Cecilia Figueroa-Figueroa, an activist and volunteer for immigrants who is now facing deportation herself. (Aaron Tarin) (Aaron Tarin /Aaron Tarin)

Life as an immigrant can be complicated, which is part of the reason why Cecilia Figueroa-Figueroa spent about six years volunteering to help those new to the United States with education and legal matters. But all of the Utah woman’s knowledge couldn’t prevent immigration enforcement officials from coming after her.

Figueroa-Figueroa, 55, is currently “at large" for failure to self-deport to her home country, Mexico, as she said she would as part of a recent agreement she made with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for two 2008 border arrests for illegally entering the country, said Alethea Smock, an ICE public affairs officer. Deportation is looming because Figueroa-Figueroa had been federally convicted of illegally entering the country, Smock said.

Now she might be forced to return to her hometown of Guerrero, a place the State Department has designated as a “do not travel” area because of crime. There were 977 murders there within the first five months of this year, according to data collected by the National Public Security System in Mexico.

Figueroa-Figueroa has been a longtime community activist, volunteering her time for those six years through a local nonprofit group where she would organize educational campaigns for immigrants, assist in the organization’s pro bono legal clinic and coordinate volunteer activities for the various campaigns the nonprofit group would produce, her attorney, Aaron Tarin, said.

All that training, time and education Figueroa-Figueroa had still wasn’t enough for her to understand how convoluted her own case was.

“What occurred to her at the border is something that is complicated enough that it’s beyond her understanding,” Tarin said. “This was something that an attorney would need to review and understand.”

About 100 to 150 members of the Latino community and clergy gathered in support, holding a rally Friday in front of an ICE office in Utah, said the Rev. Monica Dobbins, who attended the gathering.

Tarin’s office recently took over Figueroa-Figueroa’s case, saying her status with ICE is much more nuanced than it appears and that her situation is also representative of increasing challenges in immigration laws under the Trump administration.

On the path

Since last year, Figueroa-Figueroa had been on a path to legitimizing her immigration status and right to work.

After years of volunteering her time and working odd jobs, she received her work permit Oct. 18 and moved from volunteer to employee at Comunidades Unidas, a large nonprofit group in Utah run by and serving Latinos. She even received a Social Security number, said Tarin, who sits on the Comunidades Unidas board of the directors.

Tarin thinks a previous attorney’s advice cost Figueroa-Figueroa $7,000 and left her at risk of being removed from a community in which she has lived and served. His firm took over her case when she was picked up by ICE.

Figueroa-Figueroa was trying to receive a benefit under a provision of the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act through her husband, whom she married in March 2018. Under the provision, her illegal-entry status would be waived and she would have paid a $1,000 penalty for the way she entered the country.

In November 1995, Figueroa-Figueroa’s father-in-law, a legal permanent resident, applied for an I-130 form for his son. Approval would have meant that any future spouse would receive the waiver under the LIFE Act provision Figueroa-Figueroa was seeking, Tarin said.

But there was another snag.

The application had been in a pending status since 1995, meaning that Figueroa-Figueroa’s husband had been technically undocumented for 24 years, said Tarin, who suspects that Figueroa-Figueroa’s husband will receive his green card soon.

“It's a bittersweet result for her husband,” Tarin said. “He’s trying to figure out how he's going to continue his life here or if he's going to go back with her.”

Figueroa-Figueroa thought she was having the final meeting for her green-card application on Aug. 27, but her immigration benefits were denied.

That same day, she was briefly detained by ICE deportation officers and released on “humanitarian grounds,” according to a statement by Smock.

Figueroa-Figueroa told ICE deportation officers that she would return to Mexico on Labor Day. She did not.

‘Credible fear’

Tarin said ICE was aware Figueroa-Figueroa wasn’t going to leave the country by Labor Day because she was in the process of setting up a credible fear interview, which is an asylum-related form of relief that will temporarily hold off her deportation order as officials determine if her case has merit.

The process can take between several weeks and several months, depending on how fast U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acts.

ICE could detain Figueroa-Figueroa during this process, but the agency is allowing her to remain at home while under ICE supervision.

If Figueroa-Figueroa’s credible-fear case is denied, she could be sent back to Mexico.

Figueroa-Figueroa says one of her nephews was kidnapped, murdered and dismembered three years ago. She also says two nephews were kidnapped but lived.

Because Figueroa-Figueroa has lived in the United States, she could be in danger of being kidnapped or extorted by criminal operations in the area, Tarin said.

Claribel Tejada, a Utah-based attorney, said she hasn’t known any person to get asylum since President Trump took office.

The deportation order on Figueroa-Figueroa “was bad to begin with.”

“She should’ve just gone back to her country and then find a legal way to come back,” she said, acknowledging the obstacles in immigration laws. “You have so many rules.”

A cautionary tale

The likelihood that Figueroa-Figueroa’s case will be denied is relatively high and serves as a warning to those who have been stopped at the border before.

Dorany Rodriguez-Baltazar has been practicing immigration law for 25 years in Utah. She has worked with Comunidades Unidas, partnering with it for news segments about what to do in emergencies and what to do if detained by ICE.

Rodriguez-Baltazar said that sometimes people don’t know whether they received a voluntary return to their country or a removal order at the border. A voluntary departure allows a person to return to their home country at their own expense in a certain amount of time so they can avoid a final order of removal, according to LGBTQ immigrant rights organization Immigration Equality.

“You can file a [Freedom of Information Act request], and you can get those records," she said, noting that her practice is to always file a FOIA request at the border before she files any other document. That step, she said, confirms whether someone has a removal order as Figueroa-Figueroa did.

Tarin said he automatically files FOIAs, queries multiple agencies and sends fingerprints to the FBI or U.S. Customs and Border Protection to cross-reference his clients who have been stopped at the border before.

He said a case like Figueroa-Figueroa’s would have likely been considered a low priority under the previous administration but that things have changed.

“If they are denied, they will be placed in deportation proceedings,” he said. “This administration’s goal is to send a stern warning.”

Tarin will pursue certain appeal avenues if Figueroa-Figueroa’s request is denied.

She’s in unusually high spirits,” Tarin said. “She wants her story and her situation to benefit as many other people as possible.”

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