An immigration rights activist whose own undocumented status was exposed by a drunken-driving arrest has lost her six-month legal battle to remain in the country.
Wendy Uruchi Contreras, a Virginia organizer for the immigrant rights group CASA, was deported to Spain Tuesday after last-ditch appeals were denied by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
“We are devastated,” said her husband, Giovani Jimenez, who lives in Fredericksburg, Va., with their American-born children, Alex, 13, and Lucia, 7. “My children are crying, but we know there’s nothing more we can do.”
Jimenez said he learned of the decision last week, days before the inauguration of President Trump.
Uruchi, a 33-year-old Spanish citizen born in Bolivia, had been held in federal custody since July, when she pleaded guilty to drunken driving.
In her appeal, Uruchi asked prosecutors to show discretion in her case, essentially weighing her community activism and otherwise clean record against the danger of her committing another offense.
Under Obama administration guidelines, however, immigrants convicted of DUIs are a priority for deportation. Her appeal was denied.
In a statement Wednesday, ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said the agency was following its procedures when it deported Uruchi: “Under current enforcement priorities, ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security. Individuals convicted of significant misdemeanors like driving under the influence” are among those who pose a threat.
“They focused on one thing, that she got that DUI, and it was like they forgot about everything on the other side of the scale,” said Enid Gonzalez, Uruchi’s immigration attorney.
Now that Trump is president, the outlook for successful deportation appeals is even bleaker, Gonzalez said.
As a candidate, Trump promised to build a wall along the border with Mexico and deport far more of the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, especially those with criminal records.
“Since 2013 alone, the Obama administration has allowed 300,000 criminal aliens to return back into United States communities,” he said during an immigration speech in Phoenix. “These are individuals encountered or identified by ICE, but who were not detained or processed for deportation because it wouldn’t have been politically correct.”
But Kim Propeack, communications director for CASA, saw it differently.
“Wendy’s situation illustrates our failure as a country in not creating an immigration system based on family unity and the best interests of children,” said Propeack, who helped Uruchi with her appeal.
“Wendy will contribute to society wherever she is,” Propeack added. “Her deportation is a loss to us.”
Uruchi came to the United States from Spain in 2002 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 had chatted online, but only saw each other for the first time when he picked her up at Dulles International Airport. At the end of her three months, Uruchi decided to stay illegally in America with Jimenez rather than return to Madrid, where she feared an abusive stepfather.
She and Jimenez, who is also undocumented, got married, had two kids and settled in Virginia. He worked as a trucker; she cleaned hotel rooms. She began volunteering with Casa in 2013 and was hired full time as a Virginia community organizer the following year.
Even as she helped undocumented immigrants fight deportation, Uruchi managed to hide her own status.
Friends and co-workers were stunned when, after pleading guilty to a May 28 DUI charge in Stafford County, Uruchi was transferred to ICE custody and told she would be deported.
Because she had entered under the visa waiver program, Uruchi was not entitled to a hearing with an immigration judge. Instead, her fate lay in the hands of ICE officials.
Gonzalez prepared a motion for stay of deportation, arguing that sending Uruchi to Spain would be a blow to her two children. Alex needed his mother’s help to deal with Asperger’s syndrome. Lucia woke up in the middle of the night crying for her mom.
On Halloween, a month after The Washington Post reported on Uruchi’s case, ICE officials rejected her motion for a stay of deportation.
Uruchi’s appeal was denied on Nov. 14. A week later, CASA held a protest outside of ICE headquarters in the District, and Jimenez publicly begged immigration officials to reunite his family in time for Christmas.
“My wife is not a criminal,” said Jimenez, calling his wife’s arrest “something that can happen to anybody.”
Last week, officials told Jimenez that his wife would be imminently deported, he said. On Sunday, he and the kids went to see her one last time at Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in Williamsburg.
Uruchi, usually the defiant activist, broke down.
“She began to cry,” Jimenez said. “She said she was very sorry, but that soon we would all be together.”
Jimenez said he and the kids would stay in the United States until at least the end of the school year. He held out hope that his wife somehow would be allowed to return quickly. If not, he said, then he, Alex and Lucia would move to Madrid this summer.
“We would have no jobs, no place to live. My kids would have to learn Spanish,” he said. “We would have to start from zero.”