I meet Rosa at Peet’s Coffee and we cross the street to the federal building together, steeling ourselves against a heavy San Francisco wind, and our task: She needs her ankle monitor removed, because she has a plane ticket to Las Vegas to reunite with her family—tomorrow. I’m her lawyer, but strictly speaking, there’s nothing law-related about our project today. She’s already been to this building a handful of times, but the officers keep sending her away. She needs help.
At the ICE window, one officer scolds us for standing too close. Another takes Rosa’s papers and, seeing that she doesn’t have an appointment, asks, “Why are you here?” I explain that she has a grant of relief under the Convention Against Torture, so she has legal status in the US, and she would like her ankle monitor removed. He tells us to wait, and we take a seat on some nearby chairs. “Not there!” he yells.
While we wait, Rosa shows me photos of her children and grandchildren, all US citizens. Her older son is in college; he has struggled with depression since they have been apart, but they are both determined he will get a college degree. Her daughter has two babies; the younger is just five months old, born while Rosa was in detention, and has never met her grandmother. Rosa’s youngest son is a year ahead of his age in high school. He applied and was admitted to the bioscience magnet school while his mother was detained. She is so proud of them, so in love with them, even the baby she has never held. “I just want to eat him up,” she says. “Isn’t that crazy, how we want to eat our babies?”
Rosa has lived in the United States for almost thirty years. She came here from Mexico, fleeing child abuse and domestic violence. In Las Vegas, she started and ran her own cleaning business, owned a home, and was beloved in her community. She was never rich, she told me, but she shared what she had. She made Thanksgiving meals for people who had nowhere to go and bought and wrapped Christmas presents for children who would otherwise receive nothing. Her children tell her she is strange; she has such a warm heart. She is compelled to care for those in need.
Two years ago, when Rosa tried to renew her driver license, a DMV employee threatened to call the police if she did not provide a social security number. After that, ICE swiftly deported her. She returned to Mexico, to the home where her mother had abused her throughout her childhood; where she had studied law and art until she quit to escape her mother’s house; where she had returned, briefly, after leaving an abusive ex-husband. Five days after she was deported to Mexico, her violent ex-partner texted her, saying that he knew where she was and was on his way to find her.
Rosa came back to the United States and requested asylum at the border. She was placed into detention and removal proceedings. She won asylum, but DHS appealed the grant. The day Rosa signed our retainer for the habeas corpus petition to seek her release, she began to crochet something new: a large bag, in yellow yarn. Her friends in detention teased her about its size, but she said, “I’m going to need a big bag to carry all my stuff. I’m getting out soon.” And she did. Fifteen months after presenting herself at the border, she was released from detention with an electronic monitoring device wrapped around her ankle. Her sponsor welcomed her to Oakland.
Her journey wasn’t over. Eager to go home to Las Vegas, she wanted her ankle monitor taken off before she moved. ICE refused, because they could: There are no clear rules governing who must wear an ankle monitor or when it must be removed. And so here we are at the federal building, hoping that my suit and business card will make a difference.
We wait in the windowless waiting room, we get called back, I explain Rosa’s status again. She has relief under the UN Convention Against Torture. The government has missed the window to appeal. She has a plane ticket for tomorrow. She has a job lined up in Las Vegas, starting Tuesday, working for someone who used to work for her. We get sent back to wait. We get called again, and the door slams in our faces as we reach it. We knock; no one answers. We sit and wait. Four hours pass. We’ve become a good-natured joke among the other folks in the waiting room. I suggest to Rosa that it doesn’t help that I’m here. She shakes her head emphatically. “This is so much better than how they usually treat me,” she says.
Then we get called back again. The officer seats Rosa in a chair in a hallway, no privacy, and reviews the usual check-in paperwork with her. “Sign here,” he says. She does. He hands her the papers and turns to walk away. Her hands grip the arms of the chair and her eyes fill with tears. “He didn’t take it,” she whispers. But the officer stops at a metal cabinet. He takes out latex gloves and heavy-duty scissors. He returns to Rosa, and without a word, kneels before her and cuts away her ankle monitor. Instantly, her whole body relaxes. Her face breaks into a huge grin. “I’m free,” she says.
On the way out of the building, she suddenly grabs me and pulls me into a corridor. She’s trembling, staring at a uniformed officer with a gun strapped to his chest. “He was the one who put me in handcuffs for transport when I was detained,” she says, terrified. The Las Vegas ICE is the same place where she was held for deportation to Mexico two years ago. Her mandated check-in there is scheduled for less than a week from now. Rosa knows they can give her a new ankle monitor if they decide she’s a flight risk, or just if they feel like it. She’s scared, but she takes a deep breath and throws her shoulders back, and walks out of the building where she has fought so many battles. Once we’re outside, she shivers, but now it’s just from the San Francisco cold. She’s on her way to Las Vegas and the heat she loves, her job, her beloved family, her home.
She arrives, relieved and grateful, but Las Vegas isn’t easy. Rosa’s family is still reeling from the shock of her deportation and long detention. She works long night hours as a janitor, working for a cleaning business like the one she used to own and run herself. When the pandemic sets in, she is deemed an essential worker and sent to clean buildings with minimal supplies and no protection. She has no health insurance.
Late one afternoon, I call to help her renew her work permit. Her voice lacks its usual lilt; she has a sore throat. “It’s nothing serious,” she hopes. She sounds exhausted and worried, but determined, as usual. She asks about the appeal to restore her asylum status, which would let her stay in the US permanently, with her family. The briefing is done; now we wait. While we do, the Trump administration is working to change the rules on asylum before November’s election. If the rules are finalized, Rosa’s chances at asylum will be ruined. Other proposed rules would allow the government to send Rosa—despite her legal status as a torture survivor—to another country, where she will have no history, no family, no connections.
In the meantime, Rosa applies for a position as an art teacher, but her diploma is missing—among a sheaf of papers swiped by a landlord—and her university in Mexico has closed for public health reasons. Without the document, there will be no job. I scour my files in case she gave me a copy years ago, looking as always for a single sheet of paper that can change a life.
Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the person involved.