WASHINGTON ― Immigration authorities on Friday released a 22-year-old undocumented immigrant who had spent more than a week in detention, her attorneys said. Daniela Vargas was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, earlier this month after leaving a press conference where she spoke about the detention of her family members.
Vargas is still not safe from deportation, but will be able to live outside of immigrant detention as she awaits a final decision on her case. She is under an “order of supervision,” which means she will have to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement periodically.
A spokesman for ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The fact that she was detained soon after speaking out about deportation efforts alarmed immigrant rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers. They said it indicated ICE agents — who President Donald Trump said he would give more leeway — were targeting individuals indiscriminately or that they were retaliating against critics.
Vargas’ case also drew national attention as an example of how the Trump administration was handling the cases of so-called Dreamers, a blanket term for young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Although Trump has said he will address them with “great heart,” some Dreamers have nonetheless been caught up by recent efforts to detain and deport more people.
Vargas and her family came to the U.S. from Argentina when she was 7 years old. She previously had a work permit and deportation reprieve under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. But her DACA status expired in November, and her renewal application hadn’t been processed at the time of her arrest. As a result, her protections under the program had lapsed when ICE agents arrived.
I strongly feel that I belong here and I strongly feel that I should be given a chance to be here and do something good. Daniela Vargas, in a statement earlier this month
On the morning of Feb. 15, Vargas’ father, a house painter, and her brother, a construction worker, were both detained by ICE agents. As ICE agents questioned her, Vargas grew scared and went into her house, locked the door and hid in a closet for hours, she told The Huffington Post in an interview before she was detained.
Eventually, she says, ICE agents forced their way in with a warrant, guns raised. The house was searched ― officers had previously found a gun, which Vargas said the family owned for protection ― and she was briefly handcuffed. But ICE agents initially let her go, appearing to adhere to Trump’s promise that he wouldn’t target young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
After her father and brother were detained in February, Vargas started telling their story to the press. On March 1, she spoke at a news conference at Jackson City Hall along with other local immigration rights advocates. As she was leaving, she and a friend were pulled over, and immigration authorities arrested Vargas. An ICE official claimed that Vargas was not originally taken into custody on Feb. 15 because she claimed she had DACA status. ICE later verified that she did not and then arrested her, the official said.
One of Vargas’ attorneys, Abigail Peterson, said last week that ICE agents told her they would pursue deportation without a hearing because Vargas had entered the U.S. under the visa waiver program. (Argentina was formerly a member of the program, although it no longer is.) Individuals who come to the U.S. under the visa waiver program can stay for up to 90 days without a visa, and they do not have the right to contest their removal. Peterson said ICE should consider that this happened when Vargas was a child and that she has a pending DACA application.
Multiple congressional offices got involved in the case. House Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who represents the district where Vargas lives, wrote to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Thursday to call for her immediate release. “Daniela is the kind of young person who, as President Trump put it, should be treated with ‘great heart,’” he wrote.
Two advocacy groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Immigration Law Center, helped bring a habeas petition in federal court on Vargas’ behalf, claiming that immigration authorities violated her First Amendment right to freedom of speech and her right to due process. The habeas petition was transferred to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit on Friday, according to the groups.
On Friday, Vargas’ attorneys at the Elmore & Peterson Law Firm said in a statement that they “expect Daniela to return to her friends and community in Mississippi shortly to resume her daily life and pursue her dreams.”
“I strongly feel that I belong here and I strongly feel that I should be given a chance to be here and do something good and work in this economy,” Vargas told HuffPost in a statement earlier this month. “There’s so much that I can bring to the table, so much.”
Attorneys said Vargas’ release was a positive step, but noted that the fight isn’t over for her or other Dreamers who may be in detention.
“We will continue to challenge the unconstitutional actions of ICE agents in this case and will not rest until she is no longer under threat of deportation,” SPLC deputy legal director Naomi Tsu said in a statement on Friday. “It is counterproductive and harmful to our communities for ICE to be targeting aspiring young people in this country and we urge ICE to release other immigrant youth held in detention.”
This article has been updated with news that Vargas was released.