About two weeks ago, Daniela Vargas hid in the bedroom closet of her Jackson, Miss., home after watching immigration officials handcuff her father in the family’s driveway.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained the 22-year-old’s father and brother, Argentines who were living in the country illegally, amid the Trump administration’s aggressive deportation effort that has riled immigrant communities across the country.
Although Vargas was in the process of renewing her status as a “dreamer” to remain in the United States legally — a status she had allowed to lapse — she feared that immigration officials would come after her next.
But those fears did not stop Vargas from speaking out at a news conference Wednesday at Jackson City Hall, alongside immigrant rights advocates.
“Today my father and brother await deportation, she said, “while I continue to fight this battle as a dreamer to help contribute to this country which I feel that is very much my country.”
After leaving the news conference with her friend, two law enforcement cars pulled her over. ICE agents reportedly opened the car door, telling Vargas, “you know who we are and you know why we’re here,” her friend, Jordan Sanders, told Univision. Then, they handcuffed her and took her into custody.
Vargas’s detention shocked and angered immigrant rights advocates, who feared ICE officials may have retaliated against her for speaking publicly about her case. It also heightened existing anxieties that “dreamers” registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by President Barack Obama could now be targeted for deportation.
She had been granted the two-year protection under DACA twice before, in December 2012 and in November 2014, Abigail Peterson, one of her attorneys, told the Associated Press. But her DACA status had expired in November 2016, and it was not until mid-February that she was able to come up with the $495 application fee to renew it.
Vargas was 7 years old when she came to the United States from Cordoba, Argentina, with her father, mother and brother on a three-month visitor’s visa in 2001. Their visa expired, but the family stayed, establishing a life in Mississippi. Her mother eventually moved out of the state after her parents divorced, she told the Jackson Free Press.
Peterson said she told ICE agents over the phone that Vargas had a pending DACA case. However, the agents responded that Vargas was a “visa overstay” and would be detained, the Clarion-Ledger reported.
Her lawyers expect she will be detained in Louisiana, where they will try to get her released on her own recognizance, according to the Associated Press. A federal immigration judge will decide whether she is eligible for immigration relief.
In a statement, an ICE spokesman confirmed that immigration officials took Vargas, “an unlawfully present Argentinian citizen,” into custody Wednesday “during a targeted immigration enforcement action” after the agency verified that her DACA status had lapsed.
“ICE conducts targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy,” the statement said. “ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately.”
The hashtag #freedany began to spread on social media Wednesday, and an immigrant rights group, United We Dream, encouraged immigrant youth to sign a petition to Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly demanding Vargas’s release. The group called out President Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who have previously expressed sympathy to DACA immigrants.
Trump called DACA an “unconstitutional executive amnesty” in August, but his words on the topic have been more ambiguous since taking office. At a news conference this month, Trump called the program “one of the most difficult subjects I have” and pledged to “show great heart” toward those enrolled in DACA, The Washington Post reported.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) tweeted that he had been in touch with the Department of Homeland Security to obtain more information about the case.
“Disturbing that ICE may have followed her from an immigration news conference,” he added in the tweet.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), tweeted, “Talking publicly about fears of deportation is not a crime and should not get someone detained #ICEraids.”
Angela Stuesse, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said she has known Vargas since she was 8 years old. While working through the Mississippi Poultry Workers Center in 2002, Stuesse met Vargas’s parents, who worked in poultry plants.
“The fact that she was detained by ICE immediately following her participation in a media event looks an awful lot like retaliation, and it flies in the face of President Trump’s own directives to leave DACA recipients alone,” Stuesse told The Post. “I hope General Kelly will intervene to release Daniela and demonstrate to our nation that DACA remains a strong protection from deportation.”
Stuesse also called Vargas a “bright, selfless young woman who spoke out today with the hope that by sharing her story she could help others.”
Speaking alongside church leaders and lawyers at the news conference Wednesday — before her detention — Vargas said a path for citizenship is necessary for DACA recipients, “but also for the other 11 million undocumented people with dreams.”
“I dream of being a university math professor but now I’m not so sure my dream will continue to develop,” she said, reading off note cards.
Vargas told the Jackson Free Press that she was recently studying at the University of Southern Mississippi, but had to take a semester off because she couldn’t keep up with the bills. As a DACA recipient, Vargas was not eligible for scholarships or federal student aid for college, so most of her father’s income went toward her tuition, she said.
Now a manager at a small store, Vargas loves skateboarding, writing and playing the trumpet, her friend said in a statement from United We Dream.
Before her detention, Vargas told the Jackson Free Press Wednesday that she had made contact with her father and brother, who are in immigration detention facilities in Louisiana. Initially, she did not know where they were being detained.
On the morning they were taken into custody, Feb. 15, Vargas’s father had just given her a kiss goodbye before leaving for work, Vargas told the Jackson Free Press. He came back inside a few moments later, waking her with the words, “Dany, immigration is here.”
“During that time, I couldn’t even breathe, honestly,” she told the Clarion-Ledger. “I just watched them handcuff my dad and take them. I was scared for my life. I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything. I called my mom and I just let out a cry. I didn’t even get to see my brother leave.”
She locked her door and hid in her bedroom closet for hours, until the agents knocked down her door, entering with a search warrant, guns raised. The authorities found a handgun the family kept for protection, she told the Clarion-Ledger. Under federal law, possession of a firearm by an undocumented person is a felony.
It is unclear why ICE declined to arrest her on that day. But after the detention of her father and brother, she told the Clarion Ledger she was “terrified.”
She did not let her fears show while she spoke to the reporters at the news conference Wednesday.
Her friend, Sanders, told Univision, that if she knew this could happen, she would have never let her go to the conference. Being pulled over by ICE agents, Sanders said, was “chilling.”
“It was chilling,” Sanders said. “It was like they knew who we were and they were looking for us.”