Attorneys for a young "Dreamer" facing deportation claim in a federal petition that immigration officers violated her right to freedom of speech, arguing she was targeted by authorities because she spoke out at a news conference about her hopes for immigration reform and the effect of enforcement raids on her family.
The allegation of retaliation is contained in a petition filed in federal court by a coalition of immigration and civil rights attorneys trying to stop the deportation of Daniela Vargas, who was detained by immigration agents in Mississippi minutes after she spoke at the news conference.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Immigration Law Center joined Vargas' immigration attorneys to file a habeas petition late Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. Claiming U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement violated Vargas' 5th Amendment due process rights to a hearing before an immigration judge and her 1st Amendment right to be free from unconstitutional retaliation for protected speech, the petition seeks her immediate release, as well as a court hearing to challenge the decision to deport her.
"She was targeted for speaking out against the ICE enforcement actions in the Jackson area and for going public with her story," said Michelle Lapointe, a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. "We want to send a message to ICE that they cannot behave in this manner that targets people for exercising their 1st Amendment rights."
Vargas, 22, who was brought to the U.S. from Argentina when she was 7 years old, is one of a handful of young immigrants who now finds their legal status in question years after being accepted under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era measure that allows immigrants brought into the country as children to work legally and protects them from deportation.
"Daniela's case is representative of the mean-spirited and misguided immigration policy of this administration that seeks to deport law-abiding young people who have contributed to their communities and who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans," Lapointe said. "They grew up here. The only issue is they were brought to this country by their parents many, many years ago."
Growing up in Morton, a small city 35 miles east of Jackson, Miss., Vargas graduated high school in 2013 with honors, ranking ninth in her class with a 3.77 grade point average. After attending the University of Southern Mississippi, she recently took on a full-time job as a manager of a small store because she could not afford tuition.
Vargas first came under the media spotlight on Feb. 15, after ICE agents detained her father and brother outside their Jackson home as they left for work. Vargas barricaded herself in her home, yet federal agents returned with a search warrant and broke in. After handcuffing her, the petition claims, federal agents later released her, saying they knew her DACA status had lapsed, but that they were giving her a "hall pass."
Shaken, Vargas emerged from the house to speak to local media reporters who had gathered outside. Two weeks later, on March 1, ICE agents detained her shortly after she spoke at a news conference outside Jackson City Hall about the need for a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country without authorization.
Videotape of the news conference shows Vargas saying, "Today my father and brother await deportation while I continue to fight this battle as a 'Dreamer' to help contribute to this country which I feel is very much my country."
According to the petition, ICE agents in two vehicles later pulled over her friend's car, and one ICE agent who had previously raided her home said to Vargas: "Remember me? You know who we are; you know why we're here," and "you're under arrest for being an illegal immigrant." She is now being held at a detention center in Louisiana.
In the petition filed Monday, Vargas' attorneys argue the actions taken against her could have a chilling effect on others who wish to speak out about immigration. "The arrest, detention, and imminent deportation that Ms. Vargas currently faces have injured her and continue to injure her, and would chill any person of ordinary firmness from continuing to speak out on issues related to immigration enforcement and policy," the petition states.
According to her attorneys, Vargas has two pending legal avenues to remain in the country lawfully. In 2012 and 2014, she was approved for the DACA program. While her DACA status expired in November as she tried to save up the $495 fee to renew it, her attorneys filed a renewal application in February.
In addition, Vargas also has a pending 2014 petition for a "U" non-immigrant visa based on her status as the child of a victim of a serious crime who has suffered mental or physical abuse and is cooperating with government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.
Last week, ICE issued a public statement indicating that Vargas' case would be heard before an immigration judge. However, federal officials have served Vargas paperwork noting they plan to deport her to Argentina without a court hearing, because she allegedly entered the U.S. under a "Visa Waiver Program" and waived her right to contest removal.
Jarvie is a special correspondent.