She cried herself to sleep every night; clutching her pillow tightly and wishing it was her mother.
For more than three months, Isabel Velez, 7, was terrified because her mother was in a Tiffin jail for not being a U.S. citizen like her. Young Isabel heard her father and aunts’ worried whispers that her mom was going to be sent “far, far away.”
“I was scared; I never thought I would see her again,” Isabel said, just days after being reunited with her mother.
In a surprise move, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Cleveland last week granted Elly Velez-Montes, 30, of Painesville, Ohio, “discretionary permission” to remain in the United States. That move is so rare that less than 2 percent of similar requests are approved, noted Mark Heller, managing attorney for Toledo’s Advocates for Basic Legal Equality’s Migrant Farmworker and Immigration Program. More than 1 million illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico, are deported each year, he said.
Mrs. Velez-Montes’ last-minute freedom came after thousands of immigrant advocates, religious and political leaders, and concerned residents from across Ohio signed petitions and pleaded for mercy on behalf of the mother of three small children.
A large group of supporters delivered the petitions in person at the Cleveland federal immigration office headquarters, making the request that Mrs. Velez-Montes be allowed to stay.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials initially agreed to speak about Mrs. Velez-Montes’ case and the factors that were considered to determine whether to allow her to remain in the United States. Two days later, federal officials balked, canceled the interview, and instead emailed a brief statement through their spokesman Khaalid Walls.
“After conducting a further review of her case, ICE has granted Elly Georgina Velez-Montes a one-year stay of removal,” the statement read. “We will decline further comment.”
Several community leaders, including Baldemar Velasquez, founder of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and Veronica Dahlberg, executive director of HOLA, a statewide organization that advocates on behalf of undocumented immigrants, are hoping that immigration officials will begin using their discretionary authority more often to help spare families from being torn apart.
Mr. Velasquez credited HOLA’s lobbying efforts to put pressure and make immigration officials fully aware of Mrs. Velez-Montes’ situation. Founded in 1998, HOLA initially served as an acroynm for Hispanas Organizados de Lake y Ashtabula, the communities where the group focused its advocacy and outreach efforts.
HOLA now has chapters in the cities of Toledo, Hamilton, Lorain, Akron, and Painesville.
“Much credit should go to Veronica Dahlberg and the courageous women of HOLA for the great networking they did to make everyone aware of this tragic example when our immigration laws don’t fit the human reality,” Mr. Velasquez said. “Immigration laws need to be fixed now as this tragedy of tearing families apart continues to be repeated thousands of times through our nation.
“We will pursue a meeting with ICE officials in Cleveland and Detroit and request that they follow discretion in deportation as directed by ICE Director John Morton to focus on real criminals and not innocent moms.”
Commonly referred to as the “Morton Memo,” Mr. Morton issued the notice on June 15, 2012, directing immigration officials to focus their efforts on illegal immigrants who pose a threat to national security or public safety. He directed ICE agents to use discretion for low-priority individuals so that they don’t clog up the court system and so that resources can be focused on priority cases.
That directive hasn’t been followed for several reasons and politics is one of them, Mr. Heller said. It’s also because there has been so much money poured into homeland security and so many immigration agents hired that there’s enough staff to focus on more than just the priority cases, Mr. Heller said.
The decision to allow Mrs. Velez-Montes to stay in the states comes at a time when the debate over immigration reform is at a feverish pitch. The U.S. Senate earlier this summer passed a proposed comprehensive immigration-reform bill that would provide a path to citizenship to immigrants such as Mrs. Velez-Montes.
That proposal has stalled because House Republicans, led by Ohio’s John Boehner, have refused to let Congress vote on the bill and are instead proposing a piecemeal approach that would place more emphasis on deportations and stronger border security measures.
Many conservative Republicans argue that entering the country illegally is a crime and should not be rewarded with an opportunity for citizenship.
‘I was desperate’
Even the most optimistic lobbyists gave Mrs. Velez-Montes, who has been deported twice before, very little chance of being allowed to stay in the country.
She was 17 when she left her small hometown near Jalisco, Mexico. She snuck across the border by herself and came to Painesville, where other family members already lived.
