About a year ago in October 2017, Melvin Griselda Cruz-Lopez dropped her daughter off for a visit with her father before heading out to work.
But she didn’t make it.
Before she could get there, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) intercepted her. Within a month, Griselda was in El Salvador, her country of origin. Griselda’s daughter, Samantha, remained in the United States, beginning what has been this mother and daughter’s tragic, year-long story of family separation.
Almost immediately upon Griselda’s return to El Salvador, she was targeted and physically attacked by local gang members, twice. Her safety, however, was never the only concern on Griselda’s mind. When Griselda was separated from her daughter, Samantha was left with her father: the same man that Grassroots Leadership, the immigrant rights advocacy organization working alongside Griselda’s attorneys to support Griselda, suspects called ICE in the first place.
Griselda told Neta that her ex-husband has a pattern of abusive behavior towards her, which includes pushing her down the stairs and becoming physically aggressive against Griselda, even when Samantha is there.
Whenever Griselda and Samantha talked, the conversations she had with her daughter only served to sink her heart.
“Me dan bien duro…ya no quiero ir más [con papá] porque ellos me pegan bien duro,” Samantha can be heard telling her mother on a phone-recording that Griselda shared with Neta. They hit me hard…I don’t want to go with my dad because they hit me really hard.
It was too much for Griselda to take. For the safety of her daughter and her own, she made the decision when she felt she had no other option: to leave her country to return to the United States and, most importantly, her daughter. Unfortunately, upon attempting to make her way to her daughter, she was arrested by immigration authorities in Hidalgo in January 2018.
She’s been detained since then, fearing once again, for the safety of her daughter and herself.
Over the phone, Griselda said that her ex-husband limits when she and Samantha can talk. When she is able to hear from her, she feels her daughter different, changed, more reserved.
“Ya ella no habla conmigo como antes. Al principio ella me decía, ‘Mami, yo te quiero mucho, hasta el cielo y yo quiero que vengas,” Griselda shared. She doesn’t want to talk to me like before. In the beginning, she would say, ‘Mommy, I love you so much, to the sky and back. I want you to come.
In her innocence, Samantha would even cook up solutions with her mother. “Mami yo se que la policía te ha llevado pero yo tengo muchos billetes en un bote para pagarle a la policía y que suelte,” Griselda remembers her daughter once telling her. Mommy, I know the police took you but I have lots of bills in a can to pay the police so that they can let you go.
Now she only gets one-word answers. She’s afraid her father might be pushing Samantha away from her. Between the tight-lipped conversations with her daughter and the little snippets she’s able to get from friends and families, Griselda’s gut tells her something is not right.
She learned, for example, that her daughter recently cut her own hair, which makes her wonder and question whether anyone around Samantha is thinking about those kinds of things, or whether her daughter is now in a situation where she has to take such matters into her own hands.
The well-being and safety of Samantha is a concern that Griselda’s former and current attorney, Whitney Drake and Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, say has been shared and reiterated with ICE in two separate requests to have Griselda released from detention.
“We gave them phone message recording of what appeared to be situations of where the US citizen daughter is being yelled at by the father and being hit by the father and other family members,” Drake said. “Her daughter also has special medical needs due to a kidney infection and Melvin Griselda is concerned that she isn’t receiving medical care. They were aware of concerns about [Samantha’s] health and her physical well being.”
In both instances, ICE has denied the requests. As far as the potential abuse goes, ICE only “suggested that we contact the Illinois Department of Children and Family services,” Drake said.
Following the denial of her requests, Griselda made the decision to go public with her case. Since then, Grassroots Leadership has led an online petition to ICE demanding her release, bringing public attention to Griselda’s case. They’ve also garnered the support and attention of elected officials.
When Griselda was still at the Don T. Hutto Family Detention Center in Taylor, the Mayor of Taylor inquired about visiting her. Shortly after, however, Griselda was transferred in the middle of the night to the Laredo Detention Center, an act which Griselda’s supporters and advocates have labeled as an act of retaliation meant to isolate her from her support.
“ICE’s tactics of lies and retaliation have been exposed. Instead of releasing this mother they transferred her away to silence her voice,” said Sofia Casini, immigration organizer at Grassroots Leadership. “But Griselda has a whole community behind her pushing for her release who are calling on their local elected leaders to do everything in their power to free her.”
Now, more than nine months after Griselda entered ICE custody, her attorneys say she is facing constant pressure and threats of imminent deportation. Earlier this week, for example, she was told that we would be deported Wednesday morning.
It’s a threat that baffled Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, Griselda’s current attorney, who had filed an appeal on a withholding of removal request on behalf of Griselda.
“It’s one of two things,” she said. “Either [they were] retaliating against her for the media attention and the congressional inquiries she’s received. Or [they were] unaware that she [had] an appeal pending which is equally problematic,” Lincoln-Goldfinch told Neta. According to Lincoln-Goldfinch, while her request remains pending ICE can’t legally deport Griselda. Still, she says there’s a difference between what ICE is legally allowed to do versus what they actually do in practice.
Earlier this year in August, for example, ICE deported a mother and her child before they had the opportunity to attend a court hearing and complete their legal process. An infuriated federal judge compelled the government to turn back the plane or threatened to have Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Department of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen, and other senior DHS officials in contempt.
For Emma Guevara, originally from the Rio Grande Valley but now working with Grassroots Leadership, Griselda’s case shows that family separations are far from over. She called on members of the Rio Grande Valley community for support in stopping Griselda’s deportation and reuniting mother and daughter.
“Living on the border you understand this type of family separation better than anyone else because it’s so common….Regardless of what papers you have, your family is still your family and you deserve to be with them regardless of where you’re born. The Valley definitely has the empathy and the capacity to help,” Guevara said.
The regional ICE office in charge of deciding Griselda’s fate is the San Antonio Regional ICE Office, the same office with jurisdiction over the Rio Grande Valley. According to Guevara, the San Antonio ICE office has a pattern of disregard that includes transferring people to Laredo and making them sign deportation forms without telling explaining to detainees what the form is.
While some children torn from their parents at the border this summer remain separated from them due to what ICE describes as safety concerns for the child, Griselda is doing everything that she can to reunite with her child, who she has expressed she fears may be in harm. It’s a contradiction advocates like Guevara simply cannot comprehend.
“They’re looking this family in the eye and saying ‘no we can’t get this little girl out of this abusive situation because her mom doesn’t have the right paper,’” Guevara said.
For Goldfinch-Lincoln, there’s “just no question about what ICE should be doing.”
“Griselda is not a danger to the community. She’s not a flight risk. This prolonged detention is unnecessary. There’s a little girl who is a US citizen who is in danger. The choice is clear about what the right decision is in terms of Griselda’s release,” she insisted.
In a written statement, ICE categorized allegations of retaliation against Griselda as “without merit” and said that “she remains in ICE custody pending the disposition of her immigration case with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).”