When Claudia Portillo, 30, mother of four, left her north Arcata home three weeks ago, she was confident that her appointment at the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services office in San Francisco would go well. But Portillo didn’t come back, and what was supposed to be a yearly check-in became a fight to bring her home.
Jenny Ventura, sister of Portillo and a leader within the True North Organizing Network, knows all too well that the current immigration system can be difficult to navigate for many undocumented people.
“My sister had an appointment at the regional center on Tuesday, Nov. 14,” Ventura said. “She was very confident that she would just turn in her paperwork for her annual check-in. I was even going to go with her.”
Rather than processing her paperwork, Portillo was arrested at once and placed in civil detention at the Contra Costa West County Detention Center by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Richmond, California. Located in the East Bay area of San Francisco, the facility has been the subject of numerous complaints from its detainees because of the living conditions, including 23 hours of confinement and plastic bags in place of working toilets. The complaints even prompted a recent visit from local district Congressman Mark DeSauliner, according to an article by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The long road to reunite a family
In most cases, detainees are removed promptly but thanks to actions taken by the family, True North and hired lawyer Joseph LaCome’s legal efforts, Portillo was able to stay in the country.
Following her detention on Tuesday, a legal motion to stay and a separate motion to reopen Portillo’s case was filed by LaCome on Friday, preventing her deportation on Saturday.
But the road to reuniting Portillo with her family seems long and tasked with legal loops. Although initially confident that a judge would rule in favor of Portillo’s case and reopen, LaCome later relayed that Claudia’s initial request to reopen the case had been denied.
“Our next option would be to file an appeal through the federal immigration court in Virginia,” LaCome said. “If that’s denied, we can file with the 9th circuit.”
Moreover, the effort to release Portillo on a bond has been hindered by a lengthy waiting time. Although she could potentially be bailed at $1500, LaCome estimates that they might not get a bond hearing for five months. To further complicate the situation, Portillo has been relocated by ICE to the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield as of Nov. 30.
The history of Portillo’s case
Portillo’s detention has since become a legal effort to release her from the facility. But the details surrounding the case seem to have a long spanning history, according to LaCome.
“It all started back in 2006,” LaCome said. “She was living in Long Beach but had moved away. That address had been listed with DHS [Department of Homeland Security] because she was receiving TPS [Temporary Protected Status] since she’s from El Salvador.”
Although Portillo had been living in the United States since the age of 7, she was legally eligible for temporary immigration status at one point, under the conditions that her documentation and status continued to be renewed. However, Portillo was taken out of the system and her case was changed to removal status, subjecting her to deportation. They scheduled a hearing in the summer of June 2008, and meant to notify Portillo via her listed mailing address but it was never received and they proceeded “in absentia.”
“She didn’t find out until a 2011 traffic stop,” LaCome said. “She was referred to ICE by the city police. She was able to stay in the country with certain stipulations. Essentially, don’t violate the laws and check in once a year. But she recently hired a lawyer who was supposed to do some of these things, who never did anything. So instead, they just detained her at the check-in.”
The community gathers for Claudia
Despite the impediments, Portillo’s family and friends have continued their efforts to bring her home and raise awareness of the situation to the local community in Humboldt County. Brenda Urueta, community organizer at the True North Organizing Network, is one of many who are working towards supporting Portillo and her family through a recently held vigil and an online GoFundMe page.
“Jenny wanted to have a vigil to let Claudia know that she isn’t alone,” Urueta said. “The GoFundMe is meant to provide funding for the immigration lawyer and for her family to travel down to San Francisco. We set it up under Jenny’s name. True North is helping to facilitate the fund.”
The Nov. 27 vigil saw a large turnout of community members gathered at the Arcata Plaza. The vigil opened with a prayer and call for unity by Ventura and Portillo’s mother, Dora.
“We are asking for mercy for Claudia and all other detainees who are being held as if they were criminals,” Portillo said. “These are the moments where all Latinos need to unite to speak up to help and support those who are undocumented.”
Some community members, including Dave Silverbrand of Eureka, also spoke out about Claudia’s community outreach both here in Humboldt County and in the city of Ukiah, as well as the inspiration that is drawn from Latino people.
“There’s something about the Latino community,” Silverbrand said. “They go above and beyond. People who we should see as examples for ourselves. I see that in Claudia.”
While Portillo’s case might seem exceptionally disheartening, there are many who feel that it is simply a vignette of a larger image of the failing immigration system in the U.S.
“To our family, to many families, this shows how broken our immigration system is,” Ventura said.
To visit the GoFundMe page, go to: