A woman who has been detained in Texas for more than a year will likely be deported on Thursday after her asylum claim was denied — despite a visa certification confirming she is a victim of domestic violence.
Melvin Griselda Cruz Lopez — known to her friends and family as Griselda — received her U visa certification from the Chicago Police Department last week, which gives victims of mental and physical abuse relief from deportation. She now is working with a pro bono U visa attorney to continue fighting her case.
Cruz Lopez came to the United States in 2005 from El Salvador, fleeing gang violence. She was released into the country with a notice to appear, but the notice contained no court date, according to her asylum attorney. In order to figure out her day in court and prepare for her asylum hearing, Cruz Lopez hired a lawyer. The lawyer, however, did little to help her. Cruz Lopez said they did not find out when her court date was scheduled, and as a result, she was given an order of deportation.
During this time, Cruz Lopez, along with her extended family members, settled in the Chicago area where she worked various restaurant jobs to make ends meet. She met a man who would become the father of her now 6-year-old daughter Samantha, a U.S. citizen, and they built a life in the United States together. The man, however, was abusive. In 2014, Cruz Lopez filed a domestic violence report against him, alleging he pushed her to the floor, threatened to hurt her again if she ever called 911, and deliberately locked her in her own home.
After another argument, Cruz Lopez believes that ex-partner, who knew of her vulnerable legal status, called the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tip line on her in October 2017. She was detained and swiftly deported to El Salvador in absentia, because of her missed court date.
In El Salvador, Cruz Lopez was targeted by the same gangs she fled in nearly 12 years earlier, so she made the decision to return to the United States in January 2018. She has been in detention ever since.
Organizers working on her case believe her latest appeal was denied despite the visa certification because her family members in El Salvador haven’t provide the necessary evidence for her asylum case, out of fear they will be be targeted by the same gangs.
ThinkProgress reached out to ICE for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.
“My daughter doesn’t really like to speak with me because she’s mad at me. She feels like I abandoned her.”
While in detention for the last year, Cruz Lopez has been fighting off excruciating pain from a head injury she obtained at the Laredo Detention Center, which also made it difficult for her to get through her asylum interview.
According to her asylum attorney, Cruz Lopez was given pills to help with her anxiety, but they made her extremely dizzy instead. She fell and hit her head on the ground, resulting in migraines, light-sensitivity, and a stiff neck. After public pressure from organizers at Grassroots Leadership, ICE sent Griselda to be evaluated by a neurosurgeon. The specialist recommended therapy and even suggested surgery as a fix, but ICE did not sign off on those recommendations. The scope of care is outside of ICE’s capacity and rather than spending the money on her medical care, the agency has decided to do nothing.
“They don’t really want to help me,” Cruz Lopez told ThinkProgress in a phone interview from Laredo last week, before she had received news of her deportation. “They want to give me pills to take. I don’t want to take them. The pills are what got me here in the first place. I just want therapy […] I still am feeling really bad. It’s a kind of injury that as time goes on, the consequences get worse. I don’t sleep well because the pain is just too much.”
Other women detained at Laredo have spoken out about the facility’s lack of proper medical care and the re-traumatization they are faced with on a day-to-day basis.
“When we go out for recreation they watch over us with shotguns in their hands as if we were criminals, something else that I don’t see as necessary, since because of the physical damages that I already have in my body from firearms and the psychological impact of that, they make me feel afraid,” one woman told Grassroots Leadership.
Cruz Lopez’s daughter Samantha is her main motivation for continuing to fight her case. Samantha is still in the custody of her abusive father, and Cruz Lopez worries for Samantha’s safety.
“I don’t get to talk with her a lot because her father won’t answer my calls,” Cruz Lopez said. “When I do get to talk with her it’s when she’s with her aunt, and even then my daughter doesn’t really like to speak with me because she’s mad at me. She feels like I abandoned her.”
“My daughter is the reason I keep fighting,” she added. “She is only 6 years old. She is the reason I want to stay in the United States. I can’t go back to El Salvador with her, I can’t. It’s not safe for either of us.”
But publicly fighting her case has gotten Cruz Lopez into the bad graces of ICE. After multiple community actions and protests outside the detention center in support of her release, Cruz Lopez was transferred 300 miles away from T. Don Hutto Residential center to Laredo the day she was scheduled to meet with the mayor of the city where she was detained.
Two weeks later, she received a letter from ICE, threatening her with criminal charges if she continued to fight her case.
The letter, reviewed by ThinkProgress, warned that “any willful failure or refusal on your part […] or any conspiracy or actions to prevent your removal […] may subject you to criminal prosecution,” effectively warning Cruz Lopez that should she continue to fight her case, she could be could face up to 20 years in prison.
“When I realized what I signed, I felt desperate because they are threatening something that isn’t just right,” Cruz Lopez said. “I only want asylum. I’m not a criminal. I only want my right to freedom. I am only one of many women separated from their children fighting for their right to asylum. We aren’t criminals.”
Activists working with Cruz Lopez worry that the agency is targeting her because she has been outspoken about her detention and has a network of support behind her.
“This is exactly what happens when women that we work with lift their voice and talk about the injustices they’re facing,” Sofia Casini, the Detention Visitation Coordinator with Grassroots Leadership, told ThinkProgress. “It’s silencing, it’s retaliation.”
“So anytime a woman is thinking of lifting her voice in a public campaign, we talk about the pros and cons, ” Casini added. “What happened to Griselda, to be honest, is just par for the course in some ways.”
There was a time when victims eligible for a U visa weren’t a priority for deportation. A decision by the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals in 2012, and a related ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010, established that most U visa petitioners in removal proceedings should be able to remain in the United States while they wait for their visa to be approved. The Trump administration, however, has routinely deported victims of crimes before they’ve even had a chance to apply for a U visa.
Like thousands of other women in detention centers, Cruz Lopez’s case is multilayered and underscores just how complex the current U.S. immigration system is, especially under the Trump administration, which is constantly undermining the rights of asylum seekers. Trump and senior administration officials have called the asylum system a “loophole” in the U.S. immigration system.
With Cruz Lopez’s impending deportation and separation from her daughter, the only person who can definitively save her is Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX). Cuellar — who represents a district with three privately-run ICE detention centers along a highway strip known as “detention alley” — could order a stay of deportation in Cruz Lopez’s case, allowing her to fight for her U visa. Activists, however, aren’t holding their breath. Cuellar has received more private prison money than any other congressional Democrat, accepting $88,990 from GEO Group and CoreCivic America since 2012, according to Open Secrets.
“We received a request for assistance with this case and have made an inquiry to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),” Cuellar’s office said in an emailed statement. “We are awaiting their response at this time. Although we cannot guarantee outcomes or influence any decisions related to detention, we can help understand the facts, timeline, and possible options.”