A 22-year-old immigrant who was in the process of renewing her status to remain in the country legally was detained by immigration agents Wednesday shortly after she spoke at a news conference of her hope that "Dreamers" and other immigrants be given a path to citizenship.
Daniela Vargas, an Argentine citizen who was brought to the county when she was 7 and later received protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Jackson, Miss., as she and a friend drove from a rally and news conference, according to her attorney, Abigail Peterson.
Two law enforcement vehicles pulled over Vargas and her friend just minutes after they left the event organized by immigration attorneys, pastors and activists outside Jackson City Hall. According to her friend, Peterson said, four officers opened the doors to her friend's car, took Vargas out, handcuffed her and took her into custody.
"They asked questions like, 'Do you know who we are?'" Peterson said. "'You know why we're here?'"
On Feb. 15, Vargas made the news when ICE agents in Mississippi detained her father and brother outside their 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.
"They released her because she had a pending DACA case," Peterson said. "What changed between then and two weeks later is the big question."
Vargas, who has no criminal history and hopes to become a math professor, was granted DACA status in 2012 and again in 2014, according to Peterson. The Obama administration program, for immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, allows them to work legally and shields them from deportation.
In November, 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.
In a statement, Thomas Byrd, a public affairs officer for ICE, described Vargas as an "unlawfully present Argentinian citizen" who was taken into custody during a "targeted immigration enforcement action."
During the Feb. 15 encounter, "ICE exercised discretion to not take her into custody due to her claim that she had DACA," Byrd said. "Subsequent to this encounter, ICE verified that Ms. Vargas does not currently have approved DACA status."
A federal immigration judge will now determine Vargas' custody status, as well as whether she is eligible for immigration relief, Byrd said.
Vargas' detention immediately drew questions from some Democratic senators. "Talking publicly about fears of deportation is not a crime and should not get someone detained," Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wrote on Twitter.
"Disturbing that ICE may have followed her from an immigration press conference," tweeted Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
Vargas is the latest target in a series of immigration enforcement operations across Mississippi. Last week, ICE agents detained 55 people on what were described as immigration-related charges as they executed criminal search warrants at a string of Asian restaurants in the central part of the state.
Still, the detention of Vargas took many, including her attorney, by surprise.
While President Trump pledged on the campaign trail to tighten controls on illegal immigration and immediately terminate the DACA program started by President Obama, he had seemed to adopt a softer stance on the so-called Dreamers in recent weeks.
"We're going to deal with DACA with heart," Trump said at a news conference two weeks ago.
This week the president touted stepped-up border enforcement, but in a meeting television anchors also said that he could support a compromise that allowed people with no criminal record to stay in the country and work and pay taxes.
"I would never have imagined that this would have happened," Peterson said, noting that when she talked to Vargas about the news conference, she "perhaps naively" assumed that "things would continue under Trump based on what he said, which is that he cares about these DACA kids and he wants to protect this program."
She added, "I hope it's not representative of what the Trump administration stands for. If we're not exercising discretion for people like Daniela, then where do we exercise discretion?"
Ramiro Orozco, an immigration attorney based in Jackson who coordinated Wednesday's news conference, said he believed ICE agents detained Vargas to retaliate against her for speaking out about Dreamers.
"I believe she was targeted," he said. "I believe this is a maverick, rogue office in Pearl, Miss., emboldened by the federal policy memos. Based on what happened today, all hopes of any responsible measures have been erased."
Jarvie is a special correspondent.