On Oct. 24 2017, Rosa Maria Hernandez, an undocumented 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, was traveling from her home in Laredo, Texas to the Driscoll Children’s Hospital to get surgery work done on her gallbladder. She was with her 34-year old cousin, Aurora Cantu, a U.S. citizen. Around 70 miles into the trip, their ambulance was stopped by U.S. Border Patrol agents. Officials asked for everyone’s identification, and Aurora explained to them that Rosa Maria didn’t carry any I.D. and showed them medical documents that explained her cousin’s condition.

This information did not satisfy border agents. They informed Aurora that they were going to follow her vehicle to Corpus Christi. Border agents trailed them for the rest of the trip and kept watch over Rosa Maria during and after her surgery. Once the hospital released Rosa Maria, she was taken into custody by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Rosa Maria’s detention did not sit well with the ACLU of Texas. On Oct. 31, they filed a lawsuit in Rosa Maria’s behalf and federal agents released her to her family on Nov. 3.

I spoke with Edgar Saldivar, an attorney at the ACLU of Texas that worked on Rosa Maria’s case. Saldivar has worked for the ACLU of Texas for the last two years, and he has worked actively to protect the civil liberties of U.S. citizens as well as undocumented immigrants. I spoke with him over the phone about the severity of Rosa Maria’s case and immigration policy under President Trump.

Photo: Edgar Saldivar

Free Press Houston: Hello Edgar, thank you for speaking with me. I know you’re a busy person, so I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Just to clarify for our readers, what is your exact position at the ACLU of Texas and what sorts of cases do you typically work on?

Edgar Saldivar: So I am a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas. We are an affiliate of the national ACLU. Our headquarters is in Houston, I am based in Houston, and most of my work is focused on immigrant’s rights. I have been working quite a bit on cases like the Rosa Maria case and our work relating to the travel ban, as well as other cases in the past dealing with Border Patrol and CBP’s patterns of abuse across the border.

FPH: Tell me about Rosa Maria’s case and why the ACLU of Texas found it alarming enough to sue the federal government over it. What sorts of rights were obstructed and what sorts of laws were Border Patrol agents breaking when they took Rosa Maria into custody?

Saldivar: Rosa Maria’s case is one of the most extreme and egregious examples of immigration enforcement under Trump’s deportation force. This case deals with a 10-year-old little girl with cerebral palsy who was seeking medical care in Corpus Christi for a gallbladder surgery. The reason this case raised so many concerns was simply because you have a minor who was accompanied by her adult cousin, who border patrol decided and chose to follow all the way to the hospital. They shadowed her every step at the hospital, including waiting outside her surgery room as well as her recovery room — intent on taking her into custody and putting her through deportation proceedings. This girl has never been unaccompanied yet she was treated as an unaccompanied minor coming to this country.

Photo: Rosa Maria Hernandez recovering from surgery in the hospital

FPH: Do you know where she was being detained and if she was getting any medical treatment at all? I know that they took her into custody soon after the surgery. Were they providing anything for her?

Saldivar: After they took her into custody, they transferred her to the Office of Refugee Resettlement which is the agency within the federal government that takes care of minor immigrant children. They put her in a shelter in San Antonio where they provided some care for her. To my understanding, they took her to a follow-up doctor’s appointment, but they did that without informing the parents nor did they get any consent from her parents.

FPH: What statements — if any — did U.S. Border Patrol and Office of Refugee Resettlement make about this case and why did they aggressively try to bring a child into custody?

Saldivar: You know, that is something you would have to clarify from them, but my general understanding is that they were taking the position that this was something they had to do under the law. Of course, in these kinds of cases, immigration agents are granted a lot of discretion. They could have chosen to not go through this ordeal and not to pursue this little girl, but they decided to do so anyway, and they are standing by that position based on what they think they were required to do.

Photo: Rosa Maria Hernandez in happier days

FPH: Throughout this time, were you speaking with Rosa Maria’s parents? How did her family and her parents react to this situation? I’m sure this must have been very difficult for them.

Saldivar: Without disclosing any client-privilege conversations, this has been a traumatic ordeal for the family. It was a terrible nightmare for the mother who has always cared for her daughter, who has given her daily physical therapy, and who completely missed her every minute she was away from her.

To begin with, [Rosa Maria’s mother] couldn’t travel with her to the hospital because her daughter would have to go through a check point and she had concerns about that. So she stayed behind and sent her adult niece to go with [Rosa Maria]. But it has been a traumatic ordeal [for her parents]. Fortunately Rosa Maria was released and she is now with her family. They are completely relieved that they are reunited.

FPH: So she was released once the lawsuit was filed, correct?

Saldivar: That is correct. The lawsuit was filed, and within a couple of days she was released by federal agents.

FPH: Why should Texans be alarmed by behavior like this from federal agents, especially here in our state?

Saldivar: One thing to note — aside from the humanitarian concerns — in this kind of case is that there is a serious concern over individuals that have to travel through checkpoints for medical emergencies. If the U.S. Border Patrol is going to be following every medical transport vehicle through a checkpoint — and not allowing them to simply pass through to their hospital destination — it could have a ripple effect in immigrant communities. And not just for undocumented individuals, but even for U.S. citizens who have family members with mixed status because they are going to be afraid that they or a member of their family will be subjected to a possible deportation proceeding simply for seeking life saving medical care, and that is a terrible thing people should be aware of. There should be better policies in these situations compared to what we saw happen to Rosa Maria.

FPH: Do you see this rash, aggressive behavior from the U.S. Border Patrol as a symptom of the current presidential administration? I’m guessing that you dealt with a lot of change over the last year.

Saldivar: Yeah, that’s right. We think it’s part of that — I guess you can describe it as a removal of priorities that agents used to have in terms of who they would go after. Soon after Trump came into office, those priorities — those guidelines — went away. Now everyone with a questionable immigration status is subject to Trump’s deportation force. It’s not just going after serious criminals and people with records, it’s potentially the most vulnerable — even a 10-year-old with cerebral palsy.

FPH: How has President Trump’s policies affected your work over the last year, and what kinds of cases have you been dealing with? I know you fought on the front lines against the executive order barring immigrants from predominately Muslim countries from entering the United States. You were at Bush Intercontinental Airport when first travel ban was passed, correct?

Saldivar: That is correct. I was one of the first attorneys at Bush who helped organize a team of volunteer lawyers to protect travelers and protesters at the airport. And that was early on in January. As you can imagine, we have been very busy since then. And not just related to those travel ban cases, but — just to give you an idea related to that — we filed litigation here in Houston seeking records about how officials at Bush Intercontinental and Dallas Airport implemented those travel bans.

We recently challenged a state law that essentially enlists local law enforcement officials into Trump’s deportation force. That is called Senate Bill 4 — or S.B. 4 as it has been referred to — and that law has been partially blocked by a district court and an appellate court. We just had a hearing in New Orleans at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to block as much of this law as possible.

In addition to that, we raised this case of Rosa Maria and filed the lawsuit, and we’ve been vigilant of all kinds of abuses. We started an immigrants rights hotline  that answers question for people who have concerns about immigration policies under the Trump administration. So we have done a lot and we’ve been non-stop fighting back on policies that target immigrants. But not just immigrants: the LBGTQ community, women, people of color, voting rights. All of these things have kept us very, very busy at the ACLU of Texas. It’s been a non-stop effort on our part to defend people’s rights.

FPH: According to your ACLU biography, you helped the ACLU of Texas secure victories for civil rights within your first year on the job. This included two settlements against the federal government. What were those cases and what changes did they bring about?

Saldivar: One case is Doe v. CBP. This is a case where we represented an individual who is a U.S. citizen who crossed the border, and on her way back from Mexico was suspected of carrying drugs. But initial searches did not reveal anything. She was then subjected to additional searches. Nothing showed up so she obviously didn’t have anything [on her]. Yet agents were not satisfied and they forced her to undergo very invasive, additional searches where they pressured doctors to do these searches. Our client was subjected to a horrific, traumatic ordeal where she felt — at the conclusion of it— to be the victim of a sexual assault. This was a case where we alleged fourth amendment violations. Our client never consented, agents did not have a warrant for those kinds of very invasive body searches. In that case, we recovered money for our client from the hospital and the federal government.

In the other case, we represented Laura Mireles, who is also a U.S. citizen [that] was subjected to a search at the border on her way back from work. She actually worked at a duty free shop. When she questioned an officer about why they needed to search her purse — rather than simply answering her question — the officer threw her to ground. This is a petite woman with a disability, and the officer put his knees on her back, handcuffed her so tightly that they ultimately had to have a fire department cut the handcuffs off, subjecting her to physical injury. In that case, we also obtained a record settlement for our client.

FPH: Lastly, what changes do you hope to see in America’s immigration process in your lifetime? What should our country be doing to protect immigrants seeking asylum in our country?

Saldivar: I think we definitely need to have immigration policies that fully take into account the reasons why people are coming to this country and to really take into account the values we have always had as a nation, which is a welcoming country that has taken in the most vulnerable, that has provided shelter. I don’t have to repeat the inscription in our Statue of Liberty, but I think that speaks to our values as a nation, and to the extent that our laws need to be changed to make that happen. I think we need to consider that.

But hopefully we take a more compassionate, just, and fair approach to immigration. Because the reality is these individuals are human beings like anyone else, and they are entitled to basic constitutional rights as soon as they touch U.S. soil.

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At the end of our conversation, Saldivar reminded me that Houstonians in need of civil protections will always have the ACLU on their side.

“I think it’s important for people to know there are civil rights attorneys in Houston that are fighting the good fight and are at the front lines,” Saldivar concluded.