Daniela Doerr’s life changed when she removed the blanket covering her stillborn conjoined twins at the hospital.
Thirteen years later, the image is still etched in her memory. Doerr, 31, also suffered two miscarriages in 2006. She points to the tragedies as the moment her life took a dramatic turn for the worse, sending her down a path that would ultimately lead to an immigrant prison.
Doerr didn’t know how to cope with the deaths of her four children, and she turned to marijuana. By August 2018, Doerr, who was born in Germany but holds a green card, was sentenced to one year of probation for possession of marijuana.
She was later arrested for being an accessory to shoplifting. When taken to a county jail in Cartersville, Georgia, she was told that due to her criminal history, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had a “hold” on her. On May 1, 2019, Doerr was sent to the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia.
“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Doerr said in October. “It was frustrating, to say the least. The situation was nerve-wracking. Everyone in my family is a U.S. citizen. I was worried they would deport me to Germany, and I know nothing about Germany.”
But there was hope: She was facing removal due to a legal technicality. The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that provides pro bono legal services to those facing removal proceedings in the Deep South – took her case and won her release.
‘The one loophole that denied me everything’
In addition, due to circumstances beyond her control, Doerr was unable to fulfill a legal requirement that would have granted her U.S. citizenship while in Germany. It’s not only why she’s a green card holder, but why her mistakes put her at risk of being removed from the United States.
“It was frustrating,” Doerr said. “It’s an unjust technicality.”
Her attorney, however, had a plan that could keep her in the United States.
“I determined that Daniela was eligible for cancellation of removal for lawful permanent residents,” said Sophia Genovese, a SIFI attorney. “In order to successfully obtain cancellation of removal for Daniela, we needed to show that she had been in the U.S. at least seven years, five of which needed to be as a lawful permanent resident, as well as demonstrate that she hadn’t been convicted of any aggravated felonies.”
But even if Doerr met these requirements, it wasn’t guaranteed a judge would allow her to stay. “Cancellation of removal is highly discretionary,” Genovese said of this path known as 42A eligibility.
During her time in detention, Doerr said she often prayed and read the Bible, finding comfort in the verses of Psalms, chapter 91: “I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.”
But detention tested her limits. Doerr was separated from her daughter, now 4, who has autism. “I questioned my faith more than once, and questioned everything about life,” she said. “My daughter is my world, my other half. Being apart from her, I would cry. Crying was like my therapy.”
At the immigrant prison, Doerr slept on a concrete slab covered with a half-inch green mat. She shared a room with three other women, all of whom had to share a sink, a toilet and shower.
“There’s no privacy,” she said. “There was a light in the middle of the room that was never turned off completely. It was hard to sleep, and there’s not a single moment of quietness, not a single moment to yourself.”
Doerr also said that the line between being a convicted criminal serving time and a person detained by ICE was often blurred.
“It’s incredibly scary to have no control – not an inch or a centimeter – over your life, when you’re at the mercy of everybody else, the guards,” she said. “The fact that we’re not inmates gets forgotten sometimes.”
That certainly seemed to be the case when Doerr needed oral surgery while detained. She was driven to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta – all while shackled and chained at the waist during the three-hour trip.
“They even did the surgery while I was shackled,” she said.
As for her daily routine at the immigrant prison, Doerr spent her time reading, sleeping and eating – nothing more.
“There were times when I wondered if it would ever end,” she said. “Sometimes I thought, ‘Just send me back to Germany, I don’t care.’ Of course, I didn’t want to be deported. But when people go to jail or prison, they know there’s an endgame. Even those with life sentences, they know the bottom line, they know they won’t leave. But I didn’t know anything, which was very depressing.”
Meanwhile, Genovese was working to secure Doerr’s release.
“Daniela and I needed to prepare strong testimony. We talked about how Daniela was ready to take responsibility for her actions and move forward in order to create happy lives for her and her daughter,” Genovese said.
The attorney spent almost five months preparing the case. When speaking with Doerr, the two would often cry and sometimes laugh together, Genovese said. Their preparation paid off. Doerr was freed from detention and no longer faces removal.
“I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried when the judge ruled in her favor,” Genovese said. “Daniela is brilliant, and there’s no doubt that the U.S. is stronger and better with her here.”
After Doerr’s release, her stepfather drove from Tennessee in his truck to pick her up.
“It was a weird feeling to stick my hand through the truck window and not feel bars or grates,” Doerr said. “It was surreal and freeing. In a situation like this, where there’s so many variables and you know nothing until the last moment, it humbles you and makes you truly realize you don’t get through anything by yourself. It’s all down to God.”
Less than a month after her release, Doerr had a job at a fast-food restaurant, found stable housing, got her driver’s license back and bought a car. She also finally got the chance to hug her daughter and be a mother again.
“This experience made me realize how valuable the smaller things in life are, what we take for granted. My advice to others is to look around at what you have and be thankful, because it could be so, so much worse.”
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