Eating while brown and then daring to stand up to the Frederick County authorities who never should have arrested her in the first place, advocates say.
Roxana Orellana Santos, who came to the United States from El Salvador in 2005, was eating a sandwich before starting her shift as a dishwasher in 2008 when two Frederick County sheriff’s deputies took her into custody and then turned her over to immigration authorities for possible deportation. Since then, she has consistently checked in with immigration officials.
Tuesday was supposed to be just another routine check-in. Instead, immigration officials in Baltimore detained her in front of her teenage son. They allowed her to briefly hug him and hand him all her belongings before she was led away, her attorney, Nicholas Katz, said.
“That was maybe the only moment of compassion we witnessed,” Katz said.
He described Santos as a “great mother” to twin 6-year-old girls and two sons, ages 11 and 18. Her three youngest children are U.S. citizens and her oldest is a legal permanent resident.
Katz also called Santos a “courageous civil rights leader.”
After her arrest in 2008, Santos could have stayed quiet and accepted that people in this country can be snatched up while eating their lunch. Instead, she decided to file a civil rights lawsuit — and she won.
In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit determined that the arrest, which occurred under the leadership of Sheriff Charles Jenkins, was illegal and violated her constitutional rights. At the time, Jenkins’s office was in a partnership called 287g with ICE, but the deputies who arrested Santos had not been trained to participate in the program, and immigration officials had not asked that Santos be detained.
In September, a federal court in Maryland ruled in Santos’s favor and found the county and Jenkins liable for her unconstitutional arrest.
On Monday, she is supposed to appear in court for a hearing about what damages are owed to her.
Now, her family and attorneys are uncertain where she will be that day.
ICE could deport her at any time. ICE could also, of course, choose to release her.
I wish I could tell you the agency’s position on the case and give officials space here to explain why they took into custody a mother of four who did not pose a threat to public safety, but I can’t.
Apparently, a government shutdown caused by a disagreement over border security has made it impossible to get answers about border security. Requests for information from ICE are instead met with this unhelpful email: “All of ICE’s public affairs officers are out of the office for the duration of the government shutdown. We are unable to respond to media queries during this period because we are prohibited by law from working. If you still need a response, please resubmit your query upon the government re-opening.”
In Trump’s Oval Office address, he spoke about the dangers of letting immigrants cross our borders. He focused on the crimes some commit, detailing horrendous offenses, including the stabbing and beating death of a teenage girl by MS-13 gang members in Maryland.
He also had a request: “To those who refuse to compromise in the name of border security, I would ask: Imagine if it was your child, your husband, or your wife whose life was so cruelly shattered and totally broken.”
Imagining ourselves in someone else’s place is not a bad suggestion. We should all do more of it more often. The problem with doing it in the way Trump requested is that the picture he painted is so incredibly narrow that it gives us only two possible roles to step into: that of the victimized American or the undocumented immigrant with criminal intent.
What about people like Santos who, according to her lawyer, fled abuse in El Salvador and has no criminal record in the United States? She has victimized no one, committing no crime beyond being in this country illegally. If anything, our government has victimized her twice, first when she was arrested while eating lunch and now by keeping her from her children, even though authorities know she would not be in this situation if it were not for that first, unlawful arrest.
Let us try imagining instead we are in her place. Maybe then we will move closer to finding productive ways to fix our broken immigration system.
“This is a woman who represents so many other people,” said Katz, who is the senior manager of legal services for CASA. “The rhetoric coming out of the White House is we need to build a wall to protect us from these criminals, people who are dangerous. The reality is the people who are coming here are people like her.”
People who hold jobs. People who buy houses. People who cook dinner for their kids and help them with their homework. They are moms and dads and nannies who fled horrible situations in their own countries.
It is true that some undocumented immigrants commit horrible, indefensible crimes and deserve to face punishment. But that could be said of any group of people. To pretend that the worst immigrants represent the majority — even after experts have repeatedly found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans — is a bold and irresponsible lie.
After Santos was arrested, her supporters gathered outside ICE’s office in Baltimore and held signs calling for her release. A few signs showed that people had already imagined themselves in her place. They read, “We’re all Roxana.”
We are Roxana if we have ever run away from something that terrified us. We are Roxana if we have ever held a low-wage job. We are Roxana if we have faced a wrong and said “enough” before fighting back.