SEARCY -- The young Salvadoran woman whose arrest last year puzzled immigration attorneys has since settled into a routine similar to many others in America's working class.
Tatiana Jaco-Alvarez graduated from Searcy High School last month and took a night shift at the Pop-Tart manufacturing plant in town. College and a career in nursing, she hopes, are next.
"I don't have much time to do things because I start working at 3 [p.m.] or 3:30 to 11, 12, 1 [a.m.]," the 19-year-old said. "In the morning, I just sleep."
As the United States continues wrestling with how to treat tens of thousands of unaccompanied foreign children such as Jaco-Alvarez, who arrive to the border in waves each year after leaving violent Central American hometowns, the young woman pushes forward with her life while waiting on her bid for asylum to be decided.
Jaco-Alvarez, then 17, traveled in 2016 to the United States from Santa Ana in El Salvador. Fear of gangs in her hometown -- including what she said was the killing of a female classmate at nursing school -- prompted a three-week journey she had otherwise been scared to make. Her mom, who moved to Searcy seven years earlier, paid for the trip.
Shortly after Jaco-Alvarez and her younger sister sneaked across the Rio Grande, they were detained by federal authorities, who placed them in a New York shelter for weeks before releasing them to their mother, pending a resolution in immigration court.
Seven months later, during what Jaco-Alvarez thought was a routine check-in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, the young woman, then 18, was arrested in Little Rock on accusations of being in the country illegally. She had not been accused of a second crime.
"I [didn't] know what was about to happen to me," she recalled this month.
Jaco-Alvarez stayed 10 nights in an immigration jail in Jena, La., before a judge set bail at $1,500, the lowest allowed by law.
Attorneys said the arrest was abnormal because she was previously designated as an unaccompanied foreign child, an administrative label that allows minors the chance to convince government officials that they should stay.
Attorneys expressed confusion over whether the arrest was a sign of shifting enforcement one week into President Donald Trump's administration or an isolated change from norms.
Typically, unaccompanied children are not detained while waiting for their immigration court cases to proceed, even if they later turn 18, unless they commit a crime or fail to show up for immigration appointments, attorneys said.
Jaco-Alvarez has filed for asylum, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has not contacted her since her release, she said. Her Memphis-based attorney, Eric Henton, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
In the meantime, Jaco-Alvarez, who has received a two-year work permit and a Social Security card, is polishing her English skills with hopes of continuing her education at the Searcy campus of Arkansas State University-Beebe.
She wants to enroll in the summer session, about two weeks away, but first must pass an admissions test and determine how to pay for tuition -- hence the factory job.
"I was thinking of going to college, but I'm having some troubles because of my English," she said. "I have to do some tests, but I failed one. I'm trying to retake it. Last time that I [took] it, I just missed one point. I was like, 'Oh, my God.'"
Broad questions about how the U.S. should handle unaccompanied foreign children persist.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol apprehended 26,000 unaccompanied children between October 2017 and April, according to the latest data, down from 29,600 in the same period in fiscal 2017. The agency reported 41,400 apprehensions through all of fiscal 2017.
The legal designation applies to people 17 or younger who are apprehended for being in the country without approval and without a guardian. The vast majority -- 95 percent -- arrive from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America, nations that are rife with violence and organized crime. Many of the children simply surrender at the U.S.-Mexico border to start the asylum process.
Traditionally, people with that designation have been afforded more time to make their cases to stay than others who are accused of entering the United States illegally. Since early last year, Trump's administration has sought to tighten that leeway.
During an immigration discussion last month, Trump said unaccompanied foreign children "exploited the loopholes in our laws" and expose the country to gang violence, according to The Washington Post.
"They look so innocent," he said. "They're not innocent."
Trump's administration has floated proposals to crack down on unaccompanied minors, including written guidance informing Department of Justice immigration judges that they have authority to revoke an unaccompanied-foreign-child designation if that person turns 18 or is placed with a sponsor who is a parent -- circumstances similar to Jaco-Alvarez's.
