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A judge ordered her freed. ICE kept her in a Missouri jail for weeks anyway.

Maria Garcia-Mata listened as a voice came over the intercom Wednesday morning at the Caldwell County jail, a place she had come to know well in the last three years.

A guard spoke. “Garcia, can you do us a favor?”

Sure, she thought. She had translated for the guards before. She guessed she was being summoned to interpret again for another undocumented immigrant.

Instead, she was told: “Can you go and pack your stuff?”

She thought the guards were kidding. They regularly asked her when she was getting out, she said. But it soon set in that she was going home to her three children in Kansas City, Kansas. She hadn’t hugged them since 2015, when they visited her in Mexico.

Other detainees nearby in the jail cheered, Garcia-Mata recalled. Some said they were praying for her. She thought about the years that went by, the things she missed in her kids’ lives.

Garcia-Mata, 33, was taken to an immigration office near Kansas City International Airport, an hour drive southwest of the detention center. Her 18-year-old son, Manuel Escobedo, picked her up there. She didn’t want to let go as they hugged.

At home, Garcia-Mata surprised her girls, ages 10 and 15, who shook and cried.

“They wouldn’t let me go,” she said.

Garcia-Mata was released at 10:40 a.m. from the detention center in Kingston, a day after her attorney filed an emergency petition asking for federal officials to explain why she was detained. The attorney, Matthew Hoppock, claimed Garcia-Mata was being held illegally after an immigration judge granted her permission to remain in the United States lawfully.

In late April, the judge determined Garcia-Mata would be in danger if she were deported to Mexico. She had agreed to testify against a man who smuggled her into the U.S. He worked for a cartel that had since threatened her family, she claimed.

Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could have appealed within 30 days but did not, making the judge’s decision final, Garcia-Mata’s attorney said.

“Ms. Garcia-Mata’s continued detention is not just unlawful — it makes no sense,” Hoppock wrote in the petition before she was released, adding that DHS paid Caldwell County “handsomely for her ongoing detention for no reason.”

Garcia-Mata’s story in the U.S. began when she was 5. Her parents took her to Los Angeles for a better life. It was easier to cross the border then, she said. Her uncle drove.

About 10 years ago, Garcia-Mata’s family moved to the Kansas City area. She took classes online, raised her three young children and worked as the secretary of a local church.

But in 2013, Garcia-Mata was charged with, and later pleaded guilty to, forgery in Wyandotte County, court records show. She was ordered removed from the U.S. in April 2014 and deported to Mexico, where she said she hadn’t been in about 20 years.

Garcia-Mata went to stay with family in Jiménez, a city in Chihuahua, after she was dropped off at the border. There were two women and dozens of men on the bus that took her there in the dark, she said. Her handcuffs were taken off and she was given her property.

When she tried to re-enter the U.S. in January 2015, she was arrested in Nogales, Arizona, for presenting a U.S. passport to Customs and Border Protection officers at the port of entry as proof she had legal authority to enter the country, according to court documents. The passport said she was named Jessica Sanchez.

Garcia-Mata tried to get in that way, she said, because she heard stories of people dying as they tried to walk through the desert.

She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced in February 2015 to five months in federal prison, records show. After that, she was sent back to Mexico, near Tijuana, where she could use a phone to call her family.

Her children traveled to visit her for a month at her grandfather’s house. One day, there was someone was killed in a shooting at a nearby restaurant, she told The Star.

“That’s how they do it,” she said.

She had to risk trying to come back, she said.

In October 2015, Garcia-Mata was caught trying to cross the border again, this time with a paid smuggler. She agreed to testify against the smuggler, who was ultimately sentenced to 30 days in prison in 2015, most of it already served after his arrest on felony smuggling charges. She did not have to testify at a trial, but it was known that she agreed to do so.

Once she was listed as a witness, Garcia-Mata’s family began to receive threats from the cartel the smuggler worked for. She applied for withholding of her removal, something an immigration judge granted in November 2016 when concluding she was likely to face persecution if deported.

DHS appealed, which the Board of Immigration Appeals sustained in March 2017.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually upheld the judge’s order granting Garcia-Mata protection from deportation as a witness in “criminal proceedings who will be targeted in Mexico,” according to her attorney’s petition.

The case was returned to the same immigration judge, Glen Baker, who again on April 25 granted her permission to remain in the U.S. He determined Mexico would be unable or unwilling to protect her “from the harm feared,” court records show.

Knowing the Mexican address of her grandparents, the “smuggling criminal organization would have the capability and the knowledge … to carry out any threats” should she return, the judge reasoned.

Garcia-Mata’s testimony paralleled reports of links between criminal organizations and police officials in Mexico, the judge said. She testified she witnessed law enforcement once accepting money from smugglers. She claimed her husband reported threats from the smugglers to Mexican authorities, who refused to help, according to court documents.

“We all know that the police department works with the cartels, they are even afraid of the cartels,” Garcia-Mata testified.

DHS could have appealed within 30 days but did not, making the judge’s decision final, Hoppock said. Her deportation officer recommended she be released from jail, according to the petition.

Garcia-Mata thought she was going to be released that day in late April.

But more than a month after the judge’s order, she remained at the rural Missouri jail, so her attorney filed the emergency petition Tuesday. He told The Star then: “She’s just sitting there for no reason.”

An immigration attorney who has practiced law in Kansas City for 10 years, Hoppock said he has not seen a case in the region before where a client has been granted permission to remain in the U.S. but remained detained weeks later.

Hoppock had repeatedly asked an ICE attorney why Garcia-Mata was not released after the judge’s decision, but he said he did not receive an answer, according to the petition. His requests for information were ignored, he claimed.

“Do you know if ICE is going to release her now?” Hoppock wrote in an email May 29 to an ICE attorney. He sent another two days later: “Maria is still detained. Do you know when she’s going to be processed out?”

An ICE official said as a matter of policy, the agency could not comment on Garcia-Mata’s case because of the pending litigation. The lack of comment, however, “should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations,” the official said.

In a statement, the official said the agency’s law enforcement professionals “uphold our laws while continuing to provide the nation with safety and security.”

In August 2018, an ICE spokesman called Garcia-Mata a “twice-deported convicted felon.”

Despite Garcia-Mata helping prosecutors, it took only a few days for the U.S. attorney’s office in Tucson to drop felony smuggling charges against Salvador Suchilt, the man convicted in her case.

Suchilt, at the time an 18-year-old American, faced up to 10 years in prison. But he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for assisting in Garcia-Mata’s re-entry and was freed without probation.

Arizona authorities later busted Suchilt, in February 2016, for possessing methamphetamine and allegedly conspiring to import and distribute the drug. He pleaded guilty to importation and was sentenced to 46 months in prison.

Now 22, Suchilt is set to be released from a federal penitentiary in Victorville, California, later this month.

As for Garcia-Mata, her children have changed a lot since she was detained, she said. Her son, who now stands about 6 feet tall, graduated from Wyandotte High School in May. Her youngest daughter participated in her first communion ceremony at church, while the other was confirmed.

Sitting on her porch Wednesday afternoon as garbage men picked up trash on the block, she joked that her personal clothes don’t fit anymore. One of the first things she did at home was brush her daughters’ hair. One of them jumped on a trampoline in the front yard.

Each of her children wanted her to cook something different for dinner Wednesday night. She laughed and said she could spend a whole day cooking.

Asked what comes next, Garcia-Mata shrugged. She doesn’t know; she just got home.

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Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.
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