In Aftermath of ICE Operation, Wyoming Woman Burns Herself and Her Daughter to Death
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The director of the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency (ICE), John Morton, released a memo last June emphasizing “prosecutorial discretion.” Given a limited budget, the memo said that ICE personnel should use their judgment to pursue prosecution in cases that fall under the highest priority, like violent criminals that cause immediate danger to public safety. The reality, however, remains that ICE has continued to prosecute undocumented migrants, regardless of criminal history, and often with heartbreaking consequences.
Thousands of miles away from the policy makers in Washington, DC, in the vast plains of Cheyenne, Wyoming, an undocumented migrant named Erica Delgado set fire to her mobile home, killing herself and her 11-year-old daughter, Miriam Ortiz, on Feb. 3, 2012—one week after five ICE agents and two sheriff’s deputies confronted her early in the morning in her home south of the center of town.
Delgado was an undocumented migrant from the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico, working at the Little America Hotel. When asked, she admitted to the ICE agents that she was in possession of a fake social security number. The agents declined to detain Delgado immediately, “for humanitarian purposes” – in other words, there was no one else who could take care of Miriam. They told her she would soon receive a “notice to appear” before a federal immigration judge, the beginning of removal proceedings.
There is little justice about Erica Delgado’s life and death. She moved to Cheyenne with her husband before her daughter was born—they had Miriam in the United States. Her husband reportedly abused her frequently, and she was relieved when he returned to the northern state of Chihuahua, Mexico. She lived for more than a decade in Cheyenne. Her daughter was a U.S. citizen, and had attended Afflerbach Elementary School since kindergarten.
Friends and sources say that after the ICE agents came, Delgado was terrified she would be ripped away from her daughter, and equally frightened that she might again be found by her abuser. Even though ICE isn’t supposed to prosecute victims of domestic abuse, given its track record, her fears were not unfounded.
A Crime of Moral Turpitude
Delgado was one of 35 current and former Little America employees—11 of whom were approached, all of them Latino—on the ICE list for the Cheyenne enforcement action on January 24. The regional director of communications for the agency told AlterNet in an email that the list “was generated following an audit of I-9 employment forms” at Little America. A number of employees stopped working at the hotel as a result of the action.
Two women and one man were arrested, and charged with misuse of social security numbers. This is classified as “ a crime involving moral turpitude,” a category that has been broadly applied, and is a fatal charge for immigration purposes: it serves as the grounds for immediate deportation.
All three of the detainees are parents of U.S. citizens. The man detained has a baby; one of the women has two children, the other three. The parents have been removed from their children since the end of January.
Under the law, if a person who has been living in the U.S. for at least 10 years can show that deportation would cause hardship for their children, they are eligible to apply for a cancellation of removal, to remain with their families. However, if any of these three are found guilty of “moral turpitude,” they would be subject to immediate deportation, and also exempt from applying for a cancellation of removal.
A guilty verdict means that they would live out Delgado’s worst fear—forced separation from their families.