Maria Portugal is an undocumented immigrant. Three years ago, she applied for a special visa reserved for victims of violent crime. Her application is pending. She's lived in Wisconsin for over 20 years. Three of her five kids were born in the U.S.
But this month, her lawyer says, Immigration and Customs Enforcement called and told him that if Portugal’s estranged husband didn’t turn himself in to ICE, they would attempt to deport Portugal. Portugal said she hasn’t been able to sleep for days and is constantly nervous at work.
“For my kids, I don’t know what is going to happen. I don’t know if they’re going to detain me ... Where are they going to take me? Where are they going to take my kids? Am I going to be reunited with them later? I don’t know,” she said.
On Tuesday, advocates for undocumented immigrants called on ICE to provide public assurance that they will not detain Portugal and will expedite her visa process, known as a U visa. The press conference, hosted by immigrant rights organization Voces de la Frontera, also spoke against the separation of families more broadly.
“Forcibly separating families is inhumane, it’s injust and should be illegal regardless of immigration status, whether it happens at the border or it happens more locally here in Dane county,” said Karen Menendez Coller, executive director Centro Hispano.
According to Portugal’s lawyer, Matthew Gillhouse, ICE called him July 9, allegedly threatening to detain Portugal unless her husband turns himself in to ICE. Portugal, a Janesville resident, is estranged from her husband, and says she hasn’t seen him in over a year.
A statement from ICE denies that the agency uses retaliation tactics like this.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make. Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate,” the statement from ICE spokeswoman Nicole Alberico read.
On Tuesday, the crowd went still as Mario, Maria’s 12-year-old son, haltingly addressed the attendees and reporters.
“I could lose my mother to immigration or I could never see her again,” he said. “She’s a great mother and she didn’t do anything wrong. She just wanted to have a free life and be happy. She’s waiting for her visa, but it’s not coming.”
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, called on ICE Regional Director Ricardo Wong “to clearly and publicly state that ICE will stop threatening Maria and expedite her U visa application and make a public assurance that she will not be detained.”
If ICE doesn’t give that assurance, the Dane Sanctuary Coalition may eventually step in. The coalition is made up of a group of congregations around Dane County committed to providing housing for undocumented immigrants and refugees under imminent threat of deportation.
There are four sites willing to host an immigrant or refugee around Madison, as well as supporting congregations which would provide meals, transportation, advocacy and support.
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, president of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, said that Portugal has been exploring the option of sanctuary, and if that “becomes something she needs to do, we’ll decide which of the host sites is most appropriate for her.”
Waukesha resident Alysha Ferreyra was also at the press conference, calling for the release of her ex-husband Franco Ferreyra. Franco Ferreyra was arrested and detained at a routine ICE check-in in June.
He came to the U.S. from Argentina legally in 2001 at the age of 13 with the Visa Waiver Program, which expired just 90 days later. He had a citation for operating while under the influence in 2013, and received a citation for driving without a license a few months before his arrest, advocates said.
Ferrarya was the subject of a June rally, and Alysha talked about the difficulties her family has faced in the weeks since then, which she called “hell on earth.” They can only visit her ex-husband for half an hour on Saturdays. Her kids are devastated, and regularly wake up crying, she said.
“My kids cannot be productive members of society growing up if they hate law enforcement,” she said. “Everytime we go to the jail, they scream that they police officers, they hate jail … They don’t trust the government who’s supposed to protect us.”
In addition to asking for reassurance for Portugal, Neumann-Ortiz told the crowd to encourage Sen. Tammy Baldwin to “join progressive Democrats” and refuse to pass a September funding bill if it does not protect Dreamers and cut ICE funding.
Portugal has an open U visa application, which offers documentation for immigrants who are victims of qualifying violent crimes like domestic violence and sexual assault.
Portugal came to the U.S. with her first husband. She was a victim of domestic violence, and it took her years to get help and gather the courage to apply for a U visa, she said, through tears and with the assistance of an interpreter.
The U visa program aims to build safer communities by encouraging undocumented victims to report crime. It also aims to protect victims, who may otherwise be too afraid of deportation to bring in the police to stop cases of abuse.
“(Abusers) say, ‘If I call the cops on you, you’ll get deported, and you’ll lose your kids,’” said Rod Ritcherson, special assistant to the CEO at United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS), a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Milwaukee, last year. “Sometimes that is enough to keep one silent.”
Domestic Abuse Intervention Services staff gets at least one call every day from a victim looking for U visa assistance. Robin Dalton, an attorney at Rise Law Center in Madison, helps serve about 500 people a year, mostly about U visas, and Gillhouse’s office files over 100 U visa applications a year.
It currently takes around three years for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to open the case and decide whether to approve the visa. After that, it takes about 10 years on a waiting list to actually receive one. That’s due to a national cap for visas, set at 10,000 a year.
After three years, USCIS has not yet decided whether to approve Portugal's visa. Gillhouse said that Portugal’s U visa case is strong, and “she should be able to win her case without much difficulty … they just have to get to it.”
A 2011 ICE memo instructed agents not to “initiate removal proceedings” for victims or witnesses of crimes, “absent special circumstances or aggravating factors.” But even so, some victims have been deported while their U visa applications were pending.
Gillhouse he's been seeing more and more cases in the last six months where ICE has attempted to deport U visa applicants with a long history of living in the country and minor to no criminal history.
But he thinks public pressure can help cases like Portugal’s. Coller asked the audience to share the stories they heard and “join us in demanding action.”
Asked what it would mean for her to get a U visa, Portugal paused.
“Wow,” she said, before switching back to Spanish. “I would be able to work legally, and stay in this country for my children.”