In Aftermath of ICE Operation, Wyoming Woman Burns Herself and Her Daughter to Death

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.

The three would otherwise not meet the enforcement priorities stated by ICE. A March 2, 2011 ICE memo issued by Morton (echoing a 2010 memo with similar content) outlines ICE’s highest priorities in immigration enforcement, the first and most important of which is detaining “Aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety.” This includes aggravated felonies (itself a broad and expanding category of crimes).

So though the three detainees are not ICE’s number-one priority, they have been criminalized by ICE, and turned into a priority in the eyes of the federal government.

Moreover, the ICE enforcement in Cheyenne will serve to deter other undocumented people in Wyoming from attempting to secure jobs. The catch-22 is that having a SSN number is required in order to obtain a job—and pay state and federal taxes—but an undocumented migrant in possession of a falsified number is subject to immediate deportation, regardless of criminal history and family life.

In prosecuting these individuals, ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cheyenne reveal their disposition against ICE’s own stated priorities—their prosecutorial discretion has been thrown to the wind as they invest time and energy pursuing non-violent migrants who have been in the U.S. for years. This is unsurprising, given the total lack of enforcement, review capacity, and implementation ability ICE has over its own stated priorities, but it still smacks of foul intention.

Stories from the Cheyenne ICE Enforcement

The panic Delgado felt during the January operation also plagued the other undocumented men and women who encountered ICE agents.

Ten agents divided into two teams, and, accompanied by three deputies from the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department, approached the homes of 11 people on the list. Eyewitnesses report that the agents were intimidating and abusive, pounding on the windows and doors of their homes, yelling at the men and women. They conducted the door-to-door investigation with quite a bit of force.

According to accounts, one ICE interaction involved an 8-year-old boy, alone in his house, who opened the door to the agents. They stormed in, looking through the house for his mother. She had left for work, and he was waiting for a family friend to take him to school.

Eyewitnesses describe similar patterns in the three arrests.

After detaining one woman, ICE agents reportedly tried to make her husband sign a paper authorizing their entrance and search of the premises. “Pero si ya están adentro” ["but you’re already inside"], he pointed out to them. The agents left, taking the unsigned papers and his wife.

After arresting her husband at their home, agents reportedly told the wife of the detained man she had three weeks to get out of Cheyenne. According to his lawyer, the wife has since moved to Texas.

In another instance, the agents did not allow a woman to shut the door in order to change. Reports indicate that the agents turned their backs while she dressed, and then arrested her.

The Sheriff’s Office denies the forceful conduct depicted in eyewitness accounts. The sheriff is quoted as saying “The ICE agents went out of their way to ensure that they developed a positive rapport with the children in each of the homes visited. Our deputies would not have engaged in any of the tactics mentioned.”

Searching for Accountability

The ICE action in Cheyenne has received a pass in area media. The official ICE statement about Erica Delgado says that agents “contacted” Delgado on January 24 as a part of “an ongoing investigation into counterfeit identity documents in the Cheyenne, Wyo., area.”

This explains hardly anything. In a highly conservative state where undocumented men and women make up an estimated 1.5% of the workforce, or less than 10,000 people, there have been few outlets that criticize, or even bring attention to ICE's pursuit of prosecution against the three non-violent, low-priority undocumented individuals—let alone examine Delgado’s death as a result of the agency's enforcement.

Most state and regional news media have reported only the details of the fire: that the door was bolted shut from the inside; that burn marks indicated that gasoline Delgado purchased at a local convenience store had been poured over the floor of the house; that Erica Delgado was found dead by the door, and her daughter in her room. With a notable exception in a Cheyenne columnist’s four-part series on the ICE operation, local and regional media have refused to cover the ICE angle.

Similar to the media’s lack of scrutiny of the case of Brisenia Flores—a nine-year-old girl killed in Arizona by the militaristic, anti-Hispanic-immigration group, the Minutemen—most major outlets have been quiet regarding Delgado and ICE.

Community Response

In the aftermath of the crackdown, the local Latino community and its allies have rallied in solidarity with the families of those targeted or interred at the federal detention center in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska.

The Universalist Unitarian Church (UUC) of Cheyenne, headed by Reverend Dana Lightsey, has held a series of fora, including a “Know Your Rights” event that pulled in around 50 attendants, and an Immigration 101 forum for community members unfamiliar with the issue who want to educate themselves. The UUC has collected food and money donations for the families of those who lost their jobs as a consequence of the enforcement, or are detained in Scotts Bluff. They are working in conjunction with regional groups such as the American Friends Service Committee to strengthen the local response.

On March 3, community volunteers led by Carol Pascal organized a ride to the detention center for the children of the detained, the first time since January that the kids had seen their mothers. The mothers were allowed to talk with their children over a video screen at the federal detention center. 

The emerging, volunteer-driven coalition of organized women and men who have responded to the ICE operation places a strong emphasis on getting the charges dismissed for the three who have been detained. They have encouraged the Cheyenne community to call the U.S. Attorney Christopher Crofts’s office to demand the charges against Irma A., Irma M., and Luis S. dropped, and the families reunited.

Meanwhile, Erica Delgado and Miriam Ortiz continue to be remembered.  

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