Attorneys for Daniela Vargas, a young "Dreamer" who was detained by immigration agents in Mississippi after speaking to the media about her family's plight, say they are racing against the clock to prevent her from being deported without a court hearing.
While an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman continues to maintain that Vargas will appear before an immigration judge, Vargas' attorney, Abigail Peterson, said ICE officials informed her Thursday that Vargas would be processed as a "visa waiver overstay" and is likely to be flown back to Argentina without a court hearing or bond.
"This is in direct contradiction to the statement released by ICE that Daniela would be given an opportunity to present her case to a federal immigration judge," Peterson said Friday. "We will be challenging ICE's decision to deny her this right."
The case of Vargas has attracted nationwide attention partly because of her personal story — she was brought to the U.S. from Argentina when she was 7 — and because she is one of a handful of young immigrants who thought they were shielded from deportation by an Obama-era program but now face the possibility of being kicked out of the country.
The timing of her detention— after leaving an immigration rally and news conference in Jackson, Miss. — have suggested to some of her supporters retaliation by the government.
"I don't understand why they don't want me," Vargas, 22, said from a detention center in a statement released by her attorneys. "I'm doing the best I can. I mean I can't help that I was brought here but I don't know anything else besides being here and I didn't realize that until I was in a holding cell last night for 5 hours. I was brought here. I didn't choose to be here. And when I was brought here, I had to learn a whole new country and leave behind the one that I did know."
Vargas, who is currently being held at LaSalle detention facility in Louisiana, has no criminal history. She was approved for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012 and again in 2014, according to Peterson. The program allows immigrants brought into the country as children to work legally and protects them from deportation.
In November 2016, Vargas' DACA status expired as she tried to save up the $495 fee to renew it. After she raised enough money, her law firm filed a renewal application in February.
On Friday, Thomas Byrd, an ICE public affairs officer, said officials were "looking at all the different options" but, for now, he stood by his earlier comment that Vargas would have an immigration hearing.
"A federal immigration judge will now determine Ms. Vargas's custody status as well as decide whether or not she is eligible for immigration relief," he said in a statement Wednesday. "ICE will await the outcome of these proceedings before a federal immigration judge before taking further action."
With contradictory messages seeming to come from federal immigration authorities, Peterson said Vargas and her attorneys remained uncertain about her fate. And for all his tough talk about cracking down on illegal immigration, President Trump also has expressed sympathy for the so-called Dreamers.
Vargas' family entered the country through the visa waiver program, which allows certain foreign nationals to enter the U.S. for under 90 days without a visa. According to Peterson, federal authorities maintain that by staying longer than the waiver allowed, her family waived some of their rights and became ineligible for an immigration hearing.
Given the competing issues — the laws governing the visa waiver program versus DACA — it is only "rational and humane" for Vargas to receive an immigration hearing, Peterson said.
Two weeks ago, Vargas made news when ICE agents in Mississippi detained her father and brother outside the family's Jackson home as they left for work. Vargas barricaded herself in a closet as agents burst into the family's home, Peterson said. After handcuffing her, agents later released her.
An aspiring math professor, Vargas was previously enrolled at the University of Southern Mississippi, but had to take a take on a job as a manager of a small store because she couldn't afford her tuition bills.
"I strongly feel that I belong here and I strongly feel that I should be given a chance to be here and do something good and work in this economy," Vargas said in a statement, noting that she is bilingual and an accomplished trumpet player. "There's so much that I can bring to the table."
Democratic lawmakers across the country have raised questions about Vargas' detention.
"ICE's assertion that her detention is 'routine' is absurd and seems anything but," Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement Thursday. "Clearly, ICE resources used in this case would have been better utilized to find and detain dangerous criminals and get them off our streets. As a DACA recipient she should be allowed to stay here."
Friends say Vargas was excited to be invited to the Wednesday news conference in Jackson organized by local attorneys, churches and immigration advocacy groups to oppose a proposed state bill that would prevent cities, counties and public colleges from adopting any sanctuary policy that limited cooperation with federal officials to verify immigration status.
"As a DACA recipient who ICE had already declined to pick up, she felt her story might be able to help others," Angela Stuesse, a friend of the Vargas family and an assistant professor of anthropology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in an America's Voice Education Fund press briefing.
Stuesse, the author of "Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South," met Vargas when she was 8, shortly after her parents moved to the U.S. and picked up jobs in the poultry industry, deboning chickens for 11 cents a pound.
Bill Chandler, the executive director of Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance who has known the Vargas family for more than a decade, said he was nervous as soon as he spotted Vargas at the immigration rally.
"I'm always concerned when undocumented people or people out of status present a public face, particularly in the atmosphere we have now as ICE has been unleashed," he said in a telephone interview. "ICE told her they were going to come back for her, and they did."
Jarvie is a special correspondent.