ICE Releases DACA Recipient Detained While Serving As Flight Attendant

The Mesa Airlines employee, who came to the U.S. as a toddler from Peru, said she trusted her bosses when they told her she could work on a flight to Mexico.
In a photo taken by her husband, Selene Saavedra Roman wears her flight attendant uniform.
In a photo taken by her husband, Selene Saavedra Roman wears her flight attendant uniform.
David Watkins

A Texas flight attendant and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient was freed from Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Friday after being held for weeks for leaving the country as part of her job.

The flight attendant, 28-year-old Selene Saavedra Roman, came to the U.S. from Peru as a toddler. She’s married to a U.S. citizen and is legally allowed to remain in the country and work under the protection of the DACA program. She flew to Mexico and back in February for her job at the behest of Mesa Airlines, her employer of about a month, which assured her that her DACA status would not be a problem upon reentry. Afraid of losing her new job, she decided to trust her supervisors.

But when Saavedra attempted to reenter the U.S. on Feb. 12, authorities detained her. She remained in an ICE facility in Conroe, Texas, without any clear timeline on her case until The Points Guy and a swarm of public figures highlighted her case as a symbol of the Trump administration’s troubling immigration policy.

Authorities granted Saavedra parole to return to her College Station, Texas, home on Friday afternoon, her lawyer and husband announced.

“She called me saying, ‘Please just come get me.’ I felt immediately overjoyed,” her husband, David Watkins, said at a news conference.

Earlier that day, he told HuffPost he was prepared for a lengthy battle even though his whole life could be upended. When his wife called him last month to let him know what was happening, “I dropped the phone and I screamed into the sky, because I knew this was going to be long and wasn’t going to be an easy path whatsoever.”

Following a cue from the Association of Flight Attendants, the union Saavedra is a member of, Mesa Airlines called on Friday for her release. Previously, the company had told her she would be able to reenter the U.S. after the round trip flight from Houston to Mexico because of her DACA status.

“I dropped the phone and I screamed into the sky, because I knew this was going to be long and wasn’t going to be an easy path whatsoever.”

- David Watkins, Selene Saavedra Roman's husband

But that was incorrect. President Donald Trump suspended DACA in 2017 and sought to phase out the program, but that’s been held up in the courts. However, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has not been issuing the paperwork Saavedra would need to leave and reenter the country ― something she’d never done since arriving in the U.S. as a child.

“Before Trump canceled DACA, what she would have done is applied for what’s called advanced parole under the DACA program, which allowed you to apply for permission to travel outside the country if it’s for employment purposes,” her lawyer Belinda Arroyo told HuffPost on Friday.

Arroyo argued that Saavedra was being unfairly held because of Mesa Airline’s mistake. After all, Arroyo noted, Saavedra is a graduate of Texas A&M University, a taxpayer with a social security number and the wife of a U.S. citizen.

She was also midway through the process of applying for permanent residency before her DACA status was set to expire at the end of this year, and she has no criminal record. However, data released this week show ICE is arresting more undocumented immigrants without a criminal history than ever before.

Saavedra’s mental and emotional well-being was “deteriorating” in detention, her husband said. At the detention center, the only in-person contact she could have with her husband took place once a week through a thick glass window, and she was given access to the outdoors only a few times a week, he said.

Despite the positive news she received Friday, Saavedra now faces another legal battle. Immigration officials alerted her lawyer recently that they are now considering revoking her DACA status and that she’ll have to make her case against deportation before a judge on April 4.

“Regardless of what happens in the future, I’m not giving up,” her husband said during Friday’s news conference, adding that he’s ready to move to Peru with her if it comes to that. “I haven’t even begun to fight as far as I’m concerned.”

He knows that his support is a privilege other DACA recipients ― who total about 700,000 nationwide ― can’t always rely on if they’re detained or have their DACA residencies revoked. Speaking to HuffPost before the news of her release, Watkins lit up describing how his wife was using her college education to help other women at the detention center learn about their legal rights.

“Selene’s story is ridiculous, but it’s not the only one,” he said. “There are a lot of people in the same situation who don’t have nearly as much hope.”

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