For six weeks, Selene Saavedra Roman has been living what her husband describes as “a nightmare”. In February, in the first few weeks of a new job as a flight attendant with Mesa Airlines and on a turnaround flight from Mexico, she was detained at George Bush intercontinental airport in Houston.
Saavedra Roman entered the US from Peru 25 years ago, when she was three, with parents who did not have documentation. As such she is a Dreamer, a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, or Daca. Therefore, under Trump administration rules implemented in 2017, she is barred from traveling outside the US.
The Mesa flight was the first time she had left the US. Naturally, before the flight she was concerned this would jeopardize her Daca status.
Even though David Watkins, her husband, said she had put Mexico and Canada on her “no fly” list when she was hired this winter, her new employer said via email and phone she could fly to and from Mexico in safety.
It turned out her concerns were valid. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) officials detained the 28-year-old, despite her status and lack of a criminal record, and she spent more than a month in the Montgomery processing center in Conroe, Texas.
Eventually, her plight was noticed by Hillary Clinton, who recommended followers sign a MoveOn.org petition calling for her release. On Friday evening, Saavedra Roman was let go.
Watkins said his wife’s detention was a nightmare.
“Sometimes,” he said on Friday evening, “you have a nightmare and when you wake up you say, ‘OK, the nightmare is over’. When I go to sleep, I have nightmares. When I wake up, I’m still stuck in the nightmare.”
A US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) spokesperson told the Guardian the agency could not comment on specific cases, and referred to a January 2018 preliminary injunction that says it will not accept or approve advance parole requests from Daca recipients.
Watkins told reporters he had been in touch with his wife in the mornings and each night by phone, and had seen her for one hour once a week through “two inches of glass”. He described her level of depression and anxiety as “very high”, even after he spoke with her on Friday morning.
Watkins and the attorney Belinda Arroyo organized the MoveOn petition and support from legislators and the flight attendants’ union, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
That powerful group, most recently known for its public attempts to end Donald Trump’s partial government shutdown, called for Saavedra Roman’s immediate release. A protest outside the Conroe facility was planned.
Watkins said his wife called on Friday morning to say she might be released, and the union president, Sara Nelson, said a “representative on the ground” confirmed it would happen.
“This story is just horrific,” Nelson added.
Saavedra Roman grew up in Dallas and went to university at Texas A&M. She received Daca status, which was introduced by Barack Obama, in 2012. After graduating in 2014, she worked in early childhood development.
She married Watkins, a US citizen, in 2017 and is now about halfway through applying for citizenship through an I-130 petition. Her Daca status does not expire until November.
Ice verified her arrest, saying she had “applied for admission” into the country without “valid entry documentation” and was processed as a “refused crewmember”. That is a term that describes staff working for airlines and other carriers who do not have the correct paperwork to enter a country.
Her release, Ice added, was effective “pending adjudication of her immigration proceedings”.
In a statement, the Mesa Airlines chairman and chief executive, Jonathan Ornstein, said: “We are deeply sorry Selene and her husband have had to endure this situation. It is patently unfair for someone to be detained for six weeks over something that is nothing more than an administrative error and a misunderstanding.
“We are doing everything in our power to ask the administration to … drop all charges stemming from this horrible situation.”
Describing her interactions with Saavedra Roman, Arroyo said: “She’s an amazing, sweet girl. There’s a reason Mesa hired her. Flight attendants have great personalities, and she fits the bill.”
Asked about Mesa’s involvement in the case prior to the social media storm touched off in part by Clinton’s tweet, Arroyo said: “No, we haven’t had contact with them before today.”
Asked if there would be a civil suit against the company for its misguided assurance to its employee, Arroyo said: “As of right now, our No 1 focus has been her release. She has not hired a civil attorney.”
She went on to say a suit had not been ruled out.