Roxana Orellana Santos hasn’t given up.
Eleven years ago, Santos was quietly living in Frederick, working as a dishwasher and trying to give her kids a better life than she had in El Salvador.
When Frederick County sheriff’s deputies arrested her, she became entangled in a national debate over the role of local police agencies in enforcing federal civil immigration law.
Although Santos has won a civil rights lawsuit over the arrest, she is still facing deportation. Judges have temporarily barred her removal, but only until her case against the county is resolved.
Santos shared her story at a press conference Tuesday, two weeks after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released her after a month in immigration detention. Like a repeat of her 2008 arrest, Santos was separated from her children and friends for a month.
“I have a lot of pain in my heart for everything that I have gone through,” Santos said.
Santos came to the United States in 2005, “fleeing lifelong physical, psychological, and emotional abuse” by her father, according to court records.
“I have to remind myself why I’m here,” Santos said Tuesday. “I migrated here because I was seeking support. ... The reason I left El Salvador is that my father put me at gunpoint and told me I had to flee.”
Immigration enforcement authorities in San Antonio arrested her that September and released her on her own recognizance. Instructions to report to ICE each month weren’t properly explained to her, her attorneys say, because she didn’t speak or read English well.
By 2008, Santos had relocated to Frederick and was working as a dishwasher at Common Market. That October, as she ate bread with beans and avocado on her lunch break behind the store, two Frederick County sheriff’s deputies approached her.
“I was not scared,” Santos said. “I had done nothing wrong.”
Santos had a hard time understanding the deputies, but she showed them an identification card from El Salvador.
Santos was unaware the immigration court in San Antonio had ordered her deported in absentia at a 2006 hearing. When sheriff’s deputies checked for warrants, they found the outstanding immigration order and arrested her.
ICE detained Santos for more than a month. She was separated from her children, including a son who was a year old at the time.
“The first thing on my mind was my son,” she said. “When I was in the police car, all I could think of was him.”
For the past 10 years, Santos has been reporting to the federal immigration agency in Baltimore regularly. At the same time, with the help of local immigration advocates and attorneys, she sued Frederick County and the sheriff’s office.
Six months before Santos’ arrest, the sheriff’s office had started its participation in the federal 287(g) program. The agreement between the sheriff’s office and ICE allows trained deputies to check the immigration status of people booked into the county jail and begin deportation proceedings if appropriate.
Santos sued Frederick County, arguing that the deputies who arrested her were not trained under the agreement and lacked probable cause to question her.
The arrest “was the beginning of her civil rights case,” said Ana Martinez, lead organizer with CASA of Maryland, an advocacy and legal-aid organization that has worked on Santos’ case. “You can’t simply arrest someone for being Latina. She had done nothing wrong. All she was doing was having lunch.”
After a decade in court, a series of federal courts have ruled in Santos’ favor. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found in 2013 that the deputies had lacked probable cause to search or seize Santos, a violation of her constitutional rights. In September, almost 10 years after the illegal arrest, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake ruled that Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins was liable as policymaker for the sheriff’s office.
Santos’ original lawsuit sought $1 million in damages from the county. But more important than money, she said, the suit also sought to change sheriff’s office policy.
“She’s clearly entitled to some kind of monetary damages, but the case was never about the money,” said Jose Perez, an attorney with Latino Justice who has been representing Santos. “We want to change their policy because we want to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
The last 10 years have also seen a rise in the type of tough-on-immigration policies that Jenkins has long espoused. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign placed focus on illegal immigration and deportation. Since Trump’s election, Jenkins has been a guest at the White House multiple times to participate in immigration enforcement and gang violence discussions.
Jenkins touted the success of his office’s partnership with ICE during his 2018 re-election campaign. Since 2008, the partnership has placed “1,608 criminal aliens into deportation after committing crimes in Frederick County,” including 106 gang members, Jenkins wrote in a letter to The News-Post.
According to Sergio España, director of engagement and mobilization at the ACLU of Maryland, many of the people deported committed traffic offenses and low-level crimes. España’s organization has joined with other civil liberties groups to urge Frederick County to end its participation in 287(g).
“What we’re seeing with these partnerships with ICE, it’s not about immigration, it’s about racial scapegoating,” España said at Tuesday’s press conference. “The scale of what is happening in our state is hard to fathom. There are thousands of Marylanders that have Roxana’s story.”
The sheriff’s office maintains it has never used racial profiling to identify immigrants who are in the U.S. without legal permission.
One hundred percent “of all offenders/defendants brought to the Detention Center are screened, there is absolutely no profiling or selective screening based on race, ethnicity, or country of origin,” according to the sheriff’s office’s 2018 287(g) steering committee presentation.
Proposed legislation in the Maryland General Assembly this year would codify the 4th Circuit’s ruling in Santos’ case and further limit the role of local jails in immigration enforcement. Senate Bill 817 would prohibit county detention centers from holding people on civil immigration detainers if they do not have warrants for criminal offenses.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee took up the bill during a Feb. 21 hearing. Sens. William Smith, Michael Hough and Bobby Zirkin used “the Santos decision” as shorthand for checking immigration status without probable cause.
“’You can’t stop somebody on the street and say, ‘Show me your papers,’” Zirkin said. “That’s been determined to be completely illegal.”
On Jan. 8, CASA organizers organized a last-minute rally outside the federal office building in downtown Baltimore. After 10 years of reporting for periodic check-ins, Santos was abruptly detained by ICE a week before she was due to participate in settlement talks in the lawsuit against Frederick County.
Santos’ family, supporters and attorneys called on the agency to release her. Several of them blocked an ICE van from leaving the building and received police citations. But the agency took Santos to a detention center in Worcester County, where they held her for a month.
The four-week detention was hard on Santos. ICE didn’t provide her the medication she is prescribed for chronic pain, she said. She found herself crying in her dreams and thinking about death.
Most of all, though, she worried who was making her children’s after-school snacks. On the phone with her children, she struggled to explain where she was.
“My daughter would ask me, why am I in jail?” Santos said. “I wasn’t able to respond. I told her that one day I’ll be able to explain the whole situation.”
Santos’ story is emblematic of what immigrant families across the state and country experience when a loved one is detained, Martinez said.
“The reality is, these are the impacts that are happening throughout our community, throughout the nation,” Martinez said. “We hear about these cases all the time. People call and say my husband went to the grocery store and didn’t come back. Then we find out they were detained because of a police violation and transferred to immigration [authorities].”
For all she’s been through, Santos said she’s motivated to make sure what happened to her doesn’t happen to others.
“I ask ICE to focus on the people who cause harm,” she said. “Not the people who are working hard, trying to provide for their families.”