Morena Vasquez called Georgia her home for 23 years after escaping the violence and murder in El Salvador.
A mother to six children, Morena, 38, held two jobs. She moved her family from a trailer into a five-bedroom rental home after her husband – a Mexico native – was deported.
Through it all, she remained happy, and was grateful that she no longer lived in fear.
One evening, though, the life she loved, the life she had so preciously crafted, irrevocably changed.
In February 2017, a co-worker near one of the offices she cleaned in Atlanta asked her to drop off a set of keys. Having never been able to obtain a driver’s license under Georgia state law, Morena was hesitant, but felt that dropping off the keys was her responsibility. It was only a 15-minute errand, she thought.
Almost immediately after she started driving, Morena saw the flashing blue lights of a police vehicle in her rearview mirror. Panicked, she decided to speed up, but quickly changed her mind.
She figured there was not much to fear. She had been pulled over before, but the consequences were minor. Was anything terrible really going to happen?
Yes. This time, it was.
Morena was arrested, and police took her to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, who sent her to Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, far away from her new home in Rome. It was only the beginning of her long battle with ICE.
On the long trip to the detention center, she was hysterical, desperate. Her youngest children were at home asleep, under the care of her 17-year-old daughter. Who would wake them up, cook them breakfast? Who would provide for them while she was away?
Once she reached Ocilla, ICE officers decided against releasing her on bond, and Morena remained behind bars while awaiting the outcome of her deportation proceedings. The road to her release would prove taxing, leaving Morena feeling hopeless, lonely and worried.
While inside the crowded detention center, she constantly asked for bond but was repeatedly denied. Even when a judge eventually decided she had the right to permanently stay in the U.S. legally, ICE fought the decision. Immigration officials had long ago determined she was a flight risk because she had failed to appear in court for traffic charges.
With each denial, her hope continued to sink. She missed her children. She missed her home.
Morena remained locked up – separated from her family, who cried and begged for her return. Family members even wrote letters to the immigration court, pleading for her to be allowed to come home.
Morena lost hope. She couldn’t give up and return to El Salvador. That was not an option. Her sister had been murdered by gangs there, and in a letter to Morena’s judge, her mother wrote, “The situation here is horrible. I cannot feed or look after my daughter or grandchildren.”
After more hearings, she was sent back to detention. It was becoming too much to bear.
Luckily, and without Morena knowing it, help was on the way.
Her eldest daughter’s school teachers were aware of Morena’s situation. The school helped to contact the SPLC, and Morena received legal counsel from the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), an SPLC project that enlists and trains volunteer lawyers to provide free legal representation to detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast.
Morena’s lawyer, SIFI Senior Lead Attorney Elizabeth Matherne, got to work. She reminded the judge that just five months earlier, he had granted Morena’s request to remain in the country legally.
“Morena is like thousands of other women who bring their children to the U.S. in order to protect them from violence and death in their home countries, and who become productive members of society after they arrive here,” Matherne said. “Under the current administration’s immigration dragnet, however, more and more hardworking people like Morena are seeing their rights trampled as the government uses increasingly aggressive tactics to remove them from the country. We at SIFI are here to make sure the government respects all of their rights – including their right to legal representation – which greatly increases their chances of being successful in their efforts to stay in the country legally.”
As Matherne argued the case for her client, she got Morena’s bond lowered to just $1,500 – the lowest amount of bond allowed. Family members raced to secure the funds that day. A year after her arrest, she was finally released and started on her path toward remaining in the U.S.
However, remaining in detention for such a long time caused Morena's situation to grow dimmer. She lost her main job cleaning offices, as well as her other job teaching Spanish to preschoolers. She lost the five-bedroom house she had rented.
What’s more, at the time of her arrest, Morena’s children – all of whom are U.S. citizens – were forced to relocate in the middle of the school year. They moved close to their grandfather, in a town far away from Ocilla.
On that fateful night last year, Morena did not know that one simple errand for a friend could have such dire consequences. She didn’t know how quickly a happy life could turn into one of misery.
For more information, read the investigative report by Reuters.