The U.S. government deported 387,790 people in 2009, one of them a frightened 22-year-old victim of domestic abuse known, in a lawsuit filed Wednesday, as “Laura S.” Despite having a restraining order against her abusive ex-boyfriend—she warned immigration agents he’d kill her if she returned to Mexico—Laura S. was deported without ever seeing an immigration judge.
Within days of being deported the young mother of three was abducted in the Mexican border city of Reynosa, by her ex-boyfriend, a member of a notorious drug cartel. On June 14, 2009, her body was found in a burning car in downtown Reynosa.
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the South Texas Civil Rights Project filed the civil lawsuit on behalf of Laura S.’s three young children, against the U.S. immigration agents who deported their mother. According to the lawsuit, a despondent Laura S. begged ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials not to send her to Mexico, telling them her ex-boyfriend would kill her if she returned.
Laura S. told the agents that she had a protective order from the U.S. court against her abuser and that she had three small children at home in Texas, according to the lawsuit. Despite her pleas, within hours of being stopped for a minor traffic violation in Pharr, Texas, Laura S. was sent back to Mexico.
Lawyers representing her children say she was denied due process and ultimately sent to her death. “She was clearly eligible for relief from removal under several different standards,” says Jennifer Harbury, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who is representing the family. “This woman was a victim of violence and someone who had helped with the prosecution of a dangerous person. If she would have had a hearing in front of an immigration judge—as she had the right to have—she would have never been removed from this country and she would not have had to die.”
The family are not releasing their last name in the lawsuit because Laura S.’s killer is still at large, living just across the border in Mexico.
Harbury says she’s seen a recurring problem in South Texas with people being wrongfully deported. She represented another family whose son, a legal permanent resident with a mental disability, was deported without due process. “He was sent to Mexico with no change of clothes, no documents and no medication for his illness,” says Harbury. “He tried to swim back across the river to Texas and drowned.”
Harbury says the problem of wrongful deportations has become more dire with the rapid increase of deportations by the U.S. government and the ongoing cartel wars in Mexico. “Deporting people without the full due process of law and without fully listening to what their situation is can have lethal consequences.”
In Laura’s case, her deportation had tragic consequences. Harbury and a legal team spent several months interviewing witnesses and gathering documents regarding Laura’s deportation and violent death. Harbury says that Laura’s attacker nearly bit her ear off during a vicious attack on a Reynosa street, then abducted her and strangled her in a hotel room. Laura’s mother pressed charges in Mexico but Laura’s attacker escaped from prison. Eventually, Laura’s mother found Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and asked for help. “She literally came into our office weeping and said ‘Is there nothing that can be done for my daughter?’ Harbury says. “The case was so egregious. Of course we wanted to help any way we could.”
In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, attorneys are asking for the names of the six immigration agents who deported Laura despite her repeated pleas that she would be killed if she was sent back to Mexico. Laura’s mother, who is now raising her daughter’s three young children on her own, is also seeking damages in the lawsuit for pain and anguish.
“It’s an incredibly sad case,” Harbury says. “Laura didn’t have to die.”
(Correction: Laura S. received a protective order but not a U visa as previously implied in the article. The Observer regrets the error.)