WASHINGTON -- Immigration officials released an undocumented Alabama woman from custody on Thursday, about four hours after a Democratic congressman told Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano about her case.
The woman, a 19-year-old named Martha, was stopped on Dec. 3 for driving without lights, and then arrested because she did not have a driver's license. Although police planned to release her, she remained in jail at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents -- even though she has a clean criminal record, is married to a U.S. citizen and has an American-born daughter.
Her case caught the attention of Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who traveled to Alabama in November to talk to residents about the impact of the state's HB 56 immigration law. He brought up Martha's situation and a recently announced "prosecutorial discretion" policy by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to drop deportation cases against some undocumented immigrants deemed low priority. Gutierrez requested that Martha's last name be left out to protect her identity.
Martha should fit into that category, he said, but was instead being held in jail because of her immigration status.
A few hours after Napolitano's meeting with members of Congress ended, Martha was released and returned to her husband and children. On Friday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped all proceedings against the woman.
"It upsets us that it took so long," Gutierrez told HuffPost of Martha's release. "On the positive side, she's with her husband. ... She's back with her child and with her husband, and for the immediate future she's not deportable."
He declined to comment on what he heard from Napolitano on Thursday, saying it was a private meeting. But Gutierrez said he believes Napolitano is committed to implementing the prosecutorial discretion policy, even though it is not yet implemented in every case.
A Department of Homeland Security spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about whether the woman's release was connected to the secretary's meeting with members of Congress.
Gutierrez is pushing immigration officials to release other immigrants who have long-standing ties to the United States. He is also working with a man in South Carolina, another state with a recently-passed immigration law, who was released after the congressman helped prove that the man entered the United States as a child and had citizen family members.
Of course, not all detained undocumented immigrants can receive help from advocacy groups or members of Congress. Gutierrez said he wants to pressure immigration officials to ensure the prosecutorial discretion policy is implemented nationwide and encourage undocumented immigrants to carry papers that show their ties to the United States.
"The complaint is it's just not working on its own," he said. "Lots of things don't work on their own. Every day you have to be an activist to ensure that government is being fair and equitable with people."