“I was desperate,” said Mrs. Velez-Montes, who came from an economically poor background. “Life in Mexico is not easy. It’s a very hard life; life is no good. There is no shower in the houses. There is no money to buy food.”
In 2004, she married Juan Manchaca, who had already been granted U.S. citizenship. After their marriage, he filed paperwork so that she could begin the citizenship process. Less than one year later, Mrs. Velez-Montes had a minor car accident.
The family says their attorney at the time directed Mrs. Velez-Montes to voluntarily deport herself to Mexico, and in the meantime, said he would file paperwork to seek permission for her to return and then apply for citizenship. The attorney, to whom the family gave thousands of dollars, disappeared without doing anything, they allege.
If that attorney would have filed the proper paperwork, Mrs. Velez-Montes would likely have been allowed to return to the United States in nine months and continue on her path to citizenship, Mr. Heller said. The other problem is that when she “self-deported,” Mrs. Velez-Montes lost the right to count the 10 years that she had lived here, which might have allowed her to qualify for temporary status.
For more than six months, a pregnant Mrs. Velez-Montes, 20, slept in a “house” that consisted of a brick wall with aluminum sheeting propped up by rocks. The family paid a coyote — someone who helps smuggle people across the border for a high price, but family members claimed this person took her money and abandoned her right where immigration officials could quickly find her.
Back to Mexico
She was held in a federal immigration jail in El Paso until three weeks before her due date, when she was deported back to Mexico. Later, mother and child used an inner tube to cross the Rio Grande and return to the United States. A waiting group of friends helped provide her transportation back to Ohio.
“It was the only way I could do it,” Mrs. Velez-Montes said. “I didn’t trust anybody.
“It was dangerous, but I had to do it for my family. Maybe some people can’t understand that.”
After returning to Painesville, she’s lived a model life: According to her church priest, she’s been attending St. Mary’s Church since 2000 when she first arrived in the United States; all three of her children were baptized there. She does a lot of volunteer and charity work for the church and the community.
She and her husband have three children: Juan J. Machaca, 9, Isabel Velez, 7, and Christian Manchaca, 23 months. As is the custom in some parts of Mexico, the male children are given the last name of their father; the daughter receives the mother’s maiden name.
During the early morning of April 22, things changed for Mrs. Velez-Montes and her family. While driving a friend to work she was pulled over by a Lake County Sheriff’s deputy for not having her headlights on, according to police reports.
She was first detained in the Bedford Heights jail and then transferred to Tiffin in Seneca County after several Bedford Heights jail inmates and several farm worker advocates filed complaints, claiming Mrs. Velez-Montes was being verbally and physically abused by guards. Bedford Heights officials, who have a federal contract to house undocumented immigrants, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Immigration officials also refused comment.
According to Ms. Dahlberg, she became concerned after noticing Mrs. Velez-Montes has lost 40 pounds and was shedding her hair while at Bedford Heights. Ms. Dahlberg said that when she called the jail to request medical care, the jail staff became angry and repeatedly hung up on her.
After a series of other issues, Ms. Dahlberg said her organization filed a written complaint with the immigration department and the American Civil Liberties Union in Cleveland. The immigration department responded by immediately transferring Mrs. Velez-Montes to Tiffin and scheduling her deportation hearing three days later, Ms. Dahlberg said.
At that point Mrs. Velez-Montes admits she had almost lost the will to live. It was hard to find hope.
“I was tired; I didn’t want to fight anymore or cry anymore,” she admits.
Her husband, Mr. Manchaca, shared her despair: “I never thought I’d see her again — not here.
“We always train for this, but it was so frustrating because I kept thinking, “Why can’t I do anything for her?”
Husband and wife credit Ms. Dahlberg for keeping their spirits up and working tirelessly on their behalf. She kept reminding them to be strong, for their kids’ sake.
“That was the only reason I stayed strong,” Mrs. Velez-Montes said. “I had to because I wanted to be with my kids.”
The reality of her recent release is just starting to sink in.
“I don’t have the words to say how I feel — I’m here with my babies,” says Mrs. Velez-Montes as she begins to cry. “Everything is OK again. I can stay in my house, take care of my kids and family, and I don’t have to worry about anything anymore.”
Contact Federico Martinez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.