Utahns protest deportation of activist to part of Mexico where her family faced kidnappings, murder

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carl Moore speaks during a rally in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in West Valley City in support of Cecilia Figueroa on Friday Aug. 30, 2019.

West Valley City • Protesters at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office Friday portrayed Cecilia Figueroa as a poster child for the havoc created by the Trump administration now targeting any undocumented immigrant for deportation instead of mainly those with criminal records.

Figueroa — a psychiatrist by trade known in Utah as an immigrant-rights activist and a volunteer who helps migrants access health care and nutrition — and her supporters contend that if is she is returned home to a violent part of Mexico on Labor Day, as now ordered, it could become a massacre day.

“One of my nephews was kidnapped and murdered” by organized crime seeking money from her family that it did not have, Figueroa wrote in Spanish for a statement read to protesters on Friday. “After a month, they found my nephew’s body torn apart and decapitated.”

She said two other nephews survived attempted kidnappings.

The trouble now is, “People back home think that a newly returning immigrant coming from the United States has a lot of money” — and she wrote that will make targets of her and her extended family.

“I cannot even fathom that because of my return, my family members might be victims of these crimes all over again,” she said, adding that she fled Guerrero, Mexico, 11 years ago to escape such violence.

About 150 people rallied Friday urging immigration officials to delay her deportation to consider granting her asylum. They praised Figueroa, 55, for conducting volunteer health and nutrition education with the immigrant-aid group Comunidades Unidas and the Guadalupe School in Rose Park.

“To force someone to return where they are endangered — this is not making America great again,” the Rev. Monica Dobbins of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City said to cheers by protesters.

In a brief telephone interview, Figueroa said she recently went to what she thought would be a routine check-in interview with ICE but was detained — then told she would be deported on Monday.

Maria Montes, community engagement and advocacy coordinator for Comunidades Unidas, said Figueroa had been pursuing legal strategy that could allow undocumented immigrants to get on a path to remain here legally.

She blames Figueroa’s detention on policy changes where “Trump has done away with going after people with criminal records and instead is going after anyone who is undocumented whether they have a criminal record or not.”

Montes said when Figueroa was detained, ICE officers should have asked her whether she had credible reason to fear harm if she is returned. Instead, Figueroa reported, “They just said, ‘Follow me.’”

Montes said protesters want to delay deporting Figueroa to give her the chance to make a case of likely harm to her and her family, and for officials to consider asylum.

“Cecy is a real example to all of us. She has served the community with more gumption and courage than almost anyone I know. She is someone we should want to stay,” said Kate Brainerd, director of adult education at the Guadalupe School.

Mayra Cedano, community engagement director for Comunidades Unidas, said while 150 protesters showed up at ICE in support of Montes, she believes many more undocumented immigrants would have liked to come but stayed away “out of fear” caused by tougher enforcement activities.

ICE spokeswoman Alethea Smock said, "As ICE leadership has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and — if found removable by final order — removal from the United States.”

Because Figueroa is an activist, Smock also added that 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.”

Smock also said about the rally, “We respect their right, absolutely, to protest. Typically, they are protesting the wrong people, though, because Congress implemented the law in 1996 that we operate under, and Congress can effect the most change in immigration law.”

While she said ICE respects the right to protest, the agency — with the help of West Valley City police — made protesters move their cars out of the agency’s otherwise virtually empty parking lot outside the steel fences that surround its offices. They also banned anyone from standing in that parking lot, allowing only use only of a stretch of grass along the sidewalk there.