Last month, as her father and brother were arrested by immigration officials, Daniela Vargas hid in a closet, "scared for [her] life." But yesterday, the 22-year-old bravely stood before a crowd in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, to share her story during a press conference about the impact of deportation on families. Moments after the conference ended, she was arrested.
"Today," she told the crowd on Wednesday, "my father and brother await deportation while I continue to fight this battle as a DREAMer to help contribute to this country, which I feel is very much my country."
Vargas, who said she dreams of becoming a university math professor, is undocumented. She came to the US from Argentina with her parents at the age of seven, putting her under the protection of the Deferred Arrival of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. DACA allows undocumented immigrants to stay legally in the US to study and work for two years, but according to the Associated Press, Vargas' DACA status had expired in November. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that she'd been able to come up with the $495 filing fee.
Despite the pending status of her application, an ICE spokesman described Vargas as an "unlawfully present Argentinian citizen." After the press conference, immigration agents pulled over the car Vargas was riding in and arrested her. "You know who we are, you know what we're here for," they reportedly told Vargas.
On Tuesday, Vargas told the Huffington Post in an email that she was afraid she was being watched.
Nathan Elmore, her attorney, said in an interview with the Guardian that Vargas isn't "a danger to society. She is a good person who can contribute, and she's the sort of person that the DACA legislation envisaged. It was correct for her to be under there, and we hope she can get under that statute again."
"But first," he said, "we have to get her out of jail."
Greisa Martinez is the advocacy director at United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization that advocates on behalf of undocumented people. She says Vargas' courageous act to appear in public and speak on her experience, merely a few weeks after her family members were detained, reveals the power of young people to be able to drive change. "That comes from not an absence of fear, but this overwhelming responsibility to protect our families and our communities that outweighs the fear."
She says she and fellow advocates are telling people protected under DACA to carry their information with them, due to a "concerning pattern" across the country of DREAMers being detained. President Trump's executive order, which changed how immigration laws are enforced in the US, puts everyone at risk and creates alarming ambiguities, she says. "What we're saying to people—what we've heard from ICE itself—is that DACA still stands, and their agents are supposed to respect the deferred action."
Undocumented immigrants all over have been on edge since Trump's executive order was signed last week, but this is the second time in as many weeks that Mississippi has been in the headlines because of controversial enforcement actions. On February 22, ICE agents raided eight Asian restaurants in central Mississippi and arrested 55 people on immigration-related charges.
"We're very upset and angered at what ICE is doing since Trump took over the presidency," says Bill Chandler, the executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, the nonprofit that organized yesterday's gathering in Jackson. "They have been like mad dogs released from their leashes, running around and arresting people."
The press conference, Chandler explains, was an opportunity to talk about issues facing the immigrant community, including race relations, the status of Latino businesses, and also Mississippi House Bill 600, which, if passed, would prevent undocumented students from attending public colleges or universities in the state.
Vargas's arrest "was a real shock to people," he adds—not only those in the immigrant community, but to other groups as well. An online petition calling for her release has already garnered more than 2,000 signatures at press time.