At 3.30am last Thursday, US immigration agents removed dozens of El Salvadoran women and kids from a South Texas detention center and loaded them onto a plane to be deported. As their flight departed San Antonio, Isamar Sanchez and her seven-year-old daughter wept, fearing what would happen after they returned to their gang-ravaged homeland.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents had raided the family's Virginia home just days earlier, taking the pair into custody as part of a broader roundup of 121 Central American mothers and children who entered the country illegally. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, claimed the families had exhausted all legal options to remain in the US and would be deported immediately.
But when the jet carrying Sanchez and her daughter touched down in Laredo, Texas, for a brief layover before continuing south, the 23-year-old mother suddenly heard her name.
"Isamar, get off!" a DHS agent commanded. "We're taking you back where you were."
The agent ordered two other families picked up in the raids to deplane as well. He explained that DHS had been mistaken — the families actually had one more chance to stay in the US.
"I cried again, but this time with a hope I could go back to where I was before, to live with my boyfriend in Virginia," Sanchez told VICE News in a phone interview from South Texas Residential Facility, where she awaits further updates on her case. "It's been a total nightmare for us."
Sanchez and her daughter are now being allowed to stay in the US indefinitely. After initially stating otherwise, the government now admits they may qualify for asylum, the protection granted to individuals that have fled persecution in their home country. The Board of Immigration Appeals granted stays of deportation for 12 families, as the court determines whether the families can now file appeals on their asylum decisions.
The vast majority of families targeted in the recent ICE raids were denied legal counsel, because the fact that undocumented immigrants have been accused of violating civil law means they are not guaranteed the right to an attorney (unlike defendants in criminal cases.) Those like Sanchez, who could afford a lawyer or had one provided to them by legal aid groups, had a much better chance of avoiding deportation, said attorney Ian Philabaum, who has secured stays for 12 families.
'It's been a total nightmare for us.'
"These people have legitimate fears of returning home and had inadequate legal representation while proceeding with their asylum claims," said Philabaum, one of a handful of pro bono attorneys that serve the South Texas Residential Facility, where DHS agents took all detainees from the recent raids to await deportation.
"Staff in the facility have been telling all the women here they have no legal recourse," Philabaum said. "Meanwhile, we're scrambling to find these women to see if they want to continue fighting. For 100 percent of the women we've talked to, there have been claims of fear and due process issues."
Immigrant advocates and Democrats in Congress have said the hasty deportation reversals revealed dangerous flaws with the DHS raids, which they said targeted vulnerable refugees from Central American nations plagued by gang violence. On Tuesday, 146 House Democrats sent a letter to the Obama administration demanding a halt to the deportations.
"We strongly condemn DHS' recent enforcement operation targeting refugee mothers and children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala," the letter said, claiming the operation had generated "widespread fear" in immigrant communities and violated the legal rights of apprehended families. "This operation should be immediately suspended until we can ensure no mother or child would be sent back to a country where they would face persecution, torture or death."
At least 83 people deported to the Northern Triangle — the Central American region that includes El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — have been murdered between January 2014 and October 2015 after being returned to their home countries, according to a study of local newspaper reports conducted by Elizabeth Kennedy, a social scientist at San Diego State University.
Watch the VICE News documentary Gangs of El Salvador:
The January raids by DHS came in response to a continued surge of Central Americans attempting to cross the US border after traveling through Mexico. New data released by the US Border Patrol on Tuesday showed a 187 percent spike over the last three months in the number of migrant families caught attempting to the US. According to the latest stats, there were 21,469 "Family Unit Apprehensions" at southwest border in the 2016 fiscal year, compared to 7,468 the previous year.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has said the raids are an attempt to deter migrants from fleeing their homeland and attempting to enter the US illegally. "As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values," Johnson said in a statement on January 4.
The letter from House Democrats lambasted the Obama administration for taking a heavy-handed approach to the problem, rather than attempting to find a comprehensive solution. The US has also pushed Mexico to tighten its southern border in order to staunch the northward flow of migrants.
"Your administration has focused on the Central American refugee situation with an emphasis on deterrence rather than the need for a regional refugee solution," the letter said. "This strategy has proven to be ineffective… desperate mothers and children will continue to flee to the US to seek protection, regardless of the deterrent actions taken by this administration."
A White House spokesman did not immediately return emails requesting comment on the letter.
Nearly two-thirds of the people detained in the raids have already been returned to the Northern Triangle. So far, 77 of the 121 detained individuals have been deported, ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea told VICE News.
One of those individuals, Carol Ocampo Martinez, spoke to VICE News on the phone two days after she and her 11-year-old daughter landed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the city with the world's highest murder rate. Martinez and her attorney claimed that ICE agents never gave her a final deportation order, so she had no time to prepare for her return.
"Carol went to all her immigration check-ins and at her last check-in she applied for a stay of removal from deportation," Martinez's lawyer Stephanie Nodine said. "The deportation officer said she didn't need to return to court, and that they'd send a letter with the decision. If a stay is denied normally you receive a bag and baggage letter that you need to get your flights booked and pack."
"We both feel frustrated that she was targeted because she was cooperating — she was low hanging fruit, an easy arrest," the attorney added.
'She was low hanging fruit, an easy arrest.'
In most deportation cases, individuals slated for imminent removal will receive what's known as a "bag and baggage" letter, a message that says when and where they should report and how much luggage they're allowed to bring with them. Martinez says she never got one of those letters — and the next thing she knew, immigration agents were banging on her door in Orangeburg, South Carolina at 8am on January 2. She was getting ready to leave for her job at a Mexican restaurant and her child was sleeping.
"They arrived out of nowhere and told me we couldn't bring any clothes with us, so I came back to Honduras with nothing," Martinez, 37, said. "I was in my uniform for work and they said I had to change clothes in front of them — I had to take off all my clothing and strip to only my underwear so they could make sure I didn't have arms. They threatened to put handcuffs on me and I said, 'No, I'm not trying to escape, it would be a trauma for my daughter.'"
In South Texas Residential Facility, Martinez alleged that officers used intimidation to convince her to sign her deportation papers. "They said if I didn't sign them I'd spend five years in prison," she said.
An ICE spokesman denied many of Martinez's allegations about her treatment. The spokesman said Martinez was not threatened while in custody, was given time to pack a travel bag, and was never forced to strip to her underwear.
Elzea also maintained that all individuals detained in the raids had ample opportunity to present their claims. "These enforcement actions targeted adults and their children who were subject to final orders of removal, who had an opportunity to present their claims to an immigration judge," the ICE spokeswoman said.
Martinez signed the document, effectively waiving her legal rights, and she was put on a flight along with 36 other Hondurans who were apprehended in the raids.
"We were all crying, we didn't want to return — I don't go out on the street here," Martinez said. She says she fled Honduras in May 2014 after gang members forced her to hand over her daily wages from her factory job, then murdered one her colleagues, a killing she witnessed.
Martinez is now staying with her brother in San Pedro Sula. She insisted that if DHS warned her that she was going to be deported, she would have complied and showed up for her flight home voluntarily.
"They should have given me an order to prepare psychologically — at the least for me to save up money to find a home," she said.
Johnson, the Homeland Security, defended the ICE raids in his statement earlier this month.
"I know there are many who loudly condemn our enforcement efforts as far too harsh, while there will be others who say these actions don't go far enough," he said. "I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause. But, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities. At all times, we endeavor to do this consistent with American values, and basic principles of decency, fairness, and humanity.
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman