A Durham high school student deported last month was allowed to stay in the United States for nearly two years under one federal policy and then removed after she turned 18 under another.
Ingrid Portillo fled her native El Salvador after her father was murdered and his killers threatened her life, U.S. Rep G.K. Butterfield has said. Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson, unsuccessfully sought a stay of deportation for Portillo and criticized her removal while her case was pending.
But a federal spokesman said an immigration court ordered the deportation and that Portillo, who would have been a senior this year at the School for Creative Studies in Durham County, received her due process.
Portillo entered the United States in the fall of 2014, when she encountered the U.S. Border Patrol, said Bryan Cox, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
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A final deportation order was issued July 21, 2015, and she was taken into custody May 17, 2016, after turning 18 in March. She was deported Sept. 23.
Cox could not comment on the initial decision to let Portillo stay.
But in general, he said, under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, unaccompanied minors from Central America who are detained at the border are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services. The department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement determines where to place them as they go through removal proceedings.
“Once you turn 18, you’re an adult,” Cox said. “The process is fundamentally different. ... It looks like she turned 18, and our officers went out looking for her subsequent to her 18th birthday.”
“There was no action in this case to rush this along,” he said.
Operation Border Guardian
Portillo’s family has declined to speak publicly or make photos available out of fear for her safety.
Cox, however, disputed her supporters’ claim that Portillo was taken into custody on her way to school.
Immigration agents apprehended her as she was getting into a car outside her home, not near her school, he said.
Under another federal policy called Operation Border Guardian – which targets those like Portillo who entered the country illegally after Jan. 1, 2014, and have since turned 18 – ICE agents will not apprehend people at a church, school, hospital or other sensitive location, except in an emergency.
“That’s not to say it couldn’t happen,” Cox said, “but there hasn’t been one anywhere in the United States in the past year.”
Operation Border Guardian had taken 336 young people into custody as of March, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s website.
In a statement, Secretary Jeh. C. Johnson has said the operation focuses on those who have been ordered removed by an immigration court “and have no pending appeal or claim of asylum or other relief.”
Portillo petitioned the Executive Office for Immigration Review in June and August to reopen her case after an immigration judge ordered her removed, office spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly wrote in a Thursday email from. Both motions were denied.
“On Sept. 15, the Board of Immigration Appeals received an appeal of the immigration judge’s denial of a motion to reopen, which remains pending,” the email continued.
That same day and a week later, the BIA denied subsequent motions to stay Portillo’s removal.
Butterfield criticized federal officials for removing Portillo while she had an appeal pending.
“I find her premature removal and failure of due process in her removal proceedings very troubling,” he wrote after her deportation. “The unwillingness of leadership officials within the Department of Homeland Security to exercise their discretion to pause Ingrid’s removal at least until the BIA had the opportunity to make its decision on her appeal is troubling.”
But Cox said even though Portillo requested an appeal the mere filing of the request does not automatically qualify her for a stay of deportation.
“There are fundamental distinctions between filing an appeal, the courts agreeing to hear your appeal and the courts ultimately deciding in your favor,” he said.
Is there room for debate over what the national policy should be? That’s a fair point of debate.
The federal government has three enforcement priorities for deporting those who have entered the country illegally, according to a 2014 Homeland Security memorandum.
▪ The first priority targets “aliens” deemed a national security threat, gang members and convicted felons, as well as those apprehended at the border.
▪ The second priority targets those convicted of three or more misdemeanors, or of a serious misdemeanor such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, driving under the influence or possession of a firearm, among other offenses.
▪ The “third and lowest priority for apprehension and removal,” according to the memorandum, targets those who have been issued a final order of removal.
Portillo fell under the first and third priorities, Cox said.
All told, ICE removed or returned 235,413 people in fiscal year 2015, 98 percent of whom fell into one or more of the three enforcement priorities, he said.
Cox said he does not think Butterfield was misrepresenting Portillo’s status when he said she had an appeal pending.
“This may be an innocent misunderstanding of what an appeal constitutes,” he said. “Immigration law’s really complex; there are numerous procedural motions that a person can make.”
“Simply filing (a request for) an appeal in no way means the court has taken up an appeal,” he said.
Efforts to reach Butterfield for comment on this point were unsuccessful.
But Cox said even if the Board of Immigration Appeals has not formally accepted an appeal, it can still issue a stay if it wants to postpone removal while it considers the request. That did not happen in Portillo’s case.
“There was never any kind of action taken by the appeals court to validate an appeal in this case,” Cox said.
“By denying the stay, the BIA allowed the removal to move forward and left the prior denial in effect,” he said.
Room for debate
Cox said people can argue whether Portillo and those like her should be deported.
“Is there room for debate over what the national policy should be?” he said. “That’s a fair point of debate. We are conducting enforcement in accordance with federal law.”
In August, Butterfield and Alerta Migratria, a Durham-based group that advocates for those seeking asylum, helped another Durham teenager, Wildin Acosta, win release from federal custody while his case is reopened.
Acosta had said he was fleeing gang violence in his native Honduras when he was stopped at the Texas border in 2014. He missed a court hearing in March 2015, and a deportation order was issued for him.
In July, the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed to reopen the case and Butterfield wrote to ICE, successfully urging his release from a detention center.
In Portillo’s case, Butterfield said the government has made a mistake.
“Ingrid returns to El Salvador where her father was murdered and she has received threats against her life,” he wrote. “I pray for Ingrid’s safety and for her family and friends in Durham that are dealing with this difficult decision.”
According to Alerta Migratoria, Portillo is now in hiding in El Salvador.
El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
In January the U.S. Department of State updated the travel warning for the country to notify U.S. citizens about travel safety concerns, according to a March report by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, a part of the department.
In 2015, authorities recorded 6,657 killings, a 69.8 percent percent increase from the 3,921 in 2014, according to the report, which blamed the rise on the end of a controversial 2012 truce between local gangs.
Rape remains a serious concern, the report said.