Maya Rose Bliffeld’s family is separated.
Not on the US-Mexico border, but in Central America, where immigration officials arrest her birth mother despite the Biden government’s policies allowing her to be released.
Sara Mendez-Morales, 33, is an Indigenous Guatemalan woman who does not know if or when she will be released from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention in Butler County Jail near Cincinnati, where she has been since August . Or whether she will ever see her younger children, 4 and 12 year old girls, in foster care again.
But Bliffeld, lawyers from the Columbus area and Mendez-Morales’ immigration lawyer are fighting for their release. They say ICE, who is imprisoning them, is against federal agency guidelines and is immoral.
“It’s just a human life that deserves to be respected, that deserves to be left alone, and that deserves justice against this country’s unjust legal system,” said 18-year-old Bliffeld from New York City, who was adopted by a US family as a toddler. “She is trapped and no one can live like that.”
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Bliffeld, who was born at the age of 14 after her mother was raped, reconnected with Mendez-Morales in 2014 and regularly writes letters and calls ICE. Proponents also launched a Change.org petition to release Mendez-Morales, who now has more than 12,000 signatures.
Her efforts began earlier this year when Sara Liebler, a member of the Ohio Immigrant Visitation, wrote to Mendez-Morales and received a letter from her describing her experience. It shook the linden woman.
“It was so nerve-wracking,” said Liebler. “Sara’s situation is very extreme.”
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Mendez-Morales, who could not be reached for comment at the detention center, has been in the US since 2007 after escaping abuse in her own country. During her lifetime, according to her advocates, she was a victim of rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking and much more.
“We want ICE to have the power to release them at any time, but now it’s really time for it to happen,” said Liebler.
“A terrible place”
Now is the time for Mendez-Morales to suffer while in detention, according to Bliffeld and Yeni Qintanilla-Guzman, a friend and distant relative of Mendez-Morales they met while in immigration custody in Butler County.
The 38-year-old who lives on the west side of Columbus cried when she shared what it was like in Butler County Jail.
“It’s a terrible place,” said Qintanilla-Guzman, speaking Spanish through a translator. “It’s a place where you really don’t have any rights … I know Sara is still there and I just want her to leave this awful place.”
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Qintilla-Guzman is originally from El Salvador and has been in that country for 17 years. She entered ICE detention in December and was released in early April.
“She often feels like she goes crazy without a phone call or visit,” said Qintilla-Guzman. “It’s like she feels like her life doesn’t matter to anyone.”
Mendez-Morales won her immigration case and was legally allowed to stay in the country under the United Nations Convention against Torture, which is used for those seriously injured when they return to their home country, said her northeast Ohio-based immigration attorney Kim Alabasi . ICE has appealed against immigration judges’ decision to let them stay and refused to release them, proponents say.
‘One last resort’
When an ICE official reached for comment, he said he could confirm that Mendez-Morales is in ICE custody but was unable to comment on the details of an ongoing case.
“While ICE will focus its civil immigration enforcement on national security, border security and public safety priorities, the DHS does not prohibit ICE from arresting or arresting anyone illegally in the US who is outside of its priorities,” said ICE spokesman Alvin Phillips of the Buffalo Field Office wrote in an email.
The case is stuck, said Alabasi.
“She is being detained because the government is appealing her case and because ICE, under the discretion they claim, is only deciding not to release her,” Alabasi said.
Alabasi said she was wondering why limited ICE resources are being used to hold on to someone like her client. Mendez-Morales does not meet guidelines for deportation priority: she does not pose a threat to national security, has not committed a serious crime, and poses no aviation risk, Alabasi said.
“Detention is serious business,” said Alabasi. “It’s supposed to be a last resort to protect the people in the community … She was a victim herself – a battered, abused woman – but she reported her abuse. She has served her sentence.”
Mendez-Morales has been imprisoned or imprisoned in various locations for more than two years. It started when she reported the sexual abuse of her 12-year-old daughter by her partner in 2019 while she was living in Hamilton County. That ended with her arrested and charged with endangering the child, Bliffeld said.
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Her partner fled to Guatemala and Mendez-Morales’ attorney recommended that she plead guilty to the charges, Bliffeld said.
“Her rights were never explicitly explained to her,” she said. “She made her sentence, she served it. She didn’t see all the implications of an admission of guilt.”
Mendez-Morales worked at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville from April 2019 to August 2020 and was subsequently taken into ICE custody. Now advocates say that she will become a victim again.
“No woman should ever come forward to tell about the abuse of her children and be punished for it,” said Bliffeld.
“She is captured”
Ultimately, her detention has become a human rights issue, according to her supporters.
“(She) deserves justice against this country’s unjust legal system,” said Bliffeld. “She is trapped and no one can live like that.”
In the meantime, Qintilla-Guzman said she was afraid that her friend would lose her will to live and be depressed.
“I know she reads the Word of God and that feeds her, but that’s not enough. She needs her freedom,” she said. “How long will she be there and what is the reason? What is the reason why she is being held?”