Springdale immigration attorney Laura Ferner* said government lawyers and a Memphis immigration judge have adopted that new interpretation.
"That's a big thing right now," said Ferner, who did not comment on Jaco-Alvarez's case but has represented dozens of foreign children.
In another shift that will affect unaccompanied minors, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling June 11 that will make it more difficult for foreigners to qualify for asylum. Gang or domestic violence, or "private violence," is not grounds for relief, according to his written decision.
"Where the persecutor is not part of the government, the immigration judge must consider both the reason for the harm inflicted on the asylum applicant and the government's role in sponsoring or enabling such actions," he wrote.
"The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes -- such as domestic violence or gang violence -- or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim," he added later.
Unlike most courts, which are independent, immigration courts are part of the Department of Justice, which answers to Sessions. His ruling overturned a decision made by an immigration appeals court in another matter regarding an asylum seeker and is meant to set precedent in other cases, he wrote.
Asylum seekers already faced a steep climb, data show. Immigration court denial rates climbed from 44.5 percent to 61.8 percent in the five-year period ended in fiscal 2017, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. More than 30,000 asylum cases were decided last year, the most since 2005, according to the research center.
People who seek asylum may file first with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and then go to court if that decision is not in their favor. The agency approved 47 percent of 40,000 cases in fiscal 2016, according to a federal report.
Most unaccompanied children are first referred to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which temporarily houses them in mass "shelters" before releasing them to live with "sponsors," often family members.
After more than a year in Searcy, Jaco-Alvarez said the biggest difference between her adopted home and Santa Ana is the absence of "bad people" she had grown to fear.
The U.S. State Department, calling violence "common" and gang activity "widespread," urges Americans who contemplate trips to El Salvador to reconsider in a standing travel advisory.
"Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents," the advisory says. The "reconsider travel" advisory is the department's second-most cautious, only behind "do not travel."
El Pais, a newspaper that covers Santa Ana, reported last month that there were more than 2,000 cases of homicide and injury involving women in 2017 and 712 such cases between January and May 4 of this year.
Jaco-Alvarez and her three siblings lived with her grandmother after her mother moved to the United States. Her mom sent back hundreds of dollars per month to support the family in El Salvador and spent thousands to pay for her daughters' 2016 trip. Jaco-Alvarez's two brothers stayed behind.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is not identifying her mom, who has provided details important to understanding her daughter's story, because she is living illegally in the country.
Jaco-Alvarez's future in the U.S. is not guaranteed, but urgency surrounding her legal status has subsided.
Since graduating from high school, she has worked shifts of 8 to 10 hours at the Pop-Tarts factory in town, she said.
Her U.S. life revolved first around high school -- she has a diploma from El Salvador but had to cram extra lessons, in a foreign language, to graduate from Searcy this year -- and now centers on her night shifts packaging pastries.
"I don't do too [many] interesting things," she said.
Improving her English, so that she can continue her education, is among her most-pressing issues. Jaco-Alvarez has made strides in speaking the language -- a friend helped translate her initial interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in early 2017, but that wasn't necessary this time -- though she's still not completely comfortable, she said.
She agreed to let a reporter record the conversation only after being informed that the audio would not be published. Speeches for her oral communication class filled her with anxiety. And she can feel her cheeks flush, sometimes, while searching for the right words or thinking through how to construct a sentence.
"My face turns, like, red," she said.
Another marked change in Jaco-Alvarez now from her earlier interview is laughter, even when explaining she fell one point short on her college entrance exam. She received an award, second place, for a national Spanish exam open to students who live in a Spanish-speaking home. She attends church, spends free time with her family and, generally, worries less.
"I just feel happy," she said.
Metro on 06/17/2018
*CORRECTION: Laura Ferner is a Springdale-based immigration attorney. Her name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.
Print Headline: After '17 immigration scare, 19-year-old puts down roots