In 2013, Jessica Colotl, a 26-year-old paralegal who was born in Mexico and raised in Georgia, believed her immigration problems were finally over after a legal battle that had already dragged on for more than three years. In 2010, she was arrested for a traffic violation on the campus of Kennesaw State University in Georgia, where she was a student. She then spent thirty-eight days in an immigration detention center in Alabama and was scheduled to be deported until a nationwide outcry over her case caused Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to reconsider and she was allowed to return home. Within days, however, she was arrested again, this time by the local sheriff, who claimed she had given a false home address when she was booked into the county jail following her arrest. (The address corresponded to an old family residence listed on the insurance certificate of the car Colotl was driving.) After several more months of litigation, prosecutors offered her a deal that she accepted out of desperation: community service in exchange for waiving fees. In 2012, she received protection from deportation through a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and in 2013 the charges against her were officially dismissed.
The result was a great relief, but her life never returned to normal. Colotl had become notorious in Georgia. To the state's anti-immigrant lawmakers, she was the face of a problem they claimed was out of control. In 2008, lawmakers passed a law forcing undocumented students to pay tuition at out-of-state public colleges. Colotl, who had started college before the law was passed, was not paying the out-of-state rate at the time of her arrest, and state Republicans tried to make an example of her. They called on the Georgia Board of Regents, which oversees the public university system, to purge undocumented students, who made up less than 1 percent of the total student population. They also threatened to pass bills banning undocumented students from attending public universities. Their argument – that undocumented people were draining state resources – was wrong. Undocumented residents in Georgia pay hundreds of millions of dollars in state taxes each year. Still, the Board of Regents bowed to pressure and passed a policy barring undocumented students from entering the state's top public universities. One board member told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that not acting would have been “bad policy.” But the new rule had a devastating impact on undocumented students in Georgia, forcing many to give up attending college altogether. In last week's issue of the magazine, I wrote about a group of students who started their own underground school to further their education.
This month Colotl is in the news again. The Department of Homeland Security has revoked her DACA status and ICE has announced that she will be given priority for deportation. Why? Pointing to her 2010 traffic stop, the government again says she lied to arresting officers about her home address. The plea agreement she signed in 2011 to put the legal saga behind her is now being viewed by authorities as an admission of guilt.
“I never thought it would come up again,” Colotl told me a few days ago when we spoke on the phone. She described the latest chapter in what has now become an endless ordeal. In 2014, she applied to the government for permission to travel to Mexico to visit her mother, who had returned there and was ill. (DACA recipients must apply for special permission, called “pre-parole,” to leave and re-enter the country.) A federal agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, granted her permission to travel, but there was a technicality Problem. Because deportation proceedings had been initiated against her years ago, an immigration judge had to administratively close her old case, and ICE had to sign off on that. “I followed the right channels to make sure I was OK,” Colotl said. “I thought it was just a formality.” However, ICE refused to close the case, triggering two more years of legal battles. In October 2016, an immigration appeals board to which Colotl and her lawyers appealed ordered the immigration judge in Colotl's case to dismiss her deportation case once and for all – but the judge stopped short.
In March this year, Colotl, who had not yet visited her mother, realized that her request for travel documents had backfired. With Donald Trump in office, ICE no longer followed the enforcement guidelines established by President Obama; The agency had an entirely new and virtually unfettered discretion to prosecute anyone who was undocumented. Since January, ICE has arrested 41,000 people, a 40 percent increase compared to the same period last year. On March 29, the Department of Homeland Security filed a motion challenging the dismissal of Colotl's previous case, arguing that she had a criminal record. According to an ICE statement, Colotl “admitted guilt to a felony. . . “Making a false statement to law enforcement in Cobb County, Georgia,” which “is considered a felony conviction for immigration purposes.”
Colotl had previously agreed to accept a plea deal in 2011, with the clear intention that signing the agreement would effectively end the state's case against her. The wording of the document left little room for doubt. “I understand that if I abide by the terms of this agreement, the charges against me will result in dismissal,” it said, “and there will be no conviction against me.”
Earlier this month, Colotl and her attorney asked a judge to intervene and restore her DACA status. On the phone she tried to make a thoughtful assessment of her prospects; She spoke slowly and sophisticatedly, paying attention to the legal differences and confirming that she got every date just right. Once or twice she gently corrected me on a few details. She has become a reluctant expert on some of the intricacies of immigration law.