Woman still jailed after immigration judge says she can stay in U.S., lawyer says

Update: Maria Garcia-Mata was released from jail Wednesday morning, hours after this story was published. That story is posted here.

Maria Garcia-Mata thought she was getting out of jail April 25.

An immigration judge granted her permission to remain in the United States lawfully, determining she would be in danger if she were deported to Mexico. She had been held in jail for three years by then, away from her three young children.

But more than a month after the judge’s order, the Department of Homeland Security continues to illegally detain Garcia-Mata, 33, at a rural Missouri jail, her attorney said in an emergency petition filed Tuesday.

“She’s just sitting there for no reason,” Garcia-Mata’s attorney, Matthew Hoppock, told The Star.

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.

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening. A spokesman said he would need to review the case.

An undocumented married mother who first came to Kansas City when she was 8, Garcia-Mata had been ordered removed from the country in April 2014 and deported to Mexico. Then in October 2015, she was caught trying to cross the Mexican border for a second time with a paid smuggler whose associates she now fears.

Garcia-Mata 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. Ultimately she did not testify at trial, because the smuggler pleaded guilty. But it was known that she had 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, her attorney said. 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.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s order, granting Garcia-Mata protection from deportation and saying she belonged to a group of “witnesses in criminal proceedings who will be targeted in Mexico.”

The case was later returned to the same judge, Glen Baker, who again 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 decision final, Hoppock said. Her deportation officer has recommended she be released from jail, according to the petition.

“Ms. Garcia-Mata’s continued detention is not just unlawful — it makes no sense,” her attorney wrote. He added that DHS pays Caldwell County “handsomely for her ongoing detention for no reason.”

In a phone interview, Hoppock simply said: “She should’ve been out by now.”

Garcia-Mata remains at the Caldwell County Jail in Kingston, more than 55 miles northeast of Kansas City and the area where her family lives. She missed Mother’s Day since the judge’s decision as well as the start of her children’s summer vacation, Hoppock said.

An employee at the jail, reached by phone Tuesday, said Garcia-Mata was still in custody. The employee declined to give a reason why.

Hoppock has repeatedly asked U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement why Garcia-Mata has not been released but has not received an answer, according to the petition. His requests for information have been ignored, he said.

“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?”

Hoppock still has not received a response, he said.

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 Garcia-Mata’s 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.

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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.