Cindy Chang, Sunday School Teacher, Released After Three-Week Detention at Arizona Immigration Checkpoint

Categories: Immigration
Cindy Chang
Cindy Chang was driving from San Jose to Phoenix for a friend's wedding early this month when she was stopped at an immigration checkpoint in Eloy, Ariz. These structures are common this close to the border. 

Chang, a 26-year old Sunday school teacher who has lived in the Bay Area since her family left South Korea when she was seven, had applied for a green card nearly 20 years ago. She did not know the request had been denied in 2004 -- until the immigration officer at the checkpoint ran her papers, and detained her for being undocumented.

She was locked up at the center, and facing deportation, for 20 days before being released Tuesday evening.

During that time, immigration rights activists rallied around her case, calling it another example of the Department of Justice reneging on its pledge to focus immigration enforcement on those with criminal records.

When her family moved to America, Chang's father had a worker's visa for his job at a poultry processing plant in North Carolina, says Chang's lawyer, Anoop Prasad. Chang, her mother, and her sister lived near other relatives in San Jose, while her father applied for green cards for the whole family. Ten years later, with the application still pending, he lost his job and moved to join his family.

Soon after, the application was denied because, Prasad suspects, he no longer had the job. According to Prasad, those denial letters were sent to Chang's father's North Carolina address and never reached the family.

With the denial came the deportation orders.

Now Chang is asking an immigration judge to rescind that order. Much of her case, says Prasad, hinges on whether the judge believes that she had no idea her green card application was denied.

Largely because of that eight-year-old deportation order, immigration officials labeled Chang a flight risk, which is why she remained in detention for so long.

During Chang's detention, a Facebook page detailing her situation was created, and a petition requesting her release garnered 2,039 signatures. Prasad cites this support as the main reason for her release.

"It's unusual for ICE to agree to a release without a judge stepping in," he says.

The deportation order, though, still stands. Once back in the Bay Area, Chang must check in with an immigration office once a week during the legal proceedings. Her case is one of many that will measure how the government handles undocumented immigrants with otherwise clean records.

In November 2011, the Obama administration announced that the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security would remove low-priority cases from immigration courts' active dockets in order to clear the backlog and channel resources into targeting the most dangerous individuals.

DHS then told immigration officials -- ICE, Border Patrol, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services -- to exercise discretion when determining whether a case should be prosecuted.

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