MELBOURNE, Fla. – At the Orlando International Airport Saturday morning, Vilma Diaz, 41, cried as she embraced friends and family before being boarded onto a plane with her two children.
Three Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents in plainclothes escorted the Melbourne mother onto the airplane for a one-way trip to El Salvador, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
Diaz is being deported to El Salvador eight years after getting pulled over for driving without a seatbelt, according to her immigration attorneys.
Diaz runs a local business with her husband. Her children are both U.S. citizens.
At the airport, Diaz’s friends and family pleaded with the agents for anything they might be able to do, but the agents explained they were just doing their jobs and did not have authority to grant Diaz an interview for asylum under reasonable fear.
They said Diaz broke the law by entering the country illegally and they were simply enforcing the consequences.
A last minute stay of deportation was denied by a judge Friday after Diaz has lived and worked in the United States for the past 16 years. Appeals for her to stay in the country were too little and too late after months of feeling hopeless, according to Diaz and her immigration attorney, Karen Iezzi of Satellite Beach.
Both children boarded a Spirit airlines flight Saturday morning to go to a country they don't know and which has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Her son, 11-year-old Axel, has severe asthma. In El Salvador, he will be 90 minutes from the nearest hospital and without consistent electricity for his nebulizer, Iezzi said.
On top of that, he and his two-year-old brother Josue could be targeted as U.S. citizens by gang members in El Salvador who believe they can profit from kidnapping them, Iezzi said in a piece she wrote for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Since finding out that his mother would be deported, he has been getting sick to his stomach from the anxiety of knowing she might be taken from him at any moment.
Axel has been crying during school for the past several months, sometimes too distraught to attend class out of fear that his mother will no longer be there when she gets back, Diaz said.
“Deporting Vilma Diaz will not make any U.S. citizens safer,” she wrote. “In fact, it will endanger the lives of two of those citizens — her children. It shouldn’t happen.”
Iezzi is a conservative who voted for Donald Trump but has argued against some of his immigration policies.
"Under Trump these stays of deportation never get approved," she said. "It's possible ICE could change their minds at the last second."
"Immigration officials don't know how much damage they've caused," Diaz said.
Diaz said she's sad about the decision to split up the family she's built in Melbourne, but will respect it and follow the law even if she thinks it's unjust.
Joel Tooley is pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Melbourne and a consultant with the bipartisan National Immigration Forum. He says this type of case is not uncommon.
"The thing about this case is here’s a mom who has good moral character," Tooley said.
“She’s worked hard, is a taxpayer, living like most undocumented folks live: she just kind of keeps her head down.”
He knows some people will say she broke the law and deserves to be deported. But he believes that the immigration system is inhumane, and that there should be an option in between deportation and full amnesty for people like Diaz.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement did not return calls as of Friday evening.
“These are the kind of people I want as neighbors," Tooley said. “To me it’s unfathomable that we’re talking about a document keeping this family from staying in the United States.”
Jose Carlos Diaz said his sister is a hard worker who stays out of trouble.
“This country is a big giant. Hispanic people are the hand of the big giant,” he said. “They don’t say no. They’re just working.”