A Hayward woman who says she was raped in El Salvador persuaded federal officials Thursday to halt her deportation to the Central American country after a public outcry.
Federal immigration agents tracked down Blanca Medina in December, five years after she skipped a 2006 immigration court hearing in South Texas. She was due to be deported early Friday morning but the Department of Homeland Security is now asking a judge to reopen her case.
The last-minute turnaround came after her attorney set up an online petition that he says drew some 118,000 signatures supporting her plea for political asylum in the United States.
"We're just asking for a day in court," said the lawyer, Matthew Muller.
A rule prohibits immigrants from making asylum claims 180 days after missing a court hearing. Muller says even convicted felons and terrorists get more leeway in blocking deportation to countries where they have "reasonable fear" their lives are in danger.
Federal agents had said Medina missed her chance. U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested her near the Texas-Mexico border in 2005 and she was ordered to appear before an immigration judge in 2006.
"In the ensuing five years, there is no indication Ms. Medina contacted the immigration court or filed an application for an immigration benefit to seek redress in her case," said spokeswoman Virginia Kice of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in a written statement.
Medina declined to be interviewed this week, but the housekeeper says in court documents that she fears returning to El Salvador after four violent rapes by different men.
She was raped a fifth time in Mexico while being smuggled into Texas and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that contributed to her missing the court hearing, Muller said.
"It is a medical condition, it's not just a bald assertion people make," he said. "It's hard for her to conceive of returning to that country."
Kice said the government considers Medina a deportation priority because she's an "immigration fugitive," someone who has ignored a judge's deportation order. Immigration judges last year ordered more than 24,000 people deported "in absentia" after they failed to show up at hearings.
The 30-year-old Salvadoran did not qualify for a new Obama administration deportation relief directive protecting young illegal immigrants from getting expelled from the United States because she crossed the border as an adult, not a child. Nor did she qualify for earlier relief directives that exclude people deemed immigration fugitives.
The immigration agency held her as a flight risk in West County Jail in Richmond for several weeks in May, but Medina returned home to Hayward with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen. Then she was ordered to bring her luggage to San Francisco International Airport late Thursday for deportation.
ICE officials asked Thursday to reopen her case after Muller brought thousands of petition signatures to their San Francisco office. The decision is in the hands of the Texas immigration judge who originally signed her deported order. That judge is likely to hand the case over to the San Francisco court, Muller said, and for now the deportation is delayed.