In a rare reprieve for an undocumented immigrant, Kansas City resident Maria Garcia-Mata no longer faces deportation to Mexico after a federal appeals court reversed a ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Garcia-Mata, a married mother of three who has lived in the area since she was eight years old, has been in a Kingston, Missouri, jail since she was detained by immigration authorities in 2015.
The ruling is unusual, said Garci-Mata’s attorney, Matthew Hoppock.
“We litigate quite a lot of appeals at the 8th Circuit, but they don’t grant (relief) very often,” Hoppock said. “One or two a year is pretty average.”
Garcia-Mata is not out of the woods yet. The board could order her deportation again. But for now, Hoppock said, he’s hoping to get her out of jail on bond.
“The family doesn't have much money, but really what they want is to get her out so she can be a mother to her children and work and support themselves,” Hoppock said.
Garcia-Mata’s saga began when immigration authorities sought to deport her in 2015. But a Kansas City immigration judge halted her removal, finding that she faced a credible threat of persecution if she were sent back to her native Mexico.
The Board of Immigration Appeals, an administrative body that hears appeals of immigration judges, thought otherwise. Saying the threats to Garcia-Mata were “non-specific” and came “from an unidentified source,” it found that Garcia-Mata had failed to show a “likelihood of future persecution.”
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, saying the board had impermissibly made its own findings of fact, “contrary to governing regulations.” The appeals court then sent the case back to the board for reconsideration.
Garcia-Mata has already been deported twice, once in 2015 first after pleading guilty to forgery charges and later after she tried to re-enter the United States using a stolen passport. She was caught by border patrol agents, served a five-month prison sentence and was deported to Mexico again.
Her husband and father then hired a group to smuggle her back in to the United States.
In its ruling, the 8th Circuit recounted what happened next:
Garcia-Mata took a bus to the border city of Nogales, Mexico. A taxi then took her to a house there, where she waited for nearly two weeks. She frequently saw armed men entering and leaving the house.
Border Patrol agents apprehended her again when she and a member of the smuggling group entered the U.S. She was detained as a material witness against her smuggler but was never called to testify.
But after she was detained, a member of the smuggling group sent threatening messages to her husband. And in Mexico, where the smugglers had taken her cell phone, they began to threaten the people listed as contacts in her phone.
The immigration judge found that Garcia-Mata was a member of a particular social group, namely “witnesses in criminal proceedings who will be targeted in Mexico,” and that the smugglers had the capability to carry out their threats. Concluding she was more likely than not to face persecution in Mexico, he halted her removal.
The judge, Glen R. Baker, denies far more asylum requests than he grants. Records compiled by TRAC, a research group at Syracuse University, show that between 2012 and 2017, Baker denied 71.3 percent of all asylum requests before him, compared with 69.3 percent and 63.7 percent, respectively, for the two other Kansas City immigration judges at the time.
“He’s not giving away asylum or withholding removal grants willy nilly,” Hoppock said. “You know, it’s not easy to win.”
Hoppock said he’s not sure whether it’s within Baker’s power, however, to let Garcia-Mata out of jail on bond.
“There’s just a remaining unsettled question as to whether an immigration judge can do that,” he said.
Hoppock said he has repeatedly asked U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to let Garcia-Mata out of jail while her case is pending, but so far they’ve refused.
A spokesman for ICE, asked to comment, said he needed to review Garcia-Mata's file before responding.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies