Airline, Union Tell ICE to Release Their Flight Attendant

(Bloomberg) -- A “Dreamer” flight attendant who was arrested by immigration authorities after she worked a Mesa Airlines flight to Mexico was released Friday from U.S. custody following protests from the company and colleagues, a union official said.

Selene Saavedra Roman, 28, was arrested on her return to Houston Feb. 12 and had been held by U.S. immigration authorities since then. Mesa Air’s chief executive officer and the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA went public with their pleas Thursday that Saavedra Roman be released. Her immigration case remains pending.

Saavedra Roman agreed to work the cross-border flight to Monterrey, Mexico, after being wrongly assured by supervisors that the trip would pose no problem with her status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the union said.

“The rhetoric around immigration in this country has created an unsafe situation,” union President Sara Nelson said in a telephone news conference Friday with Saavedra Roman’s husband and attorney. “There has been this idea that if people don’t have their citizenship or their permanent residency that somehow they’re breaking the law -- and that’s simply not the case.”

‘Patently Unfair’

Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of Mesa Air Group Inc., joined with the union to ask the government to drop its legal action. “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,” Ornstein said.

Saavedra Roman’s release from a privately-run detention center in Conroe, Texas, doesn’t end the case or the threat of deportation, said her attorney, Belinda Arroyo.

Saavedra Roman started flying at Mesa in December and is based in Houston, the union said. When she was asked to work on a flight to Mexico she raised the issue of her legal status with supervisors, who incorrectly told her that because of her DACA protection there should be no problem, a union spokeswoman said.


Discussions Ahead

Saavedra Roman was still on her probationary period as a new Mesa employee and didn’t want to cause trouble at her job by declining the trip, her first one internationally, according to the union. The Mesa flight was operated for United Continental Holdings Inc.

“There will be some discussions with Mesa going forward” about administrative errors that led to Saavedra Roman’s scheduled trip abroad, even though she had asked to avoid international flights because of her immigration status, Arroyo said.

The flight attendant is a “Peruvian national” who was “processed as a refused crewmember” at the airport because she didn’t have valid entry documentation, Tim Oberle, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said by email. People covered under the DACA program aren’t “categorically targeted for immigration enforcement,” the agency said.

Saavedra Roman came to the U.S. at age 3, graduated from Texas A&M University and is married to a U.S. citizen, according to the union, which also mounted a MoveOn.org petition on her behalf. Her family has worked to obtain her U.S. permanent residency status, said David Watkins, Saavedra Roman’s husband.

Six weeks in custody have caused the flight attendant anxiety and “pretty severe depression,” Watkins said, adding that he told his wife “even if you get deported to Peru I’ll still go and be with you.”

Created by President Barack Obama in 2012, the DACA program allows some undocumented immigrants the opportunity to obtain temporary work authorization and relief from the threat of deportation. The program is aimed at immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and requires that they either be in school, have graduated high school or served in the military. Any felony or significant misdemeanor conviction disqualifies them from the program.

In November, a federal appeals court panel upheld an injunction blocking President Donald Trump’s effort to terminate the program. The administration has asked the Supreme Court to take up the issue.

ICE referred additional questions to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That agency said it can’t comment on specific cases, but it “will not accept or approve advance parole requests from DACA recipients,” spokeswoman Arwen FitzGerald said.

Under President Obama, DACA beneficiaries could obtain permission to travel outside the U.S. and then return. Under the Trump administration, such “advance parole” requests are no longer allowed.

The Texan’s arrest and detention “shows we have a completely broken system,” Nelson said.

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