The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A noncriminal mother of four was deported. Now in Mexico, she fears for her safety.

Maribel Trujillo Diaz poses with her four children and husband. (Courtesy of Advocates for Basic Legal Equality)

On the other end of the phone, Maribel Trujillo Diaz kept her details sparse, her voice soft. She worried about saying too much, or revealing her exact location, in case drug cartels had tapped the line.

In the days since she was deported to her native Mexico, the 42-year-old Ohio mother said she has already received threats. She hardly eats, and has trouble sleeping, she told The Washington Post. The risks are all too real for her family in Mexico’s gang-ridden west coast state of Michoacán — both her father and her brother have been kidnapped in recent years, and her mother extorted.

But Trujillo’s concerns over the dangers in her new home pale in comparison with her worries about her four children, including her epileptic 3-year-old daughter, who are living without her, far north of the border. She spoke to The Washington Post on Thursday in her first interview since her deportation.

“The pain of leaving my kids,” Trujillo said, her words trailing off. “I can’t explain what it’s like to be apart from them.”

When immigration officers detained Trujillo earlier this month, her case prompted vigils and letter-writing campaigns, garnered international attention and drew support from Washington politicians. Catholic archdioceses in multiple states lobbied the U.S. government on her behalf, gathering petitions signed by hundreds across the country calling on lawmakers to help suspend her deportation.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, spoke out against her deportation, insisting “we have enough broken families in the country,” to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

None of the efforts stopped immigration officials from proceeding with her removal. About two weeks ago, they transferred Trujillo, of Fairfield, Ohio, to a detention center in Louisiana. She was deported to Mexico on April 19.

Trujillo’s case joined a growing list of other deported immigrants now associated by the public with the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration enforcement. There was Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, the Arizona mother deported after a routine check-in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There was the 23-year-old “dreamer” from California who claimed he was deported in February. But unlike the individuals deported in those two cases, Trujillo has no criminal record.

‘I can’t take that place.’ An Arizona family struggles with a mother’s deportation.

Her deportation was yet another clear sign that despite Trump’s claim that he is targeting dangerous criminals, his administration is deporting undocumented immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding.

“We are moving criminals out of our country and we are getting them out in record numbers, and those are the people we are after,” Trump said in an interview with the Associated Press last week. But statistics show that from January through mid-March, ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants more than doubled from the same period last year, The Post’s Maria Sacchetti reported. Of the 21,362 immigrants arrested during that time period, 5,441 — or about a quarter — had no criminal record.

Mexico’s foreign relations department last week condemned the deportation of Trujillo and the “dreamer,” Juan Manuel Montes Bojorquez, saying the removals “represent a violation of the stated norms for deportation.” Trujillo, Mexican officials argued, had no criminal record and did not represent a security risk.

“He says he is taking care of citizens, of Americans,” Trujillo said of Trump. “My kids are Americans. And just like he’s hurt my kids, he has hurt many citizens who have been left without a parent.”

Some supporters of Trump’s efforts to ramp up deportations argue that simply crossing the border illegally is a crime, and should warrant removal from the country. Trujillo acknowledges she broke the law, but she did so with her husband in 2002 to flee gang violence in Mexico.

When a drug cartel recruited her brother, about a decade ago, he refused, and they kidnapped him for several days. In 2014, the same cartel also kidnapped her father and forced her mother to pay a large sum of money to guarantee his return.

The state where they live, Michoacán, has a history of drug cartels, such as the Knights Templar, an infamous gang that used to rule parts of the state, demanding extortion payments from businesses, farmers and workers, while moving methamphetamine and casting themselves as holy warriors. Although the gang has been displaced in recent years, cartel violence remains widespread across the state and country.

Just last weekend, at least 35 people were killed across Mexico, amid a surge in drug gang violence that has driven murders to a level not seen since 2011, Reuters reported. Nine of those people were killed in a gun battle between rival drug gangs in the mountains of Michoacán.

“I know it wasn’t right to enter the country like I did without documents,” she told The Post, “But I have not committed any crimes. I was working to get ahead for my kids.”

Immigration officials detected Trujillo about a decade ago in a raid at her workplace, Koch Foods, a chicken-processing plant. Authorities nabbed nearly 200 undocumented workers. She applied for asylum, but in 2012 was denied. In 2014, her appeals were dismissed, and she received a final removal order. At the discretion of immigration officials under the Obama administration, ICE allowed Trujillo to remain in the U.S. free from custody as long as she checked in with officials once a year.

She was issued a work permit in July 2016 valid for one year. Her lawyers filed a motion to reopen her case because of “changed circumstances” in her home country, citing the recent kidnapping of her father, and expected the motion to be considered in the coming months, Trujillo’s lawyer said.

But before she got that chance, ICE officials detained Trujillo earlier this month outside the home of her sister-in-law, just before she was heading to work. She was detained and later deported to Mexico with no belongings, clothing, passport or other documents in her possession.

Gillian Christensen, a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman, told The Post in a statement that Trujillo’s case “has undergone review at multiple levels of our nation’s legal system and the courts have uniformly held that she had no legal basis to remain in the United States.”

Trujillo’s only chance of gaining asylum at this point is if the motion to reopen her case is granted in the coming months, her lawyers said. Then, it would have to be sent to an immigration judge for a hearing, which could be years from now.

“There’s no line for her,” her lawyer, Kathleen Kersh of Ohio-based Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, told The Post. “She’s a really good example of why we need reform, because the system does not help people in her situation.

While she was being detained in Ohio, and then in Louisiana, Trujillo said she had no idea her case was attracting so much media attention, she said. In those days, “time didn’t exist, days didn’t exist, hours didn’t exist.”

Knowing now that scores of people applied pressure to try to halt her deportation, she feels blessed, and she prays for them, she said. The devout Catholic goes to church every day, praying to God “for a miracle” that would bring her back to her children.

“Help me touch the hearts of these people,” she prays. “Help them understand that I want to ask for forgiveness.”

She worries about her husband, who is also undocumented and now fears deportation, she said. He took time off work because of medical issues and has now returned to work in construction. But Trujillo was the main breadwinner for the family until she was deported.

When asked whether she would consider moving her children to Mexico if her husband got deported, she said: “I don’t want to think about it.”

Now living with her parents in Mexico, Trujillo speaks to her children every night on video chat. There’s her oldest, Oswaldo, 14, who said he wishes he could start working early to help support the family and save up for college. He tries to keep a positive face for his younger siblings, Trujillo said, telling them his mom will come back. But earlier this month he was sent home from school early after he was acting up and crying in class.

There’s Alexa, 12, and Gustavo, 10, who has high blood sugar and early signs of diabetes. Then there’s playful Daniella, 3, whose epileptic seizures are unpredictable.

“She doesn’t understand what’s happening,” Trujillo said of her youngest. “She thinks I’m on a vacation.”

“God will bring you back to me soon,” Daniella told her recently, Trujillo recounted.

Before she was deported, Trujillo would always be waiting for her children when they got home from school. After eating together, before she would leave for work in the afternoon, her children would help her get ready, saying to her, “Mami, I brought you your phone, Mami here are your shoes.” She would return from work later in the evening.

Mami, I made your bed for you,” Daniella said to her mother the other day, over the phone. “When are you going to get home to go to sleep?”

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