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DACA protected flight attendant set to be released from ICE custody after nearly two months

"When we read terrible stories like Selene's it is just a reminder of why we need the Dream and Promise Act."

Photo of Selene Saavedra Roman (Credit: America's Voice)

A 28-year-old flight attendant from Texas is set to be released Friday after being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for nearly two months following a trip outside of the United States for work. She faced possible deportation to Peru, a country she has not visited since she was three years old.

The last month and a week have been exhaustingly tough,” Saavedra Roman’s husband, David Watkins, told reporters on a press call Friday evening while driving to pick up his wife. “When I got the call she was crying and said, ‘Please come get me they are going to release me.’”

“We know that this isn’t over yet, she still has a court date in April,” he added. “At least now she’s not in prison. I could only visit her once a week for an hour through two inches of glass […] She wasn’t doing well at all. She was experiencing some pretty high anxiety and severe depression.”

Selene Saavedra Roman is one of the estimated 800,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gave temporary work authorization and deportation relief to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

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She was raised in Texas, graduated from Texas A&M University, has no criminal record, and is married to a U.S. citizen. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has already granted her I-130 petition, which is one of the first steps on the path to lawful permanent residency.

Saavedra Roman’s employer, Mesa Airlines, insisted she was legally cleared to fly on a short trip to Mexico and back. DACA recipients risk jeopardizing their status if they travel outside of the country.

“She should be okay because it’s part of DACA as long as it is not expiring,” a supervisor at Mesa wrote in an email reviewed by the airline business blog The Points Guy.

Saavedra Roman’s husband said that because she was so new at her job and still on probation with the airline, she believed her managers and agreed to work the flight.

She flew out of Mexico on February 12 with her Peruvian passport, then boarded another flight home immediately. While going through customs, she was told by officials that her paperwork was not in order. She was held by ICE at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport for 24 hours before being transferred to a privately-run ICE detention center in Conroe, Texas.

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“We are deeply sorry Selene and her husband have had to endure this situation. It is patently unfair for someone to be detained for six weeks over something that is nothing more than an administrative error and a misunderstanding,” said Mesa Chairman and CEO Jonathan Ornstein in a statement Friday, before news of her release.

Immigration officials could have granted Saavedra Roman a provision known as advance parole, which allows DACA recipients the ability to travel outside of the United States and then return.

But since President Donald Trump chose to terminate the program in 2017, there’s a lack of clarity about what the law is on parole. Although a federal judge ruled last year that DACA should remain in place, many immigration experts say the ongoing battle court has effectively eliminated advance parole as an option, making undocumented youth’s lives more difficult.

Jin Park — a Harvard College graduate, Rhodes Scholar, and DACA recipient — has also said he is worried about traveling to England for graduate study at the University of Oxford, for fear that he won’t be able to return home.

Cases like Saavedra Roman’s are sobering reminders that DACA, while billed as a protection from deportation, is not a permanent solution. DACA recipients have frequently been the targets of both ICE and USCIS.

Edder Rizo Sanchez, a 22-year-old DACA recipient who lived in South Carolina, was detained by ICE in November of 2017 and turned over to USCIS to have his DACA status revoked. After three months of horrible conditions at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, he was forced to self-deport.

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Sergio Salazar was 18 years old when his DACA renewal was denied for what he believes was his involvement in anti-ICE protests. ICE lawyers filed paperwork alleging he is a national security risk. Salazar signed an order of self-deportation to Mexico in September 2018.

Under the latest version of the DREAM Act — now called the Dream and Promise Act — Sanchez and Salazar could be reunited with their families, as the bill allows eligible young immigrants who were deported under the Trump administration to fight their cases from abroad.

The Dream and Promise Act is the only way to ensure Dreamers — as well as beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) — are unilaterally protected from deportation and are awarded the chance to become residents in the country where they live, work, and pay taxes.

DACA does not protect you from deportation. That is the sad reality under Trump,” Bruna Bouhid, spokesperson for United We Dream, an advocacy group for undocumented immigrant youth told ThinkProgress. “When we read terrible stories like Selene’s it is just a reminder of why we need the Dream and Promise Act. We don’t need another stopgap, we need permanent legislation.”