Traffic stops in Georgia are leaving children without their immigrant parents

It would appear any infraction found during a police interaction can lead to deportation.

Foreign nationals were arrested in February 2017 during a targeted enforcement operation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). CREDIT: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/ Bryan Cox
Foreign nationals were arrested in February 2017 during a targeted enforcement operation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). CREDIT: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/ Bryan Cox

Alicia Ortiz-Mojica, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was driving with her two daughters for a day out in April when she allegedly ran a red light in Hall County, Georgia. A police officer pulled her over and found out she had been driving without a license, a privilege not granted for people without Social Security numbers. Over the course of the encounter, the officer allegedly found out about a prior arrest from November 2016, immigrant advocacy groups say, for another instance of driving without a license.

Ortiz’s 15-year-old daughter Lizbhet and a younger daughter were in the backseat and witnessed the arrest. With Ortiz in handcuffs, the officer reportedly waited for Lizbhet to call a licensed friend to drive them in the car to a relative’s home.

“It was really hard when she got arrested. I cried a lot.”

“It was really hard when she got arrested. I cried a lot,” Lizbhet told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. (Her uncle, who is now her guardian, granted permission for the phone call.)

Because of a longstanding law enforcement collaborative program with the federal immigration agency, Ortiz was turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency for potential deportation proceedings. She has been detained at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia for the past two months.

Ortiz is among a growing number of single mothers placed at the Irwin County Detention Center over the past five months, concerned advocates say, following nationwide immigration enforcement operations after President Donald Trump signed a number of executive orders broadening far more criminal convictions punishable by deportation.

During a master calendar hearing, an immigration judge set a $12,000 bail bond for Ortiz’s conditional release and set the next court date for June 27. But family members — namely her four children, all under the age of 18 — have been too poor to pay the amount. Ortiz’s job as a graveyard shift poultry worker left her living paycheck to paycheck to support her family, without any means to save up for circumstances like these. Her family members also lack the funds.

Since Trump took office, his administration has encouraged local law enforcement to help the federal government identify suspected undocumented immigrants. Localities that have resisted have been publicly shamed by his administration. Furthering the crackdown on the country’s undocumented population, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who oversees federal immigration enforcement operations, has said deportation proceedings would take place after a single DUI. In a recent congressional hearing, Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan warned that the deportation dragnet would include all undocumented immigrants, inclusive of people without criminal records.

As a result, local law enforcement authorities are now holding immigrants they otherwise may have reconsidered turning over under the previous Obama administration. Under Obama, DHS personnel focused on-the-ground agent resources on immigrants with serious criminal records. At the time, Obama’s “felons not families” refrain guided immigration agents to exercise prosecutorial discretion when weighing the cost of detaining immigrants, particularly parents with U.S. citizen children against the necessary enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Now as the Trump administration abandons his predecessor’s enforcement priorities with zeal, detention centers are growing with immigrant mothers and fathers. And their underage children are left behind to quickly grow up and become their parents’ biggest lobbyists. Their tasks: to fundraise tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of weeks to get their parents out of immigration detention.

Alicia Ortiz Mojica and her four children. CREDIT: Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR)
Alicia Ortiz Mojica and her four children. CREDIT: Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR)

SOrtiz’s detention has mentally exhausted her children. They dwell on every encounter, argument, and childhood memory they had have with their mom.

“Before we were kind of, like, troubled kids,” Lizbhet said. “But now since that happened, we realize we messed up and now we regret it because my mom’s locked up. We realize we need to start changing and put more effort because my mom’s a single mom and we have to pull our part too.”

Ortiz has been critical in their upbringing, Lizbhet said. Beside being a single mom to four kids, she works the night shift at a poultry plant. The children currently live with family members who have also struggled with their own deportation encounters. An aunt was previously arrested and detained before being released on bail, Lizbhet pointed out.

But as the oldest sibling, Lizbhet has become the parent to her three younger siblings, a role she describes as emotionally difficult in part because she has to keep encouraging her siblings to believe their mom has a chance to get out of detention.

“She’s everything we got here.”

