Update, March 20: The Miami-Dade Police Department says it was obligated under federal law to report the victim in this case to immigration agents. See below for the department's full response.
In December, 38-year-old Mabel Perez-Ordonez received good news. A letter from Miami-Dade Police stated she'd been the victim of indecent exposure. That meant the Nicaraguan native was eligible for a U visa — a path to legal status for undocumented crime victims who cooperate with cops.
The Hialeah mother of three got to work on her visa application, but she still needed a letter from police showing she had no criminal background. On the afternoon of February 7, Perez-Ordonez and her 21-year-old daughter, Tatiana Arauz-Perez, went to the Miami Lakes substation to pick up documents.
It should have been a simple request, but the two women were made to wait for almost two hours. When they inquired at the records desk about the delay, an employee responded they were "waiting for something."
"My heart just dropped," Arauz-Perez tells New Times. "I had a bad feeling about it."
A half-hour later, a uniformed agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and another man in plainclothes handcuffed Perez-Ordonez in front of her daughter.
"I was just hugging her, crying, telling them not to take her," Arauz-Perez says. "I was just trying to hold on to my mom. I was thinking I was never going to see her again."
The young woman says she and her mom had no idea why Perez-Ordonez was being detained. The officers mentioned something that had happened many years ago but gave no other indication.
As it turns out, a judge had issued an order of removal for Perez-Ordonez and two kids 11 years ago after border patrol agents encountered them near Brownsville, Texas. Their immigration attorney apparently misrepresented to the court that the family had voluntarily returned to Nicaragua and submitted fraudulent passport stamps as proof. The judge rejected that claim and issued the order of removal in July 2007.
Michelle Sanchez, an immigration attorney who took over the case almost three years ago, says Perez-Ordonez had no idea the order existed.
"She was like, 'I can't believe it. I never knew that this was what actually happened,'" Sanchez says.
Reports show that back in 2010, Perez-Ordonez had been delivering newspapers when a man exposed himself to her. Miami-Dade Police Maj. Javier Ruiz certified in a December 31, 2018, letter that Perez-Ordonez was the victim of a sexual assault and was cooperating with officers in the case, which remains open.
In the past, crime victims applying for the U visa have been allowed to stay in the country while waiting for their petitions to be processed. But under the Trump administration, an increasing number of petitioners are being deported before their visas are approved.
Trump's election also led Miami-Dade County to change its own immigration policies. In January 2017, Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced the county would start holding undocumented arrestees for 48 hours for the federal government. Gimenez said the order would "not result in widespread and indefinite detentions."
"It is also important to note that my Executive Order would not result in Miami-Dade police officers enforcing federal immigration laws," the mayor wrote in a memo explaining the change. "Regardless of policy changes at the federal level, Miami-Dade police officers will remain focused on protecting and serving our residents by enforcing local laws."
Sanchez, the immigration attorney, says she believes her client's detention is a clear abuse of that policy. "This lady has been trying to fix her immigration problems," Sanchez says. "Yes, she's undocumented, but we've been trying to fix her problems for a long time, and she feels really bad about the fact that she's undocumented."
A Miami-Dade Police spokesperson confirmed that Perez-Ordonez had requested the criminal background letter and that an ICE alert appeared on the computer. He added that she "was never brought to the secured area of the station and was not restrained in any way" by police. Gimenez's office did not answer questions about the incident.
This past Thursday, Perez-Ordonez won a stay of removal, meaning she won't be deported just yet. But she remains in custody in Louisiana.
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Arauz-Perez, a science student at Miami Dade College, says she doesn't know what will happen next. "My mom — she's my everything," she says. "I don't have anybody else, and she's been with me my entire life. My dad was not in the picture. She's my mom, and she's my dad."
Although Arauz-Perez is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), she and her 15-year-old brother are also named on the order of removal. Their 18-month-old sister is a U.S. citizen and is being cared for by her father, Perez-Ordonez's boyfriend, who is also a U.S. citizen.
"We are hard-working people. We're not here trying to do anything bad; we came here for a better life," Arauz-Perez says. "It's unfair to just rip a family apart for no reason. That's what they're basically doing, and they don't care."
March 20 statement from the Miami-Dade Police Department:
The Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD) is committed to protecting and serving all Miami-Dade County residents and visitors, providing fair and responsive police services to our large and diverse community. Consistent with our policy, we remind the community that the enforcement of immigration laws is the responsibility of the federal government and those specific federal agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which are delegated such authority. Although the MDPD will not perform as an immigration enforcement agency, it is required to share information and notify its federal partners under certain circumstances, in accordance with Title 8 U.S.C. §1373. Despite this obligation, our residents and visitors should feel confident that MDPD will discharge its duties without regard to a person’s legal status.