When her phone rings, Sandra Fernandez fears the worst. When her phone doesn't ring, she fears the worst, too.
Her twenty-three-year-old daughter, Wendy Miranda Fernandez, calls every day from the LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana, where she has been in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since May 4. Sometimes the calls bring good news: she got to see her fiancé, her high school sweetheart and a U.S. citizen. Sometimes the conversations are more bleak: Wendy had to sleep in a chair for two nights—or more accurately, not sleep.
Miranda Fernandez was detained by ICE on March 22 while seeking a stay of a final order of removal from the country. The two months since have been fraught with uncertainty as Miranda Fernandez has seemingly been kept at a distance from a fiancé desperately trying to marry her, lawyers unsuccessfully trying to reach her by phone, and supporters getting conflicting reports of her whereabouts.
Her deportation has been delayed four times, and as of this weekend, she had been driven to an airport twice, only to be placed back in detention.
"She's literally living with the threat of deportation over her head every day," says Daniela Hernández Blanco, with Alerta Migratoria NC, which has been organizing call-ins to ICE.
Miranda Fernandez came to the United States at age fourteen from El Salvador as an unaccompanied minor. Her mother had come to North Carolina about eighteen months earlier, and many of her relatives were already here. Her fiancé, Robert Paulino, says she spoke little about her immigration status, life in El Salvador, or the journey she took alone to North Carolina.
Before she left her hometown of Barrio El Calvario, Miranda Fernandez witnessed an eighteen-year-old she grew up with murdered in front of her house, her family says. It was an example of the violence that has given El Salvador grim monikers like "the deadliest country outside of a war zone" and "the murder capital of the world." By the time Miranda Fernandez emigrated in 2008, 1.1 million Salvadorans were living in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute, many fleeing violence and gang retribution.
ICE says Miranda Fernandez was detained "after she received all appropriate process before the federal immigration courts." She previously applied for permanent asylum in the U.S., but that was denied, and she was issued a final order of removal in August 2016. She wasn't alone. According to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 82.9 percent of Salvadoran asylum seekers were turned down between 2011 and 2016.
Miranda Fernandez has received several stays of that removal order, but her most recent request was denied March 10. A previous lawyer, her family says, failed to tell Miranda Fernandez that (but charged her $2,300 anyway). She appeared before ICE on March 22, believing she had a valid stay to protect her from detention. Her current attorney, Nardine Guirguis, has filed a motion to reopen her case as well as a new asylum application.
"She did everything right and went to every checkup," Paulino says. "I would understand if she had gotten in trouble with the cops. None of that ever happened, and I don't think it's fair for them to deport her. Yeah, she went over the border, but she did it to save her life."
Paulino and Miranda Fernandez met on a Riverside High school bus in 2010. Paulino's mother, Mary, says Miranda Fernandez is like a daughter to her. She was in the process of helping Miranda Fernandez, who wants to study cosmetology and open a business, apply for college. Paulino is studying to be a nurse but has been missing classes lately to be with Miranda Fernandez.
He saw Miranda Fernandez on Friday and worked with a detention facility employee on the paperwork they need to get married. But he says ICE has documents she needs to apply for a marriage license, and she's having difficulty accessing them.
Miranda Fernandez has twice been moved before Paulino could see her. His phone number has been blocked from calling her at LaSalle, as has her lawyer's, her family and Guirguis say. She was taken to an airport in Georgia, her family says, and again last week in Louisiana on a bus full of other detainees. One by one, others were called off the bus until only Miranda Fernandez remained.
Although ICE does offer an online detainee locator (which spokesman Bryan Cox says has been "consistently" correct in this case), Miranda Fernandez's lawyer and family have gotten conflicting information of her whereabouts from other detainees and staff at the detention centers where she has been housed.
Hernández Blanco says the online system, which is sometimes delayed, isn't very comforting for the families of those detained, who are often wary of ICE. The blue, skinny letters that spell out in all caps where a detainee is located leave a lot of questions unanswered.
"How do I know if they're OK? How do I know if they have food? How do they know I'm looking for them?" she asks.
According to Miranda Fernandez's family, she has also been denied toilet paper and her commissary has been cut off, which is typical before a detainee is deported. She tells her mother she feels like she is going crazy. She passes the time cleaning, listening to the radio, and watching television.
They wonder if all this is retribution for the attention Miranda Fernandez has gotten in the media, although they do think the spotlight has helped spare her from deportation. While the family has heard from some of Miranda Fernandez's former classmates, her case has not gotten the same reaction as the detention of Wildin Acosta, another Riverside High student taken by ICE in January 2016 on his way to school. In both cases, U.S. Representative G.K. Butterfield has stepped in. (In August, Acosta bonded out of a private ICE detention facility in Georgia; a hearing in his asylum case is scheduled for later this summer.)
Hernández Blanco says she isn't sure why the reaction hasn't been the same for Miranda Fernandez. Perhaps it's because she isn't currently enrolled at Riverside, as Acosta was when he was detained.
Ivan Almonte of Alerta Migratoria NC says the group just doesn't have the same resources available to devote to each case. This year, Alerta has publicly worked to support at least five people facing deportation, including Nestor Ávila, detained in August—not to mention the surge of rallies to organize, information sessions and fundraisers to hold, and police checkpoints to verify since the inauguration of President Trump.
The ordeal has taken a mental, physical, and financial toll on Miranda Fernandez's family. Her younger brother, who is seven, often prays for his sister. "Please release my sister. I'm asking with all my heart," he says, according to his mother. Sandra Fernandez cries in the closet at work, each delay of her daughter's deportation bringing a roller coaster of relief followed by more anxiety.
They know there are people who will say Miranda Fernandez is here illegally and must face the consequences. But they say she doesn't deserve to lose the future she dreams of—or her life.
"It's not just about keeping her here. It's about keeping her alive," Paulino says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "She Did It to Save Her Life."