Immigration officials say Utah activist Cecilia Figueroa is now at large after failing to self-deport; friends say she is pursuing asylum

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Deb Blake rallies in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in West Valley City on Friday Aug. 30, 2019 in support of Utah activist Cecilia Figueroa, who was facing deportation to her native Mexico.

Friends of Utah immigration-rights activist Cecilia Figueroa say she is staying in the United States to pursue an asylum case, fearing violence if she returns to Mexico. But immigration officials say she failed to leave the country as promised on Monday, and now is at large.

How legal her situation is depends on who is talking.

“As of now Cecilia will be staying in the United States, out of custody, to continue her asylum case,” Luis Garza, executive director of the immigrant-aid group Comunidades Unidas said in a short written statement Tuesday afternoon.

“It will be a long and difficult process, but we will all be behind her to support. We will not be able to comment on specifics about her case as the legal process continues,” he added.

But Alethea Smock, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said late Tuesday that Figueroa did not comply with promises to leave the country.

In a written statement, she said Figueroa, 55, “was twice arrested by immigration officials in 2008 for illegally entering the United States. In March 2008, she was issued an expedited removal order, and was also federally convicted of illegally entering” the country.

Smock said Figueroa’s “application for immigration benefits was denied Aug. 27. On the same day, she was briefly detained” by ICE but “released on humanitarian grounds. Although she stipulated to ICE deportation officers that she would return to Mexico on Sept. 2, she failed to do so. Figueroa remains at large.”

Figueroa had said she had never been allowed to seek asylum amid danger she feared if she returned to her home in a dangerous part of Mexico — and was surprised at being detained during what she thought was a routine check-in with ICE. About 150 protesters rallied Friday at the West Valley City offices of ICE pleading for the agency to delay her deportation to allow her to seek asylum.

Figueroa is a psychiatrist by trade and is known in Utah as an immigrant-rights activist and as a volunteer for Comunidades Unidas and the Guadalupe School who helped residents access health care, education and nutrition.

Figueroa sent a written message to the rally last week talking about her fears.

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

She said two other nephews survived attempted kidnappings.

The trouble with her return would be, “People back home think that a newly returning immigrant coming from the United States has a lot of money” — and worries 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.

Protesters portrayed Figueroa as a poster child for the havoc created by the Trump administration choosing now to target any undocumented immigrant for deportation instead of mainly focusing on those with criminal records.

“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 fellow protesters.