As she sat in a West Texas immigration detention center on Friday, three days before her 36th birthday, Ivonne Burciaga Prieto wondered why she’s seen other undocumented immigrants released while she’s still languishing there after nearly six months.
After all, the mother of three U.S. citizen children traveled freely back and forth across the Texas-Mexico border for decades. She paid taxes here, bought a home here and registered her car in her name here. She believes that she is a citizen too.
But Burciaga Prieto has been in federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in Sierra Blanca since February, after authorities accused her of making a false claim to citizenship by presenting a fake birth certificate. It’s the same document she’s used for years to enter El Paso from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
“Her mother told her she was born outside of Houston and … used a midwife,” said Burciaga Prieto’s attorney, Stephen Spurgin. “A midwife jumped through all the hoops to sign off on [the birth certificate] and the people at the bridge were happy with that for years.”
Happy, Spurgin argues, until Burciaga Prieto was the victim of retaliation.
In November 2013, Burciaga-Prieto’s youngest child, age 6, was sexually abused by a cousin. Protective orders were sought and obtained. The family received assistance from the El Paso County District Attorney’s office. And Burciaga Prieto testified to help the prosecution.
But before the cousin’s conviction, Burciaga Prieto was detained at the border. Spurgin and Burciaga Prieto believe — and claim in documents sent to Department of Homeland Security authorities — that U.S. Customs and Border Protection was tipped off by an angry relative in an act of revenge.
In addition to the midwife-signed American birth certificate, Burciaga Prieto also had a Mexican birth certificate, which Spurgin said is common in border cultures. Burciaga Prieto told The Texas Tribune that her parents obtained the Mexican document so that she would have legal ties to her Mexican family and its business, and be able to attend public school in Mexico. But for reasons she said were unknown to her, her parents backdated her birth by a month in the Mexican document.
In a May 24 letter to Juan Mendez, a deportation officer with the Department of Homeland Security, Spurgin said the whole thing was a ploy to get Burciaga Prieto and her child to recant their story. Spurgin has seen Burciaga Prieto’s American birth certificate and said he believes it to be authentic. But even if it isn’t, he said, Burciaga Prieto has lived her whole life believing she was an American.
“If something was done nefariously, it’s not Ivonne’s fault,” he said. “Infants don’t take those kinds of actions. Parents took them thinking it was in the best interest of their children.”
When Burciaga Prieto was detained at the bridge in 2014, she said a Customs and Border Protection agent told her she was going to jail for a long time if she didn’t confess to being a Mexican. “The only thing I remember telling him was, ‘If you think I am, that’s fine,’” she said. In a criminal complaint filed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texase, Burciaga Prieto was charged with violating immigration laws by making a false representation of citizenship.
But four months later, federal prosecutors dismissed the charge. A one-page order dated June 2014 states that “the government does not wish to prosecute at this time;” Spurgin says federal prosecutors saw through the retaliation ploy.
Burciaga Prieta and her family eventually relocated to Midland and moved on with their lives. Her case file includes copies of pay stubs, income tax returns and lease agreements — nothing to suggest she was trying to live under the radar.
But immigration officials never let her off of theirs. This February, after nearly four years, ICE arrested Burciaga Prieto at home while two of her children were at school and one was home sick. The kids — now 11, 13 and 15 — are with their grandparents in Mexico until school begins again in a couple weeks, Burciaga Prieto said.
Citing privacy reasons, an official in the ICE field office in El Paso declined to comment on the case.
“I’m a single mother, I’m a mother and father and my children need me,” Burciaga Prieto said from detention last week. “And I am here and I see that everyone is getting out, that mothers arrive with their kids and they get out and I am traumatized. I haven’t killed anyone, I am not a drug dealer, I don’t have criminal charges.”
With her citizenship in question, Spurgin is seeking an alternate option for his client: a U-visa. It’s a visa that can be awarded to victims of crimes or people who assist with the prosecution of a crime. Burciaga Prieto’s casefile includes certification from the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office attesting to her cooperation in the case and the trauma the sexual abuse caused her family.
But the process to finalize the U-visa could take up to four years, Spurgin said.
Spurgin argues that ICE is arbitrarily holding his client out of malice and that changes to immigration policy under President Donald Trump have played a key role in her detention.
“Immigration judges for decades have had the ability to drop proceedings in an immigration case temporarily in order for government agencies to catch up,” he said.
But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered judges to suspend the practice, called “administrative closure,” in May.
Meanwhile, immigration judges can’t set bond or release a person on parole, so it’s up to ICE to let Burciaga Prieto out of detention.
“ICE decided that an innocent person like Ivonne needs to be locked up and separated from her children,” Spurgin said. “She’s not a flight risk, she’s not a danger to the community. But more importantly, irrespective of whether she’s a citizen of the U.S. or not, she assisted the El Paso County DA’s office to put away a rapist, a child rapist.”
Spurgin said taxpayers of all political stripes should be outraged that their money, as much as $150 a day, is being spent to detain his client.
“I can’t be in here,” Burciaga Prieto said. “I need to be with my kids.”