Nuestra Comunidad: Immigrant mother served 3-month incarceration

During the 97 days that Vilma Aracely Quintanilla was held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Georgia, the mother of three waited anxiously for an official at the Irwin County Detention Center to open her cell and say: “You can go now. It’s your turn.”

The 36-year-old Salvadoran native was arrested by ICE agents on Sept. 8, 2017, in the entrance of her home in Norcross. Neither Quintanilla nor her lawyers understand why the arrest occurred, since, at that time, Quintanilla was in the process of applying for a U Visa, after becoming a rape victim on two occasions between 2015 and 2016, according to an official police report filed with the Gwinnett County Police Department.

Her three daughters, between the ages of 10 and 21 years, were left home unsupervised.

“When they arrested me, they cuffed my hands, my stomach, my feet… it was an awful experience. Your mind goes blank,” said Quintanilla. “I didn’t resist arrest, because I wanted to do things the right way. I’ve always wanted to do things the right way in this country. I didn’t even know why they were arresting me.”

Quintanilla had begun wearing an electronic bracelet device once she crossed the border into the United States in 2015, after losing her husband to gang violence in El Salvador. Since then, she had regularly checked in with immigration officials, according to her lawyer, Dustin Baxter.

According to Quintanilla, the agents indicated that her documents were undergoing verification in Washington D.C. and that once that process was completed, she would be told in January when she’d be released.

“I told my daughters: ‘I’ll be spending Christmas here.’ It was hard to tell them that, because you want to spend the holidays with your family, and I’m all they have,” lamented Quintanilla.

With nothing to do but worry, horrors of the past came back to haunt her.

“The images of the sexual assault I went through came to my mind constantly. At night I would think of what that person did to me… I wish that could be erased, but I don’t think that can ever be erased from your mind,” said Quintanilla.

Despite the fact that she was incarcerated, Quintanilla said she was treated well in jail.

“Where I was there would be up to 90 women in the same place, and everyone slept in their own bunk bed. Just four bathrooms. There are very few showers, where we all have to shower together. It’s really hard to be there. But I kept quiet. I didn’t want to cause any trouble,” she said.

In the midst of her loneliness, however, there was one silver lining that saved her. Quintanilla learned how to make bracelets out of excess grocery bag material, an activity that she and her fellow prisoners would carry out in secret to pass the time and make their stay more bearable.

“That was how we kept our minds occupied. As time went by I realized that it was going to help me, because at first, I didn’t want to do it. Then I saw how it was helping me to sleep,” said Quintanilla.

She still uses her bracelet today. For Quintanilla, it does not represent a negative memory from her past, but rather part of a process which helped her grow.

“I’ve tried to keep moving forward with my life, because I can’t dwell on the past. What I went through wasn’t easy, of course, but I prefer to not keep thinking about it. I prefer to focus on my future, to move forward for my daughters,” she said.

From her experience, Quintanilla says she learned patience, and that is exactly the message she has for women and families going through the same situation. “Everything will happen when it’s supposed to happen, not when you want it to happen. Sometimes we want something, and we want it now. It doesn’t do us any good to lose hope. Be patient. In the end I would say to myself: ‘This won’t be forever, this is temporary,’ and it’s good to think about it like that,” assured Quintanilla, for whom freedom now has a new significance.

Quintanilla was released on Dec. 13.

According to her lawyer, immigration officials indicated that Quintanilla was arrested “due to the changes in priority under the Trump presidency. They are arresting people with deportation orders. Vilma had an old order, despite her U Visa being in process.”

“They evaluated her U Visa application to see if it was really a possibility. When they received a response saying that it could be approved in the future, then they let her go,” explained Baxter.

According to Baxter, under the Trump administration, having a U Visa in process does not necessarily guarantee that a deportation can be avoided.