” Jimenez said. “They might come for me now.”
After two days of questioning, ICE officials told Uruchi she would be deported. The Obama administration began more aggressively deporting illegal immigrants with DUI convictions after a string of deadly, high-profile incidents. One of the most notorious occurred in 2010 in Prince William County, when Carlos A. Martinelly Montano drunkenly hit another car head on, killing Sister Denise Mosier and injuring two other nuns. Montano, an illegal immigrant from Bolivia, had been arrested for drunken driving on two earlier occasions but released.
Corey A Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of Prince William’s Board of County Supervisors, the head of Trump’s Virginia campaign and a longtime critic of illegal immigration, said there was “no question” Uruchi should be deported.
“Otherwise, eventually, people tend to graduate in the severity of their crimes,” he said, citing the 2010 case. Uruchi “shows how entitled illegal immigrants feel: Here is somebody who is so brazen that they’re here illegally, and they are out there as a crusader trying to keep people from being deported.”
Almost 24,000 undocumented immigrants from Virginia and the District have been deported over the past 10 years, ICE figures show.
Had Uruchi not pleaded guilty, she might have been able to admit to a lesser charge and avoid ICE altogether. Had she entered the country illegally, rather than on a visa waiver, she would have been entitled to a hearing in front of an immigration judge. And had she been an American citizen, her DUI would have cost her $300 and her license for a year. Instead, she is now filing an application for a stay of deportation.
“It’s the one shot we have left,” said her lawyer, Enid Gonzalez.
“She is a woman who [has been] fighting to stop deportation and now is in danger of getting deported herself,” wrote Pamela Benavides-Barahona, 12, who said in a letter of support that Uruchi drove her to school events when her mother could not. “She never gives up and we should not give up on her.”
“Hello,” Jimenez said in English to the woman behind the desk at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in Williamsburg. “I’m here to see Wendy Uruchi.”
“I thought I recognized you,” the woman said.
As his father signed in, Alex paced back and forth in the lobby. Eventually, the woman at the desk directed them to visitation room 111.
On either side of a large plexiglass window sat a metal stool. The door opened. Lucia gasped.
“Mama,” she said, jumping onto the table, putting her small hand to the window and wiggling her fingers. Dressed in a dark blue jumpsuit, Uruchi put her own hand to the glass, revealing broken nails.
“Como estás?” she asked Alex.
“Soy bien,” he said into a metal speaker, botching his Spanish. While his younger sister is fluent, Alex has lost much of the language, leading his parents to worry how he will adapt if Uruchi is deported and the family has to follow her to Spain.
“You look chubby,” Uruchi told her daughter with a smile. Lucia, dressed in a sparkly new school outfit, now wore size 10, Jimenez said.
Had they been brushing their teeth, taking their vitamins, doing their homework, Uruchi asked. Had they been to the pool?
“It’s closed,” Jimenez said.
“I guess it’s not summer any longer,” she replied.
She asked them what books they had been reading, scolding Lucia when Jimenez reported she had been playing games on the iPad instead. From time to time, Uruchi would say something to Alex in Spanish that he didn’t understand.
“I feel like there is a fly stuck inside my head,” he said after one misunderstanding.
“You’re my son,” Uruchi told him. “You are strong, Alex. This won’t last. I won’t be here forever. One of these days, I’ll come home.”
“Are you going to be in here for all of second grade?” Lucia asked. “And third grade?”
“No, mi amor,” Uruchi said. “I’ll be home soon.”
She told Alex she was sorry she had missed his birthday, three days earlier.
“When I get out, we’ll celebrate it,” she said.
“No, it’s better if we don’t,” he replied.
A female jailer opened the door behind Uruchi, signaling the end of the visit.
“Keep your head up, Alex,” Uruchi told her son as he walked out of the small room.
Lucia ran back to the plexiglass. Mother and daughter kissed the window at the same time. Then Uruchi was led away.
Emily Guskin and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.