On April 1, Sthefany Flores received a letter from the federal government that told the Charlotte-area college student to pack her bags for possible deportation to her native Honduras.
On Monday, after her life had been turned upside down for weeks, the honors student at Gardner-Webb University got a followup email Monday night:
Never mind, it said.
The chaos surrounding Flores appears to have been the result of bureaucratic mix-up.
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Under President Donald Trump, deportations of undocumented immigrants have become a priority. But Flores never fit the bill. An Observer check of her background revealed no arrests or criminal convictions – normally a trigger for enforcement action by the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
She says she has a 3.8 grade point average in a diverse academic track that includes a journalism major, along with minors in theater and political science. Her updated protected immigration status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, kicked in March 15. The program gives immigration protection to qualified young people who were brought to the country as children by their families. Flores’ family left Honduras when she was 7.
A government official familiar with Flores’ case, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the situation, told the Observer that Flores’ DACA extension, which was authorized by another agency, had not appeared in ICE’s computers before the first letter, dated March 23, went out. He described DACA as the “silver bullet” that stops deportation proceedings.
Flores, who is undocumented, said Tuesday that ICE official David Kunde emailed her Monday night, apparently referring to her as “he,” and notified Flores her DACA extension had been located and that there was no need for her to make the drive to Charlotte from her Forest City home to meet with ICE Wednesday morning.
“I apologize for any inconvenience,” Kunde wrote.
Later, Flores said, Kunde called her. When she hung up, “I was just really overwhelmed,” Flores said. “I know I just looked at a wall for second and thought, ‘That just happened. This is really over now.’ ”
Tuesday, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox disputed the notion that Flores had been treated unfairly. He described her as a foreign national living in the country illegally who already has been the subject of a deportation order from an immigration judge, reportedly in 2005 when she was 8. He said ICE “was exercising its discretion” in allowing her to stay due to DACA protection.
When the ICE letter first arrived, Flores thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke. Then the realization sank in. “I just sat down,” she said. “I could hear my heart in my ears, and I thought, ‘This is not possible.’ ”
Nonetheless, she was instructed to show up Wednesday at ICE offices in Charlotte with no more than 40 pounds of luggage and her passport. She says she tried to get an explanation from Homeland Security officials on why she faced possible deportation but found no one to tell her what’s going on.
Flores’ community and school rallied to her cause. Byron Martinez, director of operations for Unidos We Stand, a Gastonia-based nonprofit for immigration rights, wrote Gov. Roy Cooper, Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, along with other elected officials asking them to intervene. Even Gardner-Webb president Frank Bonner had cleared his Wednesday schedule to appear at the ICE meeting in her behalf.
“What does deporting Ms. Flores say about our values as Americans?” Martinez said in his letter. “(She) is the epitome of what a DACA student should be ... A young life hangs in the balance.”
Bonner, the longtime president of the Boiling Springs school, said he talked to Flores on Saturday, describing the trauma the student has been through since the government raised the specter of deportation. “You can imagine what it was like to get that letter. It’s just cold,” he said.
Tuesday, Bonner’s statement to the 4,500-student campus an hour west of Charlotte took on a celebratory tone, expressing “joy and relief” that Flores’ immigration problems had passed, and thanks for how his school had rallied around her.
“Most of all, we are happy for Sthefany,” Bonner said.
Asked if she bore any resentment from her experiences from the last two weeks, Flores said no.
“I’m just really relieved. Now I can go back to just worrying about my final exams,” she said. “The world just opened up, and I feel I have so much more time ... I will be going to classes on Wednesday instead of that meeting.”