Immigration officials grant Utah sisters deportation reprieve
Three sisters who tearfully begged for a chance to go before a judge to avoid deportation within days were granted something beyond what they imagined.
A yearlong stay in Utah, courtesy of the federal government.
"Last night was the first night I've slept all night," Barbara Avelar said Wednesday. "I just wasn't sure. It's so hard to believe."
Avelar and her two sisters Laura and Silvia were granted a rare deferred action from U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) authorities, the agency confirmed Wednesday.
The sisters' case rose to prominence Monday when the sisters told their story publicly in front of LDS Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The three, all Mormon, said they were hoping for a miracle to stave off the final order of deportation set for June 15.
Utah Republican Party Central Committee member Laura Warburton read about their story in The Salt Lake Tribune and forwarded it to Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, asking if there was anything he could do on their behalf.
Shurtleff decided he would write a personal email to ICE Director John Morton something he said he has never done before.
"I didn't know if this was too late in the game," Shurtleff said. "I wanted to be clear to John that this wasn't something I was going to be calling on every day. I was careful to say I didn't expect anything and apologized if this was out of order but maybe he could do something."
When asked if Shurtleff's action spurred the review, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice acknowledged the correspondence between the attorney general and Morton but said the review was a re-evaluation of the case, "not [based] on other factors."
She said the deferred action was good for one year.
"At the end of that time frame, ICE will re-evaluate their cases to determine appropriate next steps," Kice said.
At the end of the year, each of the sisters will have to obtain a new deferred action order.
Silvia Avelar said the sisters' attorney was still attempting to iron out the details with ICE officials.
But the 26-year-old said she also felt some relief that the June 15 deportation deadline was withdrawn.
"I don't have to worry about what I'm going to do with my kids take them to Mexico or not," she said.
Their story in the United States began in 1993, when they arrived in Utah on tourist visas as 13-, 10- and 8-year-old girls. But they overstayed their visas. Silvia Avelar said her parents were duped by an unscrupulous lawyer who never filed the proper paperwork.
Dan Kowalski, an immigration lawyer, said fixing immigration status wasn't a complicated process at that time.
But after the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act was signed in 1996, everything changed dramatically and adjusting legal status became difficult.
The sisters said they didn't know much about the problematic paperwork because they were children then. So they just continued to live in Utah, eventually graduating from high school, getting married and starting families.
But in December, ICE agents raided their homes and eventually deported their parents to Mexico. The sisters were told they would be next. They were told they wouldn't get a hearing in immigration court and were instead told to check in June 13 to make final arrangements to return to Mexico.
Now the sisters said they feel relief.
Barbara Avelar said her 10-year-old daughter was told last week she had made a local soccer team and was excited to know that she'll be able to play out the season.
Silvia Avelar's son turned 2 years old Wednesday and said the family could now celebrate without deportation hanging over their heads.
"We'll have a barbecue," Silvia Avelar said.
Kowalski said the deferred action for the sisters was slightly different than a stay of removal because it allows the sisters to work legally in the United States. However, just like a stay of removal, Kowalski said ICE can revoke their deferred action status at any time.
Because the sisters hadn't gotten it confirmed from their lawyer, they tried to be guarded in their optimism. But they also were starting to look ahead.
"My parents tried to do the right thing, and we were paying the consequences anyway," Silvia Avelar said. "I just thank God we have more time."