“I try my best to let them know that she’ll get out soon, but they know and they feel like she’s going to get out. I still give them hope because I don’t like to see them down,” Lizbhet said. “I’m trying my best. I’m just trying my best.”

Ortiz’s children hope their fundraiser and letters to the immigration judge would be enough to help their mom.

“She’s everything we got here,” Lizbhet wrote in a letter to the immigration judge to plead her mother’s case. “Please I beg you have a heart and give her a chance to stay.”

A letter Lizbhet wrote to the immigration judge about her mother. CREDIT: Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR)
A letter Lizbhet wrote to the immigration judge about her mother. CREDIT: Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR)

George, Lizbhet’s younger brother who appeared with her in the fundraiser video separately appealed to the judge, in part writing, “she’s been with us all our lives.”

“And we love her so much so please give her another chance,” George continued. “She changed I know she so please.”

A letter George wrote to the immigration judge about his mother. CREDIT: Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR)
A letter George wrote to the immigration judge about his mother. CREDIT: Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR)

H“The general scenario you would see is there is high collaboration with ICE,” Julie Mao, the enforcement fellow and staff attorney at the National Immigration Project — National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG), told ThinkProgress. “People are getting picked up for broken tail lights, sometimes with their children in their cars, and getting arrested, then getting quickly transferred to ICE.”

The list of immigrant parents in Georgia arrested for driving without licenses is long. There’s Blanca E. Villa Estrada, a mother of two underage teenager girls, who is also detained at Irwin. Her husband has began a fundraiser to help pay for her $12,000 bail bond.

There’s also Josefina Radilla Velasco, an undocumented single immigrant mother of six U.S. citizen children, stopped by police in Gwinnett County. She was also detained for driving without a license. Like Lizbhet, Radilla’s daughter Alondra has set up a fundraiser to raise $15,000 to get her mother out of detention. Her fundraiser talks about the constant fear of being separated from her mother. Alondra said she has since taken on her mom’s graveyard shift at the aquarium.

“Currently I took my mother’s spot at her job,” Alondra wrote in her fundraiser. “She works the nightshift ( coming in from 10 pm — 6am ) at the aquarium. Two days before she got transferred to Irwin detention center I went in for her soo [sic] she won’t lose her job.”

“It’s not easy being a mother of six children now can y’all imagine what I’m struggling with at this moment,” Alondra added.

Mao said community groups like GLAHR are reporting “a huge wave of calls into their office on behalf of women or mothers. They are cases that normally under the Obama prosecutorial regime, wouldn’t have been people that would have been picked up.”

The detention of so many single immigrant mothers for traffic infractions isn’t “just very unusual” but “cruel,” Mao said. “I just don’t think in the history of INS [the federal Immigration and Naturalization Services agency which predated the creation of DHS before 2001] and DHS that they’ve been as cruel and not understanding.”

“If you are undocumented and you are stopped by police, you will be processed for deportation,” Adelina Nicholls, the executive director at GLAHR, said. “Right now, what we see is that local law enforcement is that initial hook to be used to process for deportation. It impacts the community at large.”

A recent nationwide survey of advocacy groups found immigrant community members have been reluctant to reach out for assistance. That survey, conducted by the advocacy group Tahirih Justice Center, follows high-profile encounters by ICE agents of domestic violence survivors trying to get protective orders at courthouses and homeless people near churches.

“Our community shouldn’t be participating and collaborating with local law enforcement,” Nicholls said. “They cannot have it both ways meaning: you want me to help, but at the same time, you’re kicking my butt.”

Until her mother’s court hearing, Lizbhet has been focusing on the good in her life, namely relatives who have been helping her family.

“They’ve been helping a lot,” Lizbhet said. “They take care of us. They do everything for us. They do their best so we can’t be more depressed. They cheer us up.” Sucking her breath to prevent herself from being overwhelmed, Lizbhet took a little time to think about her future.

“I wanted to be a nurse since the fifth grade because my grandma’s getting older,” Lizbhet added. “She’s going to have problems and I just want to be there for her and all my